Should offices be more like kitchens?

When a kitchen is designed, installed and fully stocked to your exact specifications you feel like a sovereign in your everlasting kingdom. The sky is the limit.

Guess what? I’ve never felt that way when it comes to my office. Today I want to explore this simple question: why aren’t our offices more like our kitchens? What’s missing? What can we learn from our kitchen to make our office a better place?

If you don’t cook or if your kitchen is disorganized, let me tell you what a perfect kitchen feels like. Your every movement is measured and leads to the desired outcome. All the tools are always within reach. Once they have been used, they can go back where they came from or head to the dishwasher. You have a workspace (to prepare, cut and mix), you have tools (to heat, cook, roast). Your air is being controlled by vents, your light is optimized for you to see exactly what is happening. There are appliances for everything that could become repetitive: dishwasher, food processor, rice-cooker. Every device promotes comfort and convenience.

In this kitchen you’re the center of the universe. Everything is there for you. While you get work done, your body flows and your mind gets more and more relaxed. Once the cooking is done, everything easily goes back to its normal state. Tools and surfaces get cleaned, dishes and pans get washed.

You’re using most of your body and all of your senses to get the job done in the kitchen: certainly you need to see and hear what is happening in the pan, but also smell the preparations, touch and manipulate the ingredients. You’re also standing and moving around, putting your muscles to work.

In a kitchen you’re not supposed to work in a seated position. The work is done standing and the fruits of your labor are enjoyed sitting down. This is a lesson office designers have already learned, as seen through the proliferation of standing desk arrangements.

In a kitchen all the tools work at the first go. You don’t need device drivers to set up the stove or a cheat sheet to start the oven. But tons of office tools are still clumsy to use, don’t behave as expected and have learning curves not proportionate to their importance and frequency of use.

Your kitchen, the one you know and helped design, makes you productive because you’ve customized it to your specific needs. But it will be different from an industrial kitchen, have a layout and tools different from a restaurant kitchen and it will be in all sorts of ways different from your friend’s kitchen.

Most offices, on the other hand, present one-size-fits-all setups that will fit an average type of worker. But some people need space for post-its, others need a printer, some work focused on a computer, others talk a lot on the phone. Yet the furniture and tools tend to be the same and vary only by rank, not by function. Neither the cubicle nor the open-space office have done much to address this.

There’s another essential aspect to cooking that should be adopted in office life: precise time management by use of timers or clocks. Because even if your kitchen is perfectly designed, the one thing you still can’t do is stop in the middle. Cooking doesn’t tolerate interruptions and distractions: if you interrupt the flow of preparation you will end up with something burning. 30 seconds can be the difference between a delicious medium rare steak and the sole of your shoe for dinner. 60 seconds are enough to go from pasta “al dente” to overcooked pasta “scotta”. Boil an egg 3 minutes and you’ve got something, 60 seconds later it’s already another dish. In a kitchen you ignore distraction in order to focus on the more immediate task. Time is essential, and thus clocks and timers are paramount to the perfect kitchen.

We really need to incorporate this type of behavior into our time at the office. There’s even an Italian productivity expert that has named a productivity method with a vegetable at the core of food preparation: the Pomodoro technique. How does it work? As I’m writing this I am keeping a timer running. By diminishing the time allotted to my task, I am pressuring myself not to get distracted and forcing myself to complete as much work as possible in the time before the bell rings. No matter how urgent the interruption seems, we should finish the task we’re working on. Who knows, maybe by the time we’re done, the urgent interruption may have solved itself.

A kitchen is very different from an office in one paramount regard: in a kitchen there is no device as ubiquitous as the personal computer. This undisputed king of communication and productivity reigns on our office desks and greatly influences the way we work. The computer determines our posture, produces all sorts of mental and physical stresses, and its speed and performance influence our mood. The PC is the unassuming dictator of our office lives.

So let’s look closely at the aspects of the computer that influence our workday. Lots of people suffer from repetitive stress injuries caused by computers. I know, I’m one of them. Standing desks actually help when it comes to invigorating the body while you work, but do little to better our posture. Keyboard, mouse, trackpad, screen: is this the way it has to be?

If you ever want to go down the rabbit hole, just google “ergonomic keyboard”. If you’re feeling brave, explore the “vertical mouse” webspace. Computer interaction doesn’t need to be as clumsy as it is right now. Even the “standard” keyboard layout is not the optimal one. If you switch to using a DVORAK keyboard you’re guaranteed to type faster. Yet, we’ve defaulted to the QWERTY standard. A lazy default.

In addition to the ergonomics problem, we have the issue of speed. In order to make you productive the computer needs to be fast. And today this doesn’t translate into processing power, but into network bandwidth. Yet when I’m visiting offices I rarely find super fast internet. And thus the dream of boundless productivity goes down the drain.

Productivity is also influenced by applications. Apps inside the computer need to be developed with the human user in mind. This is now the default when it comes to mass market applications like browsers, mail applications and spreadsheets. But the user-centric UI/UX design does not reign in the enterprise software world. You know what I mean if you’ve ever used SAP. This also has to change.

All in all, the computer – per se – is not a productivity enhancer. If people had to print and send each letter by mail we wouldn’t have this deluge of email clogging our inboxes. If there was more distance between a complicated work task and Facebook, people would devote less time to digital time-wasting. A computer – from a productivity standpoint – can be a giant inbox that other people fill with stuff that is on *their* agenda but not necessarily on ours.

I know what some of you may be thinking: we don’t need better offices. The office is inside the laptop and if we just fix bad software, poor networks and easy distractions we will have the ultimate productivity machine.

My response: the laptop is indeed the center of this picture, but if you haven’t captured the background as well, there is something missing from the image.

In my opinion when it comes to offices (not just computers) we just need better defaults.

The 18 euro Screw-less standing desk

A better office changes the way we work. If we spend most of the day standing we will be more active, more creative, more forceful in every aspect. If we have practical tools, fast networks and well organized desks we will create products that are well thought out, snappy and neat. The environment influences deeply the output.

Our interactions with others will also change, as we progress along the ladder of productivity consciousness. If we deeply understand how our spaces make us productive, we will interrupt people less, use different media to communicate and create new occasions to come together.

For example: if everyone had a physical “in tray” on their desk would you still tap them on the shoulder while they are concentrated on work? If I’m okay with being interrupted and I notice a new handwritten note being added to my tray I can jump in with the person that just approached me. Or just decide that my current focus is way more important than that.

This is an ongoing exploration of spaces, productivity, creativity and quality of work. I know that I am close to something, only haven’t yet stumbled on the magic that would make everything good (and everyone productive). That’s why I am proposing these baby steps. If you could process just one suggestion from this article, I would like it to be to start taking into account the physical sensations from your body while you work. Taking stock of one’s posture, making the body as comfortable and stress-free as possible is a great first step towards living the office in a fresh and productive way. And if you, like me, now feel like cooking a delicious meal, head on over to your kitchen, and reflect on how empowered you feel in there, compared to your office.

Thanks for reading this far. If you’re still interested, let me disturb you every month with my newsletter.