This past spring, a duo of Dutch designers managed to gaslight a small freelance workforce.

First, they created a coworking space full of perks, then shifted those surroundings over the course of a month.

What started out as a hot, new workspace full of eye-popping furnishings and even a resident bunny soon morphed into rows of gray cubicles watched over by a virtual boss.

While some freelancers stopped coming in to work, others stuck with it. Meanwhile, the artists measured their reactions.

Unbeknownst to the workers, Studio KNOL's Celine de Waal Malefijt and Jorien Kemerink had been enlisted by modern art museum MU to take over the institution’s ground floor. “We had the space for one month, and we could do whatever we wanted,” Kemerink recalls.

Soon, the two were advertising the area as a new “flex” working space, a trend that’s become more popular in the Netherlands as companies experiment with flexible hours and creative perks.

De Waal Malefijt and Kemerink started off by making the space as over-the-top and Google-esque as possible, throwing in a zen rock garden, a swing, and even a bed that a person could crawl into with a laptop.

Workers could subscribe for just $5 a month. After just two weeks, de Waal Malefijt and Kemerink had 50 regulars.

But then the surroundings began to change. One day, a rug disappeared. Then all the plants.

The workers were most upset when they found out the rabbit, named David Brent (after the British “The Office” character), had left the zen rock garden for good.

“We told people that the rabbit was gone because some of them were allergic,” de Waal Malefijt says. The workers had also been told that the space would be transforming in response to their own input from user surveys.

So when the designers drained all color from the room and moved the furniture to a central area, workers were told that their surveys had asked for more “concentration spaces.”

“After a while it became clear something strange was happening,” Kemerink says.

In the end, de Waal Malefijt and Kemerink had converted all the furniture to rows of numbered gray cubicles watched over by a screen on which well-known Dutch actor Steye van Dam issued various warnings.

Every few hours, the virtual boss would lead the room in a series of exercises meant to prevent cramping.

The designers had also installed movement sensors so that if a worker got up to go to get a cup of coffee, van Dam might say “Please, number 14, it's not time for a break yet.”

The final working environment might sound like a scene out of Orwell's Oceania, but de Waal Malefijt and Kemerink say that workers were actually more productive than they had been with the perks.

2014-08-12

Co.Exist

Is Your Open Office Actually A Twisted Experiment? It Happened To These Workers

From a zen garden to a pet rabbit, at first, no silly luxury was spared for a co-working space set up by two Dutch designers. But soon, things started suspiciously changing, until the office was something out of 1984.

In 1938, a London stage play told the story of a husband who drove his wife insane. In order to convince the wife that her own brain had become an unreliable narrator, the husband dimmed the gaslights in their home and told the wife she imagined the change. The play gave rise to the term "gaslighting," which came to mean an insidious kind of emotional abuse.

This past spring, a duo of Dutch designers managed to gaslight an entire small freelance workforce. First, they created a co-working space full of perks, then shifted those surroundings over the course of a month. What started out as a hot, new workspace full of eye-popping furnishings and even a resident bunny soon morphed into rows of gray cubicles watched over by a controlling virtual boss. While some freelancers stopped coming in to work, others stuck with it. Meanwhile, the artists measured their reactions.

Celine de Waal Malefit (left) and Jorien Kemerink (right).

Unbeknownst to the workers, Studio KNOL's Celine de Waal Malefijt and Jorien Kemerink had been enlisted by contemporary art gallery MU to take over the institution’s space on the second floor of a revamped factory building. "We had the space for one month, and we could do whatever we wanted," Kemerink recalls. Soon, the two were advertising the area as a new "flex" working space, a trend that’s become more popular in the Netherlands as companies experiment with flexible hours and creative benefits. De Waal Malefijt and Kemerink started off by making the space as over-the-top and Google-esque as possible, throwing in a zen rock garden, a swing, and even a bed that a person could crawl into with a laptop. Workers subscribed for just $5 a month, and after just two weeks, de Waal Malefijt and Kemerink had 50 regulars.

Credit: Christian Bakker, Anna Dekker, Celine de Waal Malefit, and Jorien Kemerink.

But that's when the surroundings began to change. One day, a rug disappeared. Then all the plants. The workers became most upset when they found out the rabbit, named David Brent (after the British The Office character who was the even-more caustic predecessor to Steve Carrel's version), had left the zen rock garden for good.

"We told people that the rabbit was gone because some of them were allergic," de Waal Malefijt says. The workers had also been told that the space would be transforming in response to their own input from user surveys. So when de Waal Malefit and Kemerink drained all color from the room and moved the furniture to a central area, the designers reported that user surveys had asked for more "concentration spaces."

Credit: Christian Bakker, Anna Dekker, Celine de Waal Malefit, and Jorien Kemerink.

"After a while it became clear something strange was happening," Kemerink says.

By the end of the month, de Waal Malefijt and Kemerink had slowly converted all the furniture to rows of numbered gray cubicles watched over by a screen with a virtual boss, played by well-known Dutch actor Steye van Dam. Every few hours, van Dam's remote boss character led the room in a series of exercises meant to prevent cramping. The designers had also installed movement sensors so that if a worker got up to get a cup of coffee, van Dam might catch the crime and issue a warning: "Please, number 14, it's not time for a break yet."

The final working environment might sound like a scene out of Orwell's 1984, but de Waal Malefijt and Kemerink say that workers were actually more productive than they had been with the perks. It turns out that in the "freedom phase," employees dawdled at the coffee bar or spent too much time playing with David Brent the Bunny. The final scenario, the designers argue, also revealed the societal shift towards flexible working for what they felt it truly was: a consequence of financial collapse.

Credit: Christian Bakker, Anna Dekker, Celine de Waal Malefit, and Jorien Kemerink.

"It’s because of the financial crisis that companies cannot provide employees with big workspaces, so everyone is obliged to work one or two days at home because of financial reasons," Kemerink says.

Now that the experiment's had its run—revealed in an end-of-month "networking event" that leaked the true identity of the space—the designers question the idea that home-like, open workspaces make people function more efficiently. "A lot of people are searching for a workspace like that, but they're also going home feeling like, ‘I'm not finished with my work,’" de Waal Malefijt says. "Is it better to have nice creative environment, or just be finished so you go home and have good time with your friends and family?"

The debate is far from over. This summer, even the Google interns are napping in pods and receiving back massages. And as cities outside of Silicon Valley try to draw tech talent to new areas of industry, they’re finding that perks are almost a requisite part of the offer.

When (or if) the "freedom phase" runs its course on a wider societal level, it’s unclear whether employees will take advantage of their newfound productivity or lobby for elements from the old model.

Maybe we could at least keep our David Brents? "It’s striking how much a rabbit could do," Kemerink says.

What's the best, worst, and craziest part of your office setup? Let us know in the comments below.

[Photos: Corneel de Wilde/Studio KNOL]

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18 Comments

  • As a small press publishing books on innovation and business, we've worked with thought leaders and authors who have promoted these nuanced ideas in their works (most recently, 'The Fifth Age of Work' by Andrew M. Jones).

    We agree wholeheartedly with folks who say it's all about balance. There is no need for extremes, and there is no reason for having mono-spaces: Diversity of design in office space is something that should be a key takeaway here. There is also some misunderstanding of what a coworking space is/should-be. It's not about a one-size-fits-all, open, communal design necessarily. From our experience, the really well-designed coworking spaces have a range of spaces and nooks: some more suited for solo/heads-down work (when you need privacy), and others that make sense for group work and collaboration (when it makes sense for banter and conversation). Workers that have access to both tend to be happier--and they are more productive and creative.

  • Avrum Fine

    These pix show an office that is still last-century as it actually promotes poor computer posture. Very disappointing

  • In Holland, what is normal and predictable is king- they even have a national saying: "Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg!" ...Be normal, because normal is crazy enough! I had to pick my battles while living there, and it was a seriously tough road- unfortunately, I feel that this 'experiment' was a straw man to begin with. I was actually excited to read about more embracing in the Netherlands of something different in life- only to have all my experience with the Dutch "inside the box only" mentality and culture be confirmed once more. I understand that it is a bid to promote family life, and a family/work balance, but I can say from years of experience that it doesn't work in practice- what is ultimately promoted is the all important quotient of predictability. It rules all, to the detriment of essentially everything else. Wanna read more?... http://stuffdutchpeoplelike.com/2010/11/26/no-56-normalcy-doe-normaal/

  • As an American designer who moved to work with a design studio in the Netherlands for several years, I can say with some authority (and vigor) that this 'study' says more about Dutch culture than anything about co-working spaces or flexible unorthodox environments and the productivity therein. I moved there, and found that my passion for my work as a creative, and my drive and willingness to pursue the road less travelled wasn't mirrored anywhere in my co-workers. The studio I designed for had almost exclusively international clients, with very unusual projects- often with crazy deadlines and new project developments... none of that ever touched the Dutch workforce around me- when 5:30 clicked onto the clock, everybody but myself (and the owner of the studio) disappeared into thin air- leaving vital pieces of projects hanging, often that I'd have to pick up and finish in order to get sent off before I went home. There was no emotional investment from any of the team other than us 2.

  • The finding is lost between the old paradigm--where the only purpose of work is to be more productive until it becomes all consuming and there is nothing else in our lives--and the new paradigm. The new paradigm says that work should be enjoyable, collaborative and meaningful. The new paradigm says that creativity is more important than productivity. Creativity is only possible in a relaxed environment that allows us to engage with each other shift into different modes of thinking. Cubicles give you more productivity. Couches create the opportunity for creativity.

  • I'm not buying their "finding." While not for everyone, there are people for whom a home-like open working environment works well. There are other people who need a more structured environment to be productive. One isn't 'better' than the other--it's about figuring out the right balance and spaces that work for most people's needs.

    In my experience, co-op spaces attract people with less structured jobs/roles who are more productive in a more structured environment. That's why people sign on for those places--they need a place to go to get things done. People who flourish anywhere - home, coffee shops, etc...they have no need of paying for a place to go even at a low pricepoint. It's not what helps them be productive.

    I hardly think their findings merits a blanket confusion to move away from a certain environment. The pendulum shouldn't be swinging too far either direction--that's just common sense.

  • Absolutely agree. Knowing Dutch culture as I do though, it was a foregone conclusion, and one I've seen argued in the Netherlands again and again. Thanks for calling this out for what it is.

  • While this is a little sinister and extreme, I've always had difficulty getting work accomplished in these open work environments. Sure, I'd love a cozy couch, but I'll work better at a clean, neat cubicle with walls. Now that I work at home, I have to work at my desk in my office. It's too distracting to be lounging on the sofa or bed with a laptop.

  • I also don't much like open offices. I find the background sound distracting, so I find myself selfishly booking out a meeting room for quiet and a little privacy.

  • Interesting findings.

    Although they're bouncing that off the initial hypothesis that open workspaces and office perks increase productivity. I would hope that's true (I guess not?), but if I think happiness is a more important measurement. The long game, so to speak.

    Unless they're horribly unproductive I would take a guess that happier employees would work on something longer, think about it longer, and be less likely to leave the company.

    Their dystopian end-result transformation might have been productive for that short term but I doubt those designers would stick around for long when they see other companies with cute pet rabbits in the office.

  • Abby Wellumson

    The best is my standing desk! I love it!! The worst is the fact a city water main burst last night so our bathrooms are not working today. Which is actually kind of terrible. And the craziest is the super old wallpaper on the walls in my office that I adore. We refer to my office as "Grandma's House".

  • Igor Stravinsky said "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles."

    And many! others have also talked about true creative freedom arising from limitations ... So maybe it's not so far-fetched (however non-intuitive) to think that an austere workspace will inspire better focus and productivity in knowlegde workers ...

    Just don't ever take my shrubbery away ~

  • The Fast Company office in New York features a "phone room" -- a.k.a. a windowless walk-in closet near the restrooms. My cell phone does not work in that room.