A similar situation developed decades ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when a mishmash of departments were thrown together during World War II in a temporary structure known as Building 20. The arrangement led to unprecedented levels of innovation, and is today considered a legendary example of the benefits of an open office (Facebook even named its mega-open office after it).
Yet as Cal Newport explains in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Building 20 was less of an “open office” than people today think. It was organized more as a series of departmental rooms off of a central hallway—so people could connect during their walks through the building, but retreat to privacy to work on their individual projects.
These stories support another one of Bernstein’s arguments: that occasional social interactions are better for creative problem-solving than constant ones.
This is why Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a firm for workplace innovation and real-estate strategy, believes that the next generation of offices will have room for both individual and collaborative work. Known as “activity-based workspaces,” these offices feature elements of an open office layout, but also incorporate enclosures for quiet, concentrated work. “On average, we spend about half of our day in some sort of interaction and coordination, and about half of our day trying to get the stuff done that we talked about when we were in the meeting,” Marsh explained. “What it means is that everyone needs some time in quiet spaces and some time in places where they can be noisy.”
“Those activity-based work environments are the future,” she continued. “They are the best from a human needs perspective, because they give us diversity and control.”
Ettun, the artist, found a more idiosyncratic solution. Until last month, she was working out of a studio space in a swimming pool four stories underneath Times Square. After several years of residencies and communal workspaces, she was ready for a little privacy.