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The Mind Does Not Belong in a Cubicle

Our brains evolved to work most efficiently in natural environments.

A group of 16 people sits in front of large Mac desktops in clusters of three and four at a start-up in Brooklyn. Aside from the steady tapping away at keyboards, there is little noise. It’s six o’clock, and people just want to go home. With its open floor plan, casual dress code, and creative staff, this is considered a great place to work—but still there is something vaguely dissatisfying about the space, and it is not the only office like this.

In CubedA Secret History of the Workplace, released this week, Nikil Saval tries to put his finger on just where the office went wrong. Certainly an improvement on factory work and types of manual labor, the office remains “at once harmless and ominous.” Saval’s story centers on the question: “Why have the best intentions of planners and architects, designers and executives, fallen short of producing a happy environment for the American worker?”

Near the end of Cubed, Saval takes a tour with a Google representative who shows him Google’s juice bar and tells him that it is the Googlers’ favorite hangout spot. The rep asks Saval why he thinks this is so. “The juices?” Saval ventures. The rep points “to the floor-to-ceiling windows, letting in a glimpse of green and late afternoon California springtime sun. ‘It’s the proximity to nature,’ he said.”

Then, perhaps the reason office satisfaction proves elusive is because we don’t understand our primal biology. Ours is the age of the “knowledge worker,” in which people are paid to think. So what can we learn from the environments our brains evolved in—our original “workspaces”—the outdoors?

According to Cambridge’s Encyclopedia of Hunter Gatherers, “Hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history.” The savannah was our original “workspace,” and though our world today hardly resembles our ancestral environment, our biological rules still apply. E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist who studies biophilia, said our inherent appreciation and longing for natural environments, explains that “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Waterfalls signify an abundant source of life, flowers signify bountiful land. We are wired to crave the natural world.

Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale, told me that our poor office design is a sign that we don’t see ourselves as animals, as having biological needs. “The measure of progress in our civilization,” he said, “is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.” Kellert told me that he finds zoos ironic. We consider it “inhumane” to keep a gorilla in an indoor, concrete environment with no exposure to greenery or anything resembling its natural habitat, and yet we put ourselves in these environments all the time.

When humans were hunting kudu in the open savannahs, we worked in motion, engaging our whole bodies, reacting to changing scenery. In the 1960s, Robert Propst invented the Action Office. He conceived of it as a “liberation”: a desk nestled between three walls, which the worker could arrange to his pleasing. The worker could alternate between sitting and standing, foreshadowing today’s standing and walking desks. In Cubed, Saval writes, “[Propst] stress[ed] the danger to one’s mental and physical vitality, of sitting too long at one’s desk.” But Propst’s invention was not the liberation he intended. Executives saw the Action Office as an opportunity to cram as many workers into a hive-like formation as possible, eliminating opportunities for movement and making the spaces smaller. Today, we call the Action Office the cubicle.

Since the dawn of the office, people have been concerned with productivity and attention spans. William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, posited that office workers would be faced with the enormous challenge of maintaining voluntary attention. He and others like him promoted work that fostered involuntary, or what they called “primitive,” attention. Today, a growing body of research suggests that nature promotes the kind of involuntary or primitive attention that James prescribed.

Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s book Your Brain on Nature references a 2005 study in which people were shown photographs after performing a cognitively demanding task. Some were shown nature scenes, while others were shown urban scenes. Then the two groups were given another cognitively demanding task. Those who looked at nature scenes demonstrated faster reaction times and made fewer mistakes. Similarly, a study of over 100 schools in Michigan showed significant gains in academic performance on standardized tests in classrooms that had views of green vegetation. Most simply put, this research suggests that thinking is best suited to natural environments.

Additionally, viewing nature can alleviate workplace stress. The authors of Your Brain on Nature refer to viewing nature as “visual Valium” and cite some of the earliest examples of studies on nature’s chemical effect on us. By measuring cortisol levels of people who had walked in forests and comparing them with people who walked in urban environments, the Shinrin Yoku studies in Japan found that walking in forest environments reduced stress, hostility, and depression while improving sleep and vigor. Similar studies have found that even the presence of plants or natural images can have similar effects on stress levels. Additionally, nature has implications for office teamwork. A California study found that those who worked with desirable views of nature showed more activity in the opioid receptors, an area that when active, is known for causing people to be less likely to perceive themselves as stressed and more likely to form emotional bonds and focus less on negative memories.

The good news is that people are beginning to recognize the importance of incorporating elements of the natural world into the workspace. Stephen Kellert is currently retrofitting a 1.1 million-square-foot office tower in Midtown, Manhattan with plant life and gardens, natural ventilation, materials, shapes, and lighting. In another example of progressive office design, Patricia Fox, a London-based designer, premiered her outdoor office, which she dubbed “The Rooftop Garden of Tomorrow” at the Chelsea Garden Show. The rooftop office features lush greenery, WiFi, tablet charging stations, and a tea wall where office workers can pick their own fresh teas. She highlighted the rejuvenation that working in this kind of environment could provide and told me that she sees the model as scalable. Offices like hers could conceivably be built anywhere with a roof that could structurally support a garden.

At the end of Cubed, Saval visits “revolutionary offices” in places like Silicon Valley and Amsterdam that attempt to create a complete ecosystem, the suggestion being: Why would you leave? Everything you need is here. But when you wade through the workplace’s history, perhaps our most enduring desire for the office is to be there less. In Cubed, Saval references an 1880s pamphlet entitled “Blessed Be Drudgery” that argued that though office work was mundane, and though we might “crave an outdoor life,” culture and leisure could only be obtained through “our own plod … In one word, it depends upon our drudgery.”

Similarly, in Your Brain on Nature, Selhub and Logan point out that in 1965, aTime magazine cover proclaimed that in the future “the computer will allow man to return to the Hellenic concept of leisure”—an idea that is laughable today in a world where computers have blurred the distinction between leisure and work, creating a life punctuated by constant email-checking rather than a life spent reclining, eating grapes, and discussing philosophy.

Though there are many aspects not to be envied about the hunter gatherers’ lifestyle (hunger, increased vulnerability to weather, etc.), Ian Tattersall, the curator emeritus at New York’s American Museum of Natural History told me that early man’s work habits may have more closely resembled this Hellenic ideal of leisure than we typically imagine. A study of Kalahari hunter gatherers suggested that they only worked for four hours a day. Tattersall said that this certainly was not true for all hunter gatherers, but added, “There is no doubt that settled life was a Faustian bargain for humans and hasn't done the biosphere much good.”

I asked Nikil Saval if he thought cubes with a view were the answer to the office’s woes. “Design only does so much,” he said. The real answer, he explained, is moving to a shorter or more flexible workday, which would give workers the autonomy to pursue outdoor activities on their own terms. It is the endless workday confined to a single space that is so damning to white-collar well-being.

I posed this idea to Kellert, who acknowledged that we likely do spend too much time in our offices but explained that that is all the more reason to make that environment as naturally appealing as possible. “I’m a great believer that you have to work with the world you have.”

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