After reading The New York Times article “In defense of collisions in the office,” I can report that times have certainly changed. Denizens of the 1990’s NYC design and advertising scene referred to Chiat/Day’s hot seat office as “The Toxic Office”, referencing the alien, fiery red acrylic resin interior. The material and the office itself were actually pretty cool, but when doing business there it was hard to escape a nagging sense that you were part of some weird social experiment.
The Chiat employees I did business with as a graphic services provider, showed the same pervasive unease. The modular office concept rendered them ‘mobile’ at a time when most staff didn’t carry cell phones or travel with their own laptops. Workers would have to grab a mobile phone from the front desk (if one was still available!) on arrival and scramble to find an open workstation. ‘Private’ phone rooms resembled fishbowls and lacked sufficient oxygen. There was truly, as The New York Times interviewer suggests, a mad scramble for a spot to settle down and work. You could lose your spot for the day if you went out to lunch or visited a client off site. So while the office design was innovative and ahead of its time, it was the poster child for top-down design for design’s sake and innovation for innovation’s sake. This absence of user-centricity bred a culture of scarcity, not collaboration. No “Google bumps” there.
By contrast, while ?What If!’s name seems to have been created without much thought to usability, the office layout appears to deliver on the promise of an innovation-fostering climate. This is probably not so much due to any change in the concept of hot seating as the fact that workers are far more equipped in 2013 to thrive in an internally ‘mobile’ environment than they were in the ‘90s. In defense of collisions in the office and in praise of chance encounters and spontaneity, hot seating’s time has come.