The office of the future: Best left in the past

Posted by Marlinee on Jun 9, 2011 in Work |

One would think that by now we would have figured out how to make an office environment ergonomically effective, aesthetically attractive, and conducive to working. Apparently not. I believe this is due to the competing agendas of designers, owners of the purse strings, and men (which probably the first two happen to be). Here are some recent experiences with bad office design.

When a company I worked for moved from a low rent and hideous building to more prestigious digs at York Mills and Yonge in Toronto, there was a huge investment of time and money to choose the office furnishings, carpet etc. that would grace our new space. We had broadloom swatches to examine, chair samples to ponder, and desk configurations to test drive. Unfortunately I was travelling through most of the selection process.

When we moved into the new office space some flaws in the office furnishings selection process became apparent. On the face of it, the office looked lovely. The carpet was subdued and completely capable of hiding coffee stains. The chairs were in earth tones with the occasional whimsy of red and yellow. The windows looked out onto woodlands surrounding an urban golf course. One of my colleagues who was an avid bird watcher kept binoculars in his office to spot the owls and falcons that hunted the golf balls. Alas, it fell far short of an idyllic office environment.

This was back when desktop computers were the norm. Therefore, the workstation configuration was a triangular desk with a pull-out keyboard shelf in the middle of the V. Many of us did have laptops, which we placed on the keyboard shelf to gain some degree of ergonomics. This is where it became apparent that only men had tested the desk layout. The keyboard pullout was supported by a metal arm that was attached underneath the desk. It extended down about six inches and then curved up to meet the top of the keyboard shelf. This was fine if you sat like a guy at your desk. If not, you bashed your knee and ripped your pantyhose every time you attempted to cross your legs. I did that about ten times a day. My crowning achievement was having the guys nearest me complain about my swearing every time I destroyed my lower garments. I think the irony out-weighed the hubris.

More recently, I visited the brand new office of a large global company. They were so proud of their new ‘green’, employee friendly, leading-edge design building that the first thing they wanted to do was give me a tour. Let me describe some of the 21st century features:

• When you enter, there are two or three ‘greeters’ who say hello and don’t do much more than that. The reception area is on the second floor, accessed by an escalator from the atrium lobby. In order to get there, you need to pass through security, explain why you are visiting and who you are to see, and get your temporary visitor badge. You need to explain all of this again once you get to the second floor to people who don’t wear uniforms.

• The meeting rooms are located on the periphery of the building, with lovely floor to ceiling windows and a view of the river. They are also directly across from a competitor’s office building meeting rooms, which have similar layouts. To solve this problem, whenever the computer projection screen is activated, the window blinds automatically descend. Or maybe not. When I was there, they rolled up instead of down, made a nasty noise and then the motor burnt out. Perhaps the corporate espionage department of the firm across the way was behind this incident. I couldn’t help but think I had been transported back to an episode of Get Smart.

• Which brings me to the audio facilities. Instead of a teleconference phone in the middle of the table, there was a microphone in the ceiling about eight feet in the air, which was controlled by a computer touch-screen on the credenza. This had a predictable outcome. In order for the people on the other end of the phone to hear anyone in the room, we had to tilt our heads up and talk to God in the ceiling mike. Good ergonomic outcome there.

• Anyway, speaking of ergonomics, the chairs in the meeting room did not have wheels, nor was it possible to adjust the seat height up and down. One person in the meeting theorized that the lack of wheels was for safely purposes: if the chair had wheels, we would be in danger when standing on the chair to try to fix the self-lowering blinds. Another person suggested that the conformity of chairs was the designer’s edict: they would always be at the same height and approximately the same distance from the conference table. I kept to my male conspiracy: the men who tested the chairs were all of equal (male) height and size, whose feet met the floor soundly and had no need to move closer or further away from the table.

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