If you have ever walked through a large casino then you have undoubtedly thought to yourself: “why is everything so hard to find?!” This wasn’t an oversight, of course. Casinos have decades of experience and hundreds of studies that help them make a space that will make you want to gamble more. Getting you lost inside of them is just one example of what is called hostile design. Other examples include well known tricks like not having clocks and lesser known strategies like upbeat music, red tinted lights, and even intentionally ugly carpets (“Don’t look down, look at all the money you could be winning!”). These design elements, while annoying, work incredibly well at getting the behavior that they want from the people inside of casinos.
Offices tend to do the opposite. They are meant to be productive places, so efficiency is key. Office designers work hard to make office layouts intuitive and efficient. More and more technology is being leveraged to allow workers to do as much work as possible with their time in the office. Hell, I have even seen some prototypes of motorized office chairs so people could go from meeting to meeting without even standing up. Focusing on ease of use worked well in the old office paradigm, where shared workspaces were more about work output, but is at odds with the new reincarnation of the office.
Now that office workers have all learned how to work from home, at least in some capacity, the office is no longer focused on “heads down” work. Instead, offices have become a place for collaboration. They are used to support wellness in employees and are seen as an extension of working from home, not a replacement for it. That means that not everything in an office should be easy. In fact, parts of the office need to be a bit hostile in order to get the behaviors that offices want from their employees.
Before delving into this concept of ‘hostile design’ in office spaces, let me clarify that, in this context, we are reimagining the traditional notion of hostility in design. Rather than aiming to obstruct or inconvenience, we are exploring the intentional use of certain design elements to encourage specific, positive behaviors in the evolving landscape of modern offices.
One great example is the placement of elevators. Traditionally elevators have been the first thing you see when entering an office tower. Then, somewhere deep in the bowels of the building, there is a forgotten stairwell. This is the most efficient and comfortable design, elevators are faster and easier than taking the stairs, but does not support the type of healthy lifestyle that companies would like to see in their employees. Imagine if this were reversed. If there were a beautiful set of stairs greeting you when you came into a building and the elevator was pushed into the back of the house then many more people would choose to get a bit of exercise rather than just let the elevator do all the heavy lifting (no insult intended).
Another way that offices could use hostile design to invoke a desired reaction is by forcing people to interact. Sure, many of us would rather just go about our workday and not talk to anyone, but that is not supporting the type of collaboration that offices are meant to champion. Instead of putting workers in individual spaces offices should nudge them to sit closer together and maybe even interact. We are already seeing this play out, it is one of the reasons that so much more office space is being dedicated to communal seating. This concept could be taken even further, what if food and coffee were only served for certain periods of time in an area designed to get people to interact? This was the function of the water cooler back in the day but now that everyone carries around a giant cup of liquid at all times we need to find another place for people to chat.
Hostile design is tricky. You want to push people to do things in a way that isn’t so aggressive it would be obnoxious. The key is to make people feel like they are making the decision themselves, not being forced to do so by their office. Plus, everyone responds to stimuli differently. Casinos learned that a crowded betting area prompted more betting from men but women preferred spaces to have less people. Finding a balance of useful hostile design is difficult but necessary. On one hand you don’t want people to forgo the office altogether but on the other, you want to try to avoid an office where people drive around in their motorized office chairs, avoiding each other altogether.
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