Then, perhaps the reason office satisfaction proves elusive is because we don’t understand our primal biology. Ours is the age of the “knowledge worker,” in which people are paid to think. So what can we learn from the environments our brains evolved in—our original “workspaces”—the outdoors?
According to Cambridge’s Encyclopedia of Hunter Gatherers, “Hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history.” The savannah was our original “workspace,” and though our world today hardly resembles our ancestral environment, our biological rules still apply. E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist who studies biophilia, said our inherent appreciation and longing for natural environments, explains that “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Waterfalls signify an abundant source of life, flowers signify bountiful land. We are wired to crave the natural world.
Stephen Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale, told me that our poor office design is a sign that we don’t see ourselves as animals, as having biological needs. “The measure of progress in our civilization,” he said, “is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.” Kellert told me that he finds zoos ironic. We consider it “inhumane” to keep a gorilla in an indoor, concrete environment with no exposure to greenery or anything resembling its natural habitat, and yet we put ourselves in these environments all the time.
When humans were hunting kudu in the open savannahs, we worked in motion, engaging our whole bodies, reacting to changing scenery. In the 1960s, Robert Propst invented the Action Office. He conceived of it as a “liberation”: a desk nestled between three walls, which the worker could arrange to his pleasing. The worker could alternate between sitting and standing, foreshadowing today’s standing and walking desks. In Cubed, Saval writes, “[Propst] stress[ed] the danger to one’s mental and physical vitality, of sitting too long at one’s desk.” But Propst’s invention was not the liberation he intended. Executives saw the Action Office as an opportunity to cram as many workers into a hive-like formation as possible, eliminating opportunities for movement and making the spaces smaller. Today, we call the Action Office the cubicle.
Since the dawn of the office, people have been concerned with productivity and attention spans. William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, posited that office workers would be faced with the enormous challenge of maintaining voluntary attention. He and others like him promoted work that fostered involuntary, or what they called “primitive,” attention. Today, a growing body of research suggests that nature promotes the kind of involuntary or primitive attention that James prescribed.