By LISA BELKIN
The New York Times
IF you’re looking for Bryan Judkins, you won’t find him at his desk. “I use it as a coat rack,” he said of his work space at Young & Laramore, an advertising agency in Indianapolis, where he is the associate creative director. “People see my coat and know I’m in the building.”
Exactly where in the building, however, is anybody’s guess.
Mr. Judkins spends his day moving around the agency’s offices, which are in a converted elementary school. The former gym, now filled with couches and tables, is a good place for creative thought, he said. The “rocket sculpture,” an abstract piece in a central hallway that has a bench inside it, is a favored spot when he doesn’t mind colleagues stopping to chat. There are hidden corners and crannies where no one can interrupt (best for writing).
What Mr. Judkins is doing is looking for “white space,” a term creeping into the language of work to describe a place where the actual work gets done. Desks suffice for answering phones and filing forms, but when it comes to the creative or introspective aspects of a job, desks can be uninspiring at best, or formidable obstacles at worst.
So we leave those desks. Because we can. We take our laptops and seek shelter (and WiFi) either elsewhere in the building, as Mr. Judkins does, or farther away in libraries and bookstores.
The term “white space” implies a place set apart, physically and mentally. It is not only used by graphic artists to describe the empty space in a layout, but also by time managers to explain the minutes frittered away between appointments on office calendars.
Andy Hines, who studies the future of work at the Washington office of Social Technologies, a global consulting firm, said white space is “what we are looking for when we have thinking to do.”
Mr. Hines often starts his lectures by asking his audience to name the place where they come up with their most creative ideas. The profession and salary level and age of the respondents might vary from one audience to the next, he said, but the results are always the same.
The workplace, he said, is “either not mentioned or is mentioned near the very end of the list, after all the other places have been exhausted.” Mr. Hines, it should be noted, said he does his best work while running or reclining in his favorite chair.
Bosses can’t help noticing that their workers are often away from their desks. And the hot idea in workplace design — as cutting edge as the cubicle was before Dilbert put it in its place — is providing space to think.
Technology companies are eliminating assigned space for open floor plans. Cisco Systems, Google and Sun Microsystems have already knocked down partitions. This month, Intel began testing alternative floor plans at three locations — creating open work areas with clusters of armchairs, library-style tables with laptop plugs, electronic white boards where inspired doodles can be transferred to e-mail, and a variety of conference rooms when privacy is needed.
It is not just the high-tech firms that are becoming cozier. The creative industries — such as advertising and design — are embracing the approach, too. At ?What If! (yes, that is really the name, punctuation and all) an “innovations company” (that seems to mean marketing) with a Manhattan outpost, employees never sit in the same place two days in a row. This is known as “hot desking,” said Nina Powell, the managing director of the United States office, and the purpose is to give workers a perspective that changes with the task.
When the work requires collaboration and interaction, she said, the communal tables are the place to be. When the work is more introspective, there are cafe-style booths providing quiet and privacy.
At Airfoil Public Relations, in Southfield, Mich., desks are assigned but have no partitions between them, creating an energetic and noisy atmosphere, said Lisa Vallee-Smith, the company’s chief executive. When solitude is needed, employees move to one of several “phone booths” in the office — small work spaces, with sliding doors and wireless access — or the slightly larger conference rooms. The most remote (and most popular) of these is known as “Pluto” because it is at the far end of the office.
The design is an attempt to meet the need for white space and to keep employees in the office, Ms. Vallee-Smith said, rather than burrowed away at Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. “We believe that our best work is done while together, right here in our office,” she said. “We feel that the amenities we provide certainly allow us to get any type of work done.”
Is it even possible to create a work environment that meets everyone’s needs? Isn’t one person’s white space another person’s distraction?
Some workers seek out noise. Lee B. Salz wrote “Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager” (Wbusinessbooks, 2007) at a bustling community center. “I’ve found that the background noise helps me to concentrate on exactly what I am doing,” said Mr. Salz, the president of Sales Dodo, which trains sales staff in Minneapolis. “It’s a method I’ve used since high school. Back then I studied with the television on. For me, it works.”
For Todd Dewett, it doesn’t. Mr. Dewett is now an associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, but a few years ago when he was a consultant in Atlanta his favorite work space was a church near his too-noisy office.
“Huge, serene, wonderfully empty around midafternoon,” he said. “I found myself sitting in an empty pew with a laptop. Did wonders for my productivity — and I’m not even Catholic.”
D. A. Benton, the author of business advice books, is also in the solitude camp. And it costs her. She spends the last week of any big project — the final edit on a manuscript, for instance — at an upscale hotel, chosen for its on-site spa. “I hunker in my room and do nothing but write,” said Ms. Benton, who is the president of CEOWhisperer.com, which coaches high-level executives. “No distractions, period. Then I take a break and eat great food or get a massage, then back to writing.” She has finished her seven books this way, she said. “I’ll keep writing books just so I can get that spa time again.”
For some, escape from the office is specifically an escape from phone and computer. “I get my best work done on airplanes,” for that reason, said Joyce L. Gioia-Herman, the president and chief executive of the Herman Group, which predicts business trends. “Fewer distractions.” But not any ticket will do, she said. “Business class is a must.”
Isolation from technology is the last thing Matthew Huber wants. Dr. Huber is an assistant professor at Purdue University, where he creates computer models of past, present and future climates. He find his white space every day at the Café Vienna near campus, where he has all he needs in the form of a laptop equipped with Skype Internet service and a cellphone. He holds his office hours at the cafe, and his graduate students often sit at a large table with him, MacBooks at the ready. When there are no large tables, they scatter and use their headphones to iChat across the room.
Dr. Huber said his cafe offers something his office (a nice one with a window) cannot: the very fact that it is not the office.
That, in the end, might be the ultimate purpose of white space: The choosing, the control.
“I might work much of the day in a coffee shop, which sounds pretty cushy, but I also work 12 hours a day 6 days week,” Dr. Huber wrote in an e-mail message from the cafe. “If I am to work all the time, then work is no longer a means to an end, it is the end itself. So it had better be rewarding and it had better happen on my terms, not on anyone else’s.”
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