After having to abandon the workplace and confine oneself to the house, it is now time to resume work in offices, ateliers, or studios as the lockdown restrictions ease around the world. While the pandemic had an abrupt start with the work-from-home culture, it is imperative that it ends or subsides with improved workplace culture. That must start with how we design our workspaces.
While new guidelines and restrictions are still being considered and debated upon, architects and designers must begin a discussion on how we can make office spaces more adaptable, cleaner, and more comfortable once regular office hours resume.
An interesting insight into improving the experience of workplace culture and architecture can be found by tapping into pop culture’s representation of the architecture of workspace. How does TV see an office? What we expect offices to be like if we experience them through the visual representation of a situational comedy? When people think of offices even if they work in one, their view or insight into an office is often informed by how they are shown on television. Most of us have not seen a New York police precinct but our imagination bases it on something like what we see on Brooklyn 99. For Indian audiences, the different governmental departments of the Office Office were indicative of how they are. Sitcoms based in workplaces, in particular, have an interesting take on how offices are portrayed or presented and also on how they behave since the entire series is based within the confines of one. A few of such sitcoms can give architects and designers an interesting insight into how we can improve the design of a workspace if we can understand what people’s expectations of one are by studying pop culture, specifically sitcoms.
The first case to study is the iconic Indian sitcom Office Office which satirizes workplace culture in a different office each episode. The protagonist Musaddilal is a common man who must navigate through a bunch of offices to solve his problems. What is remarkable about the episodic nature of the series is how similar these offices are. From post offices to land registration departments, the government or commercial offices seem to blend into one larger type that we as an audience become familiar with. In each episode thus, Musaddilal is caught in a maze of corruption, collusion, and confusion that is the office.
The series plays on a trope that distinguishing between different civil or commercial office spaces might be redundant considering that they all look the same: sterile, somewhat confusing, and indefinitely monotonous. The monotony is so replete that the characters in each office start looking similar and are hence played by the same set of actors. The series is primarily highlighting the departmentalization of the office space as Musaddilal is made to go to a different desk every time. The desks arranged around the space act like independent bubbles that lack communication and transparency, hence becoming inefficient. Second, the series deals with how difficult it is to read this space. The visitor who this office is made to serve can’t connect the dots as to where to go. Sadly, this experience is shared by many across the world as offices tend to be badly conceived convolutions. Post-pandemic or otherwise, offices ought to be cautiously designed as a transparent interface wherein multiplicity can exist without confusing.
Another classic of the office setup is a series shot in a mockumentary style, the Office. Both versions, UK and US, have very similar layouts– reiterating the point about resemblance made before. This layout stays true to the nature of mundanity that the television wants to impress upon the viewer in characterizing the office. The format of the show has characters speaking to the camera in a separate room alluding to a certain need for resting or recreational space within the office where employees can interact beyond work or just take a breather from work and not vent out their anger or frustration to a fictional camera.
Brooklyn nine-nine gives us the open-plan with auxiliary rooms that can essentially become anything it wants to. The absurd nature of this police precinct allows for the criminal justice apparatus to transform into Halloween heists or boxing arenas, just to name two. Although impractical from the perspective of the show, the precinct design does offer options and configurations for other activities to take place in the same place. Beyond storage and services, office spaces can be configured for other activities to take place as they are usually not occupied at night. This treatment to commercial space design might help design in an office space waking up from a pandemic
Silicon Valley on HBO brought the workspace home. Often software developers and writers work from home (even before the pandemic). This setup speaks to how the distinction between office space and domestic life has blurred for all of us in the last few months. Even as the commercial or civil spaces open, it is encouraged that we remain confined as much as possible within our houses. Thus, the home office is going to become more important than ever in residential design. One thing to learn from this show is that work must be separated from domestic life in spatial terms. It can be a separate room, a separate corner, or a specific table. The design principle must be to separate work and life in homes.
In conclusion, the sitcom has been a staple in our pop culture and its inherent quality of representing an architecture that is midway– avoiding specificity– speaks to the generic attitudes in the design of commercial or civic offices. Fortunately, the quirks and settings of the sitcom can signal at some deeper philosophy the writers are trying to subliminally carry in the comedy. This philosophy of either the maze-like office, the absurd police antics, or work-from-home mundanity can encourage architectural interventions that improve upon these past errors.