The Perfect Office Design — How Does Your Office Measure Up?

I’m a huge fan of the work of Christopher Alexander, and yesterday, for the hundredth time, I found myself urging someone to read his book, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.

This strange, brilliant, fascinating book uses architecture, sociology, psychology, and anthropology to describe the most satisfying environments.

Instead of talking about familiar architectural styles and elements, it focuses on “patterns,” such as the Sitting Wall, the Front Door Bench, Child Caves, the Sequence of Sitting Spaces, Sleeping to the East. I love these! I want them for my own apartment!

Ever since I read this book, I’ve been working my way through everything written by Christopher Alexander. As Huckleberry Finn said of Pilgrim’s Progress, I would say, “The statements was interesting, but tough.”

A Pattern Language discusses houses, but it also covers commercial spaces and offices.

It offers insights about why certain offices are more or less satisfying to work in. Take this quiz to see how your office measures up.

I put a “yes” or “no” after each element, as it applies to my own office.

-there’s a wall behind you (so no one can sneak up behind you). Yes.

-there’s a wall to one side (too much openness makes you feel exposed). Yes.

-there’s no blank wall within 8 feet in front of you (or you have no place to rest your eyes). No, I sit right in front of a wall with a window.

-you work in at least 60 square feet (or you feel cramped). No; my office is tiny.

-your workspace is 50-75% enclosed by walls or windows (so you have a feeling of openness). Not exactly sure what this one means’ wouldn’t that give me a feeling of closedness?

-you have a view to the outside (no matter how large your office, you will feel confined in a room without a view). Yes—no nice view, but I can see outside. Having a window is enormously important to me.

-you are aware of at least 2 other people, but not more than 8 people, around you (less than 2, you feel isolated and ignored; more than 8, you feel like a cog in a machine). No, I’m all alone.

-you can’t hear workplaces noises that are very different from the kind of noises you make at work (you concentrate better when the people around you are engaged in similar tasks, not very different tasks). Yes.

-no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you. No.

-you can face in different directions at different times. No.

-you can see at least 2 other people, but not more than 4. No.

-you have at least one co-worker within talking distance. No.

Most of us can’t change much about the design of our offices, but these elements at least furnish a few ideas.

My office is very, very small. If I had more room and space, I would love to have a horseshoe-shaped desk, with enormous amounts of surface space, as well as a treadmill desk. Oh, how I long for a treadmill desk! In Better Than Before, I describe how I did the next best thing: I bought a treadmill desk for my sister. She sometimes walks seven miles — during a work day!

I have to admit, that of all the habits that I changed, or that I helped other people to change, as part of writing that book, getting my sister that treadmill desk was one of the very most satisfying.

How does the design of your workplace measure up? Do you agree with these points? What would you add?

To state the obvious: this list sheds light on why many people don’t like the current trends in office design.

  • Bari

    this is interesting, but it is important to note that this book was written in 1977, so there were many things, such as technology that Alexander didn’t have to consider when he was creating his patterns for commerical spaces, and systems furniture (cubicals) were just becoming a new ‘trend’ in offices. Many things have evolved in the past 35+ years in commercial design

  • Gillian

    Interesting subject. I have been retired for almost 5 years but I have been thinking of the various offices I occupied throughout my career and, frankly, don’t agree with many of the observations.

    A window is a huge asset. Even if the view isn’t terrific, it is enormously refreshing to be able to “stretch” and refocus the eyes and see something natural – a tree, a patch of grass or a bit of sky, weather.

    That said, the offices I had where I was most productive, and therefore happiest, had no window. They were spaces where I was pretty well cut off from co-workers so that I could concentrate fully on the task at hand without hearing or seeing others. If I wanted to talk to someone, or someone wanted to talk to me, one of us had to get up from the chair and walk a few steps.

    Having a co-worker within talking distance is very nice but very distracting. It is too easy to start a casual chat about the garden, the weekend, the family, the vacation, etc.

    Size of space and number of walls are not important to me; seclusion is.

    One’s needs in an office environment are dependent on personality type, nature of the work and the commitment to the work. I am an introvert; my work in IT required focus and concentration. I was committed to producing the best quality work as efficiently as possible – this was more important to me than any of the social aspects of the job. And a secluded space where I could focus head-down on the work was my heaven. Unfortunately, the times when I had that were times where I had no window.

    The issues around office requirements are addressed by Susan Cain in her book about introverts, “Quiet” and by Brian Little in his book about personality psychology, “Me, Myself and Us”. Both agree that an open-office is not desirable for introverts. It probably works fairly well for extroverts who need lots of stimulation.

  • Gillian

    By the way – the office in your picture would be my idea of Hell on Earth!! Thank goodness I never had to endure working in such an environment.

  • Gretchen if you work alone, then wouldn’t the answer to “no one is sitting directly opposite you and facing you.” be Yes instead of No?

    I had not realised CA talked about office spaces. I work out of our dining room. Perhaps I’ll take a look through and see if there’s a better way to configure things.

    I love an ell configuration to my workspace. I bought some desk height folding tables (TV trays, really) and set up extras into an ell when I really need to spread out. My desk is usually just straight across.

    • Gillian

      I also much prefer an L or U shape desk so that everything is within easy reach – especially with a swivel chair on wheels.

  • Karen

    I am a nurse, but almost 4 years ago, I got a job with a chart auditing company. I left the bedside and started working at a desk for 8 hours daily. The best part is that I get to work from home! But I understand your desire to own a treadmill desk. I have to be diligent about getting in daily activity. That said, I can’t actually imagine reading charts and writing *while* walking. So I have my eye on a Varidesk. It’s a desk topper sort of set-up that houses your monitor and keyboard. It raises easily so you’d have the option of standing to work whenever you like – but can still lower the desktop and sit when you want also.
    I can’t wait until I have the extra money saved up!!

  • I teach online, and our office is relatively well designed. It is, for better or for worse, in an old building. We love the woodwork and the large windows, but we keep blankets and fingerless gloves in each cubicle to get us through the coldest days in winter.

  • Gillian

    The name Christopher Alexander rang a bell for me but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it. But now I remember – Brian Little writes about his ideas in Me, Myself and Us. Alexander promoted city design that facilitated a lot of social contact and intimacy. This would be fine for extroverts but a nightmare for introverts. This applies both in the workplace and in society at large. Introverts need a lot of peace and quiet and privacy. I don’t think I would want to live or work in a system designed by Alexander.

    • Actually, Alexander address the issue of introverts. For example, he suggests that in a home with an open living space there are places people can retreat for quiet. When we built our home we followed this advice, building an open great room with a reading nook off of it with a sliding door. That nook is the most loved space in the house.

  • I’ve worked in a range of offices – one was in a former basement, with no natural lighting and crammed WAY too many people into it’s small area. It was awful! I couldn’t concentrate, because there was just so much noise! Worst of all, my eyesight deteriorated because of the harsh yellow lighting.

    Anywhoo, long way of saying that your office space DOES impact you and the way you work.

    Hannah
    http://www.eatingwithalice.com

  • Ruth Painter

    So this explains precisely why I cannot do more than a few emails when I’m in the vast open-plan office at work – highly sociable, really fun place to be, but I cannot get any serious work done! But when I’m at home, in my cosy corner of a good sized study that I share with my husband (and two mad English Cocker Spaniels) I can really make stuff happen! Now I understand that better I will never again expect to be able to achieve a serious piece of work in the office without booking an office to work in. Wow!

  • Heather

    I work from home most of the time and travel the remainder. The office is fairly big – there’s a half wall to my left with a large windowsill. I put plants in the windowsill (herbs), and my husband recently painted the half wall a beautiful green. These two small changes have made a big difference.

  • Kathleen

    I’ve had my treadmill desk one month, and it takes one month to adjust. I started with one hour at the treadmill and then transitioned to my sitting desk. Now I work 8 hours walking and average 7 miles. It’s no problem to talk on the phone, type, work with the mouse or read. The exercise-induced endorphin feeling after a full day’s work is incredible. Plus there is no guilt factor for not having time to exercise.

  • Kelly

    Gretchen, have you tried simply standing to work? There’s some evidence that it offers benefits similar to (although not as robust as) using a treadmill desk. I use a cobbled-together standing desk: a box topped with a panel of wood (to make a broader space for my phone/coffee/mouse, etc.) and it works great! When I’m stressed, I find I sway or bounce while I work, and when I’m tired, standing helps me stay alert. Good luck!

  • 2 years ago, my treadmill desk felt like a very extravagant purchase, but I LOVE it. The desk and my fitbit have changed my sedentary life for the better. So worth the investment.

  • Paige NeJame

    Next best thing to a treadmill desk, jack your desk up on cinderblocks (or desk lifts – they sell them online) and move the chair to another room so you’re not tempted to sit. Stand instead of sit. I do and I LOVE it!

  • When I think about the last office I worked in (6 months back) it was a no all the way down the list. I was right in the middle of an open plan office of about 50 people on a bank of 8 small desks! The window blinds in the dim distance were always down and people were always sneaking up from behind.

    No desire to go back so I’ll need to be artful about what I do to pay the bills in future.

  • Holly Kennedy

    I work from home in the dining/living area or coffee shops. The most enjoyable aspects of working from my dining/living area is that I can change heights between working at my table in a comfy Herman Miller chair and working at my bar. (I seem to work faster and think more clearly when I’m higher up – Why?)…After a while though, I get lonely and just take off for the coffee shop where I can interact with people and drink my favorite beverage!

  • kim zak

    Gretchen I think you have earned the office space environment you desire. Why not look into doing some renovations in your apartment so you can aquire the appropriate office you desire? It can be done and its worth it. Congratulation on your accomplishements!!

  • Gina M.

    I have not been able to read the comments lately because they are obscured by a large blue box highlighting the name of the person making the comment. I’ve tried accessing your blog directly via both Explorer and Google Chrome, with the same result. Is it my computer or is it a glitch in your site? I love your blog and miss being able to read the comments.

  • I first learned of Christopher Alexander here on your blog years ago, and have become slightly obsessed with A Pattern Language. When our family relocated to Colorado last year, I read it compulsively and it was a great tool in understanding why some homes lifted us up while others depleted us.

    I have an ongoing series on my blog about the book: http://www.deirdreokeatingblog.com/2014/10/31-days-of-reading-christopher.html

    I’d love to have time to dive deeper into all the patterns that speak to me most. I’m surprised no one has published a visual guide to his patterns yet.

  • AnneL

    I am lucky enough to have an office that meets most of these criteria – but the smartest thing that I ever did was inspired by one of the CA notes on offices. The previous occupant of my office had their desk set up facing the door with two chairs opposite (and a window behind his head). I moved the desk to face the wall with the window to my left. Huge difference in all of my one on one or one on two meetings! Instead of being “the boss” behind the big desk (backlit no less). I just swing around in my chair and we are two or three co-workers collaborating. When I am working at my desk, I face a wall but I can easily shift to stare out the window when I need to rest my eyes for a new perspective.

  • Aleida

    I disagree with the premise; the assumption is that people are engaged in similar types of work.
    For very focused detail-oriented work, I find a enclosed space with no distractions, visual map of the goal, or my favorite stuff enables high productivity. When a creative or strategic mindset is required, open spaces with lots of natural light is best. If I’m leading / consulting people, periods of isolation for analysis is critical, interchanged with group activity. If I’m teaching, being surrounded by the group is more important.
    I’m a balanced introvert / extrovert, but knowing people of both ends of the spectrum, their most comfortable spaces are very different. Spaces should be more about the people inhabiting them, and not trying to fit people into standard boxes.

  • Cbrown

    I have a shared office at work, 5+ PhD students in a room. I like the feeling of solidarity but different opinions on open doors and preferred temperature are sometimes challenging.

    My office at home has improved (dual monitors, nice windows) but is also our guest room so it does feel a bit more crowded. It’s nice when I’m working on the weekend though, my husband will come hang out in there and chat when I take a break.

  • Cyndi

    Interior design was my first career and I worked in the product development end at a well known high end office furniture manufacturer (in the late ’80’s and ’90’s) where we very much paid attention to Christopher Alexander’s book.

    There are so many factors that go into office design and satisfaction! The nature of the work (e.g, are you running numbers or writing philosophically?), the nature of the person (I had difficulty concentrating at my open plan desk), other resources available (I had easy access to quiet rooms where I could concentrate), the politics of the company (are private offices a status symbol?), Management style (will my manager allow me to be someplace other than my desk?) technological resources, the building, furniture, and management of those resources, etc. all come into play.

    Needs vary. Perhaps the most important aspect of an office to me is that I have easy options of where and how I can accomplish my work.

    When studying in medical school I tried reading whilst on the treadmill. NOPE! far too bouncy. I was able to watch videos and listen to podcasts quite easily though. I also found that it was a good time to mull over something or repeat back what I had just learned to see if I understood it and what questions I had.