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Q&A: Moving the office outside

Q&A: Moving the office outside

Posting in Design

Jonathan Olivares has spent the last few years working on a research and design project called the Outdoor Office. We spoke to him about the challenges and possibilities of taking the workplace outside.

"Can we have class outsiiide today?" has been whined in elementary schools for decades, but how about taking the corporate office outdoors? Grabbing your laptop and dashing off that next memo en plein air sounds rather lovely to us, yet few businesses have created outdoor spaces specifically for work. (There are plenty of café tables for munching, gabbing and lounging, though.)

Jonathan Olivares, who has designed furniture for Knoll, Danese Milano and Driade — and who also wrote A Taxonomy of Office Chairs last year — spoke with us about the challenges and possibilities of outdoor workspaces. With multiple grants from the Graham Foundation, he has spent the last few years researching the subject, exhibiting his outdoor-office designs at The Art Institute of Chicago from March until last month and at the furniture trade show NeoCon next summer.

Why aren't outdoor offices something we started seeing years ago?

There's a funny thing about how our society works: We'll adopt assumptions and habits that were established years before we were even born, and these habits will continue and continue until they become rituals. Often we won't even question them.

Working only indoors goes back to the paperwork explosion from 1850 to 1960. It was so dominant and pervasive, and paper doesn't like the outdoors — it blows around, it blinds the eye. Heavy metal filing cabinets were also essential to office work, and they couldn't possibly be brought outdoors. Now, with a laptop or iPad, you can do serious work outside. We just need the right spaces.

How did you get started on this project?

A few years ago, I realized that there isn't any professional outdoor office furniture. It wasn't a topic that even existed. You'd google 'outdoor office' and find pictures of people sitting at a picnic table, telecommuting from their backyard. It's not much better today, but it's starting to become part of the public conversation. The idea for this project was to design and develop what an outdoor office might actually look like.

Tell me about your research process.

I spent a lot of time looking at places where work has taken place outdoors. I read about how Plato's academy worked; I looked at Montessori schools and TV outdoor offices and conceptual works from the 1970s. Then I went to 18 corporate headquarters throughout the country and talked to people. I also visited colleges and universities and ran student workshops.

Is this something you're proposing as a complete replacement of the indoor office, or do you see it more as a supplement?

I don't think people should work outside eight hours a day, just like I don't think people should sit in an office eight hours a day. Some people will say to me, 'Haven't you ever been to Texas in July or Minnesota in January?' People think I'm implying that everyone should work outside every day. That isn't the idea at all — my goal was to give people a legitimate environment for those beautiful days. We actually did the math, and if every white-collar worker in the U.S. spent two hours per year working outdoors — and turned off the lighting and HVAC inside during that time — we would save enough electricity to power the Empire State Building for an entire year.

So what does an ideal outdoor workspace look like? I'm assuming it wouldn't involve the picnic tables or benches some offices already have.

A lot of companies do have outdoor spaces, but they treat them as leisure space: cafes, gardens, patios. There's an attitude within the workplace that looks down on that as a legitimate workspace. I think if they put business furniture outside, that would make a huge difference. It would make it look like a workplace instead of a barbecue or café.

What else did you include in your outdoor office designs?

In each design I proposed, you eliminate the 360-degree view of your surroundings. That helps hone attention span and also creates an acoustic shelter. Shade is also hugely important. Laptops and white paper don't do well in sunlight. Ideally, the outdoor workspace should be positioned in a place that's naturally shaded by trees or a building. Once you address privacy, blocking the vista, acoustic privacy, shade and making the setting look serious, you can really do anything. There could be as many outdoor office designs as there are indoor.

How close are we to seeing outdoor offices become a fixture in the corporate world?

Very close. I think it's already happening, and we're really going to start seeing them in the next year or two. It's something people are starting to think about actively. Knoll and Herman Miller both launched outdoor collections recently, and while the furniture isn't specifically for office use, it certainly could be.

What other changes are happening right now with furniture and design in the workplace?

All of a sudden, the barriers between home and work have become smaller and smaller. If people are expected to work more at home, they also expect work to be more like their homes. As a result, both work and home spaces are becoming more similar. Sofas, for instance, had very little place in the traditional workplace. Now they're becoming more accepted. The desk is becoming closer and closer to a table — even a dining table — and in the home, dining tables are increasingly being used for work. Both sides are moving closer toward each other, meeting in the middle somewhere.

All photos courtesy of Jonathan Olivares Design Research

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure