Workplace design and well-being

In interviewing Christopher Alexander (noted architect, author of “A Pattern Language,” and much more), a human resources magazine emphasizes the importance of design to office management. I’ve posted a particularly relevant excerpt; the entirety of the article can be found here.

The first reason managers should read Alexander is that the design of workplaces has a major impact on the effectiveness of our organizations. The second reason is that his insights into the nature of order, as well as his methodologies, can be applied to the problem of managing organizations.

I’m privileged to present these ideas to you.

DC- To what extent is the design of office spaces important?

CA- The issue is a lot deeper than it might seem. The conventional way to talk about office space is to talk about efficiency criteria. Is this near that? Is this big enough? This sort of talk has its place, but it’s really minor compared to what I want to talk about.

When you are working, the quality of your work depends on the extent to which you are able to put your spirit, your heart into it. It’s not necessarily about being intellectual; it’s just a question of staying very sharp, of doing what’s really needed rather than something else. All this requires a genuine sense of well-being. It’s not a problem of efficiency. It’s a problem of whether overall—in motivation, in atmosphere, in congeniality—the well-being of the people working has been nurtured.

You can see from this very simple description that ninety percent of the workplaces in America couldn’t possibly fulfill that prescription because they weren’t thought about that way. The workplaces were talked about in quite different terms, in mechanical ways, that have very little to do with emotional, psychological, or intellectual well-being.


CA- Let’s just talk about some very basic things, for example, is it really ok for a person to own their workspace? Will a typical management organization allow people to create a place where they feel truly comfortable? In the sixties and seventies, there were even serious discussions if it was ok for people to put family photos on their desks. So the extent to which it’s ok for someone to be at home in the office has been under dispute for the past three to five decades. And clearly, someone who is not allowed to be at home, in that very simple sense, is hardly going to be filled with a sense of well-being.

A garage mechanic in a small gas station has more freedom in this respect. Since it is a fairly ramshackle place, if they want to stick something up on the wall, as long as it’s not actually interfering with their work, they can get away with it, whereas, in a corporate environment that’s not the case. It’s not that this is, in and of itself, an important point. What I am trying to demonstrate is that there is not a culture where it is presumed that to work well, you have to be well.

Thank you to Signal vs. Noise for bringing this interview to my attention.

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