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.
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.
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.”
“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.
“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.