A Brief History On Why Most Offices Suck, And How You Can Fix Them

Tanya Pinto
A Brief History On Why Most Offices Suck, And How You Can Fix Them

Leadership and management expert Simon Sinek claims that 80% of employees are stressed at their workplace. Award-winning book Change your Space, Change Your Culture pins this down to how the office is traditionally structured – employees are encouraged to remain isolated, which leads to disconnect and frustration.

Winston Churchill said, “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

If the conventional office structure has such a negative impact on employees, why was it ever designed to be like this? To understand, let’s have a look at history.

How did the present-day workplace come to be?

The origin of the present-day office goes back to Henry Ford’s time. When Ford introduced the system of station-to-station workflow, it was reflected in the layout of the workplace he created. Labour was clearly divided from decision making power, and everyone had to ‘clock in’ a certain number of hours to prove they’re working on tasks assigned to them. Since the nature of the work was such that it had to be completed within the factory premise itself, leaving for home earlier meant that a worker was skipping his duty. 

Employees on the 9-5 production line

Just add monitors! 

Fast-forward to a century later, and many bosses still believe in the myth that employees who leave earlier are doing less work – even though most workplaces don’t function as assembly line-based factories anymore. Offices are still built to encourage division of decision makers from younger employees – senior executives have their own ‘cubicles’ away from other employees. Everyone needs to adhere to being present for a minimum fixed number of hours at office, even though work today can be completed online or through smartphones from virtually anywhere, anytime. Clearly, offices today are structured in an outdated, inefficient manner.

It’s a no-brainer that the office structure today is not suited to modernised work at all, but here are the top reasons why we need to redesign office space right away.

Conventional office spaces are counterproductive: Management and leadership expert Simon Sinek explains why the workplace should be a haven where employees feel encouraged, positive and motivated. People come to work dealing with their own personal life challenges, and work should provide them a place for hope and accomplishment. If you’re wondering why this is the organization’s responsibility, we have an answer. 

When employees remain continually stressed, it has been proven to affect their productivity, ability to innovate and personal health. All of these will eventually prove toxic for the organization’s progress. Therefore: If you behave like an employee’s state of mind is not the organization’s problem, it will eventually become the organization’s biggest problem. 

While people are social beings, conventional offices encourage isolation and hierarchy. Employees work on their own individual desks while being monitored by a manager in a spacious cubicle of his own. Water cooler gossip becomes the best source of ‘insider’ information, which leaves employees constantly guessing about what the management thinks of them, and whether they’ll lose their jobs. Everyone is expected to be crisply dressed in formal wear, and remain seated at the desks till it’s time to ‘clock out.’ The result: employees are constantly alert and stressed during their time at office, which is detrimental to their productivity.

Rigid structure and rules do more harm than good: Evaluate how effectively your office space functions as a hub for productivity. Picture an employee dressed in a dapper work suit, typing furiously at his computer, not even taking five minutes off for lunch. On the other hand, think of an employee dressed in cotton casuals, sitting on a couch, working from an iPad propped on a coffee table. Which of the two is more likely to be stress-free and more innovative? In all likeliness, the latter. While is the evident answer, workplaces today are still hung up on the old-fashioned way of ‘working,’ where polished leather shoes and a well-tailored blazer count more than actually getting the job done. 

If you’re wondering if it’s actually realistic to let go of inefficient, old school ways of running an office space, we say it’s absolutely possible. Google is one of the world’s most innovative and successful tech businesses, and interestingly was also voted as one of the best employers to work for. How can an organization be so productive and still have happy employees who enjoy their job and aren’t sleep-deprived zombies? The answer lies in the way Google has magically revamped the definition of an ‘office.’ 

Google offers its employees sleeping pods where they can nap when exhausted, offers a selection of free and nutritious meals, and encourages all employees to interact with each other during weekly meetings, irrespective of seniority or specialisation. It doesn’t matter whether employees are constantly at their desks or not, as long as they get their work done and meet deadlines. Employees are not obliged to wear formal attire either. Google focuses on keeping employees engaged and motivated, which is what explains its success as a business.

Key takeaway: Don’t structure your office space according to ideals from the last century. In order to unlock higher productivity and innovation in employees, revamp the office space to encourage and motivate employees to accomplish professional goals.

Author - Tanya Pinto