There are the over-the-shoulder screen watchers, the megaphone talkers, and the jackhammer typers. People who work in an open-plan office know that these co-worker archetypes can provide a constant source of distraction. As employers push real-estate density and employee collaboration, the design community's response has trended toward providing re-configurable bench desking in an open plan—a solution that brings every pet peeve and passive aggressive tendency to the surface.
Brody, a new workplace hideaway by Steelcase, gives desk jockeys a temporary respite from the pit. ARCHITECT spoke with Markus McKenna, design director for the company's Education and Turnstone brands, to learn how the system combines ergonomics with privacy panels, tasklighting, and other features that reduce the effect of environmental stimulus.
What is Brody, and for whom is it designed?
It is a micro-environment designed for individual focus work. Brody started out as an education project. We were investigating how college students study in libraries and noticed a couple of things: When students really needed to focus, they tended to go somewhere quiet. They often put their back against a wall, arrayed their stuff around them—their bag, reference materials, devices—and got into a reclined position. They were creating an environment conducive to deep focus, or flow.
What is “flow”?
It’s a mental state when you lose yourself completely in your work. It’s explained in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We saw that there were prerequisites to getting into that state, one of which was focus. Traditionally, we would look just at ergonomics but in this case we also looked at new discoveries in neuroscience. As a result, we got to design for a fuller, more nuanced idea of a human being.
How is that evident in
One example is the privacy screen, which is meant to reduce visual distraction. We are extraordinarily sensitive to movement at the corners of our vision. If you start with the idea that a human being is made to be distracted, then distraction is neither good nor bad—it just is. This changed our perception of the user and our thinking around the idea of distraction. We stopped wishing for people to be better and just accepted human behavior for what it is. The screen protects the user from seeing passers-by, and therefore helps that person focus on their work.
How does this
compare to something like the Susan Cain Quiet Spaces, which Steelcase
introduced around this time last year and that exist at a much larger scale?
Those are highly curated, enclosed spaces, and their users have greater control over environmental factors like lighting and sound. Brody exists between that and the open plan.
So Brody reinforces
the idea of the open floor plan?
We’re firm believers in the open plan. We think benching is here to stay. It offers a lot of advantages, but we do know that it’s not very good for work that requires a deep cognitive load, like focus work. We see Brody as being ancillary to benches. When companies overdo the benching and don’t offer places to focus, workers miss it. There is a need for privacy, there is a need for focus. There is also a need for density in the workplace. We're attempted to address a lot of needs with Brody.
Given the general commitment
to the open floor plan, what do you think offices will look like in 10 years?
It’s hard to speculate on the nature of work in 10 years. So much of what we do is dictated by our interaction with our devices. I would love to say that work will become more humanistic as technology improves, because that’s what it’s all about—creating experiences that exalt the human condition.
This interview has been edited and condensed.