Office furniture borrows from the design of the house

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Take a look at the style of an office in a given era and you’ll gain insight into the defining themes of white-collar life at the time.

In booming postwar America, for example, the profusion of office workers trained by GI Bill wore suits, and many workplaces were sleek, serious, and formal. The aim was to signal prestige, according to Louise Mozingo, professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley and author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. “White collar was a serious distinction because your father was probably a farmer or a laborer, ”she told me.

Most workplaces these days are much more relaxed, but their design is no less revealing. Lately, many offices have started to look much less like offices than houses. They fill with furniture and flourishes such as comfy sofas, open shelves, framed artwork, mirrors, curtains, rugs, floor lamps, coffee tables, and materials such as wood and linen. .

Office design experts I recently interviewed continued to use similar adjectives to describe how many employers want their workplace to feel: comfortable, attractive, familiar, relaxed. They are welcome stars in an area of ​​design that has always been utilitarian and drab, but the incorporation of household touches into the workplace is a bit baffling: Even before the coronavirus pandemic, work and home had become uncomfortably. mixed for office workers. And with the rise of remote working for this population over the past year and a half, they are only increasingly so.

The office design industry has a misnomer for this aesthetic: resimercial. (It is a mixture of Residential and commercial.) Natalie Engels, design director at Gensler architecture firm, doesn’t like to use that word herself but explained the look to me nonetheless. “It’s not like you’re going to walk in and it looks like a real living room, but at the same time, [there are] elements of it, ”she said.

People I interviewed said resimercial design became a trend in offices in the mid-2010s and gained popularity towards the end of the decade. Employers who support it hope that a more charming and comfortable physical space could help attract talented workers and help their employees work better. (This style of design cannot be deployed in many non-office workplaces, although some businesses, such as coffee shops and retail stores, have made spaces more welcoming for the sake of customers.)

Engels noted that at home, for example, people can improvise furniture according to their current needs. She suggested that bringing this dynamic to an office, where furniture is typically heavy and difficult to move, can allow workers to change their surroundings and collaborate better.

Home spaces also provide some inspiration for solo office work. “In your home you have the comfort of choosing whatever you need – you can work from the sofa, you can work from your bed, you can work by a window where you have great light”, Alejandra Albarran , vice president of workplace strategy and design at Room, a company that makes soundproof enclosed spaces for offices, told me. Providing people with the same spatial variety at work can be usefully empowering.

Bringing home design into offices may well be work-friendly, but this fusion of aesthetics is inevitably odd. This seems particularly odd because, over the past 18 months, many living spaces have doubled as work environments – the home office and the intimate office are on the rise at the same time.

Although the resimercial conception predates the pandemic, it may take on a new resonance for workers who have done their homework this year and last year. Remote work has been extremely stressful for many people, especially mothers, but others have become accustomed to some of the comforts of home. Nick Tuttle, the president of the Collective, an office furniture dealer, told me that some employers are aware of this. “How to bridge this gap [and] bring people back to the office? Maybe if we design it in a more commercial, warmer way, they’ll feel a little more comfortable coming back and using the space, ”he said.

Of course, many of the people who prefer remote working won’t be swayed by even a tasteful sofa and blanket. In a survey earlier this year by remote working site FlexJobs, the two most popular answers to the question of what respondents liked most about working from home were not having to travel and spending less money on them. meals, gasoline and dry cleaning. Some things simply cannot be designed in an office, and for this reason, Albarran advocates the hybrid model of partially remote and partially in-person working that many companies are now considering once pandemic conditions allow. This way, workers would not have to forgo these benefits entirely.

And while the aspects of the home that can be replicated at work are enjoyable, they ultimately meet the needs of business. The end goal may be to “capture the employee for the longest time of the day, in the hope that this translates into productivity,” Mozingo, the Berkeley professor, told me. “If you have a fancy office than your home, theoretically it’s easier to stay in the fanciest office. “

More subtly, making work more like home could disrupt people’s sense of separation between these two aspects of their lives. “I think employees have had a lot of value in separating work from home for many years, [and] in the formality of professional work as a place, because it creates standards of behavior ”, Melissa Gregg, author of Counterproductive: time management in the knowledge economy, said.

She thinks getting rid of certain ‘cues and props’ that distinguish work from home might play a part in a dynamic that hurts workers, and compared that to the rhetoric some employers use when referring to staff as being a family. This language is deviously toxic– it may suggest that a business deserves the same kind of sacrifice and loyalty that people reserve for their loved ones.

Of course, for workers who are supposed to be constantly online, the line between work and home has long eroded. And in this regard, intimate offices are more of a symptom than a cause. In the possible near future, when hybrid arrangements become normal and many workers divide their time between home-like offices and office-like homes, the distinction between work and home life will become almost meaningless. .


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