Walk into the lobby of almost any technology company today and you’ll get the same feel. It can be in New York or Los Angeles or Hong Kong or Berlin.
There’s a spareness. Clean lines. A neutral color palette. Every object in sight serves a clear purpose.
The streamlined look suggests order, inside and out.
But appearances can be deceiving. Beneath the tidy surface, these same companies often maintain labyrinthine work flows or use outdated software systems. They struggle to properly plan projects, leading to redundancy, wasted time and miscommunication.
In one study, 80 percent of managers blamed their productivity problems on internal computer programs that didn’t “talk to each other.” When workers have to fritter away their energy fixing the very tools intended to make things simpler, they can get demoralized, stressed or distracted from the most pressing tasks at hand.
Likewise, when a company creates too many layers of red tape, employees start to feel like their work is meaningless. More and more, studies show, we want to feel like our daily work matters. We want to be challenged and see how our work fits into a vision of the future. If a business can cut down on busy work, it can improve happiness, engagement, and overall productivity.
Lastly, companies can unintentionally encourage too much multitasking, a known enemy of productivity. Neuroscientists have found that when we get interrupted, it can take more than 23 minutes to get back on track, especially when our brains give us a dopamine reward for easy wins, like sending a text, versus doing meaningful work. When company work flows require us to be constantly switching between tasks, we accomplish less. Added up, these distractions cost the economy billions of dollars every year.
Which raises the central question: how can companies incorporate the spirit of minimalism at every level of their organizations?
Simplicity in Everyday Life
Minimalism has always been about more than just a superficial aesthetic. The foundations of the concept can be traced to the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century. Emerging in England at the height of industrialization, it celebrated a time when craftsmen worked with their hands to produce beautiful pieces of work – pottery, furniture, ceramics – that filled our daily lives.
Design, manufacturing, and fine arts were intermingled in the decoration of the home. But the artistic trend also embodied a way of living and working. The philosophy elevated the artisan. It demanded quality materials.
The idea extended to minimalist architecture, which produced the simple designs epitomized in the Bauhaus era of the twenties. It was a philosophy of functionalism, guided by the belief that “less is more,” and gave rise to a revolution in the look and feel of daily life.
As the British designer John Pawson noted, “Emptiness allows us to see space as it is, to see architecture as it is, preventing it from being corrupted or hidden by the incidental debris of paraphernalia of everyday life.”
Frank Lloyd Wright, the godfather of the movement, emphasized the use of natural materials. He incorporated the environment into his work, prompted American architecture to usher in an era of open design style with prominent geometric lines. Most significantly, he recognized that a space could determine the way humans interacted with each other. His homes brought people together by emphasizing community.
As with the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century, minimalist art often employed simple materials arranged in abstract geometric forms. Think monochromatic schemes, straight lines, and mathematically exact compositions. “What you see is what you see,” minimalist painter Frank Stella once said of his paintings.
Turning to the Office
The business world has done an excellent job of incorporating the aesthetics of minimalism, but it often neglects its underpinning ethos. In the architecture of Bauhaus or the designs of the Craftsmen, functionality and pleasure were always the higher goal of the work.
For companies to practice a minimalism that goes beyond office decor, the process begins by creating a work environment that allows people to excel with fewer distractions.
The digital revolution has spawned the proliferation of new tools and ways to get work done. But rather than simplifying things, it often adds additional layers of complexity to our lives.
Consider the words of architect Franco Bertoni, who described minimalism as “a radical elimination of everything that does not coincide with a program.”
Every element of the office, from the work flow to the software programming, should be thoughtfully considered. Managers might take some time to find out how their employees actually spend their days. Where are they expending unnecessary energy? How they can better be focusing their talents?
After addressing the work processes, we can turn our attention to design, but always with the idea that human capital takes precedence over the physical space. The open office plan, for example, has become a default layout, but researchers have started to expose it as a key example of superficial design—”look, everyone can communicate!”—that achieves suboptimal results. A study from The Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that that 50 percent of workers in open-plan spaces suffer from a lack of sound privacy, and 30 percent complain about a lack of visual privacy. Other research shows that these plans force workers to spend more time on email, triggering a sequence of distractions from their real work.
Creating a beautiful office is one important step, but it goes to waste if we forget about the ideals of functionality, simplicity and elegance to every stage of the work.