June 10, 2015
The well of public discourse about office design is regularly fouled by the effluent of people who really should know better. Normally this is characterised by hyperbolic assertions about how flexible working will lead to The Death of the Office (it won’t) or how the decision by Yahoo and others to go into partial reverse on remote work would spell The Death of Flexible Working (it didn’t). All of this drivel can be forgiven when it comes from civilians, but the fact that it remains commonplace in the workplace media and emanates from the mouths of people who work in the sector is enough to make you despair. The latest example of this attention seeking behaviour, excretion of simplistic bullshit, market making or whatever you see it as, is the drive to demonise sitting, now normally expressed alongside some variant of the slogan ‘Sitting is the New Smoking’.
This specific wording appears to have come about as headline for an article in the Harvard Business Review in January 2103 and a subsequent Ted Talk by Nilofer Merchant. When you actually examine what she is saying, however, what emerges is an intelligent, informed, appropriate and nuanced take on the need for us to address the fact we spend too much time on our backsides staring at computers. She is saying that we need to move and vary our posture far more. She’s right, of course, and we’ve known that for a long time.
None of that seems to matter anymore as the layers of meaning have gradually been stripped away, faded and vanished so that all that remains is the headline, a Cheshire Cat’s smile of useless and dangerous sloganeering.
We know where this sort of idiocy leads us because it’s been all over the media for the last few weeks. We reported in the Summer that a firm of Dutch architects called RAAAF and an artist called Barbara Visser had envisioned an office in which it was impossible to sit down. At the time we wished it would never get off the drawing board, but they’ve only gone and made it and have tapped into the voguish demonisation of the chair to generate a great deal of media coverage. Although many of the articles feature criticisms of the design, they are swept away on a tide of inhumane rationalisations and the usual claptrap about The Office of the Future.
I’d hope this would never be implemented in practice by an employer but you wouldn’t put it past some firm which buys into the general argument and the specific rubbish peddled by RAAAF – ‘Sitting Kills’ apparently. If they do, I hope there’s a coffee shop around the corner from whatever office they end up inhabiting so people can go there instead to get some serious work done and reduce their risk of the physical harm this idea would cause.
This is an extreme example of where this debate has taken us but it shines a light on how easy is it is to get people to forget that offices should be designed around the forms, motivations and functions of human beings. We should nip all this extreme nonsense in the bud and get back a sense of proportion. That would also mean a return to the idea that not every problem has a designed solution. Sometimes it’s about good management and good habits. We’re not glued to the chairs, except figuratively, so are free to stand and move around when we like. The fact that we don’t (yet) is no cause for us to get carried away.