Today I delivered flowers to my future daughter-in-law at work for her birthday. Rose works for a Fortune 500 company near Washington D.C. in a newly renovated office, and I was excited to see her new space. At first glance the rows of white workstations set against a tapestry of white walls and natural light seem clean and streamlined, which is attractive to a simplicity nut like me. Looking closer, I realize that’s the only thing in the space that is simple. Every desktop is crammed, jammed, or stacked with paper, binders, office supplies, files, coffee cups, pictures, even lunch bags. Without drawers, shelves, or bins, there is no place to store anything. It’s like being in a giant bedroom with no closet, dressers, or bedside tables. How functional is that?
I also find it fascinating that in the new paradigm of “transparency,” humans still crave privacy. Around the corner from Rose, a young man creates a wall by strategically placing a mobile whiteboard between the back of his chair and the man sitting behind him. Three desks down, a co-worker lines the right side of her desktop with a plant and three pictures, “My neighbor is nosy,” she whispers when I casually inquire. Rose points out that every desk is modular so she can sit or stand to do her work. “What I really want to do,” she admits, “is raise my desk and create a little nook under there with colored lights, a pillow, and a small rug.” “For what purpose,” I ask, curious. “So I can take my laptop down there and read and think in private because it’s really hard to do that sitting in a row of noisy people.”
Organizational designers, I support and encourage the use of streamlining. I dig simple. But please, PLEASE revisit the idea of stacking people in rows of modular drafting boards that look and function like bad mini blinds. Think of it this way. When you go into a restaurant, do you ask for a table in the middle of the room or one by the window? Be honest. Why would you be any different at the office? Humans by nature need boundaries. Something as simple as desk placement defines my space from my neighbors. Simplicity is not just about streamlining. It is understanding what’s valuable so you can determine what’s viable. People value privacy, even if it’s a plant, picture, or whiteboard. What would be possible if we incorporated simplicity coaching in the design process to create spaces and conditions where we no longer guess what’s best, we know what helps people thrive?