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AQ writes

‘Editing’ the office workspace

Designing for the fragile dynamics of sharing space

by Lisa Woite with Tomomi Sasaki

In spring 2021, AQ had an all-hands workshop about our Tokyo office. The mothership was no longer getting the kind of human presence that makes a space feel alive and loved. The air felt stale and the post-box overflowed with pizza flyers. With the days of a regular commute to a central location behind us, we recognized it was time to reimagine the role of the studio space in our design practice.

By the end, two things had become clear.

First, constrained to the home, each of us were seeking spaces that support changes in modes of work or thought, with some of the affordances of working from a café, from a friend’s house, or from a different city. More subtly, we were yearning to gather, to be able to convene in celebration of us, and to have access to a sanctuary, shielded from the friction of daily life in the city.

The second, which crystallized over subsequent weeks, was that our creative energy would not come from our Tokyo office space anymore.

In summer 2021, we decided to establish a second space away (“hanare”) in the mountains and downsize the Tokyo office from two floors to one. These decisions triggered the start of two different but deeply related processes now in progress.

Documenting the journey

Sensing an opportunity to experiment out loud in the broader social context of re-thinking work, I was interested in having outsider eyes look in, to help sensemake and give tangible form to what we would learn. I invited Lisa Woite to accompany us on our journey. Lisa is a German multimedia artist based in Tokyo, with a keen interest in space and movement. In recent years, her research focus has been on the hidden stories and histories in Tokyo’s ever-changing cityscape.

In this first installment of our collaboration, Lisa and I examine key ideas coming out of the Tokyo office part of the project.

What role do we want the office to play?

For the last two years, most conversations and experiences of shared workspace have been preoccupied with preventive safety regulations, the opinions of governments and C-suites, and the growing chatter of workers spreading their wings. It’s gone from the binary question of office or no office to “how many times a week is it required to be in the office?”. Among rallying cries that so-called hybrid work is here to stay, we also see an undercurrent of wondering what one can get away with.

A more interesting question for companies is what role we want the office to play. A shared physical space is more than meeting rooms and a desk to park our laptops. The collapse of former routines has decimated the benefits of casually coming into and moving around that an office once offered. Once a company has made a decision not to let a space go, and given that usage will continue to be erratic, they need to re-design the space in order to effectively contribute to performance and build a sense of belonging. How do we go about that work, with individuals so busy negotiating their own relationship to the office? And who’s job is it anyway?

In responding to these questions, what emerged for AQ was an exploration of the possibility for conflicts and a re-negotiation of the meaning of a shared workspace. While many of the themes are “evergreens” that are based on experiences pre-Covid and will persist in a post-pandemic world, the changes that Covid forced upon us can be used to observe things from different perspectives and with heightened sensitivity.

Our ideals and boundaries for a shared workspace include the following:

Yes to

  • Feeling secure that I have a place there, whether I go once a day or once a quarter
  • Walking into a sense of quiet, welcoming openness
  • Walking into nice surprises, such as fresh flowers
  • Feeling confident about welcoming visitors, even unplanned
  • Having reliable access to the company’s abundance of quality tools and materials

No to

  • Requiring permission to go or not
  • Feeling self-conscious or anxious about going there because I don’t know what might be going on
  • Walking into disorganization or noise, and not being able to find a spot that suits my intentions for that particular day
  • Feeling like I may interrupt someone else’s flow state
  • Having to search for shared tools and materials

Interestingly, while the areas of our life that we often conceptualized as separate, — dwelling, working, playing — have blended into one another, the ideal for a workspace that is carved out by these ideals is, finally, to walk in and feel at home. With this realization, we noticed that a lot of the positive and negative dynamics in shared spaces we were exploring had parallels to those we can experience in the context of home and dwelling: being kin or outsider, the dynamics of host and guest, feelings of belonging or intruding. Even in the place that is not-home, our primary experience of our own homes and visiting those of others may serve as a guiding star for how we want to share space.

In three upcoming essays, we will trace the ideals and struggles of sharing space, each devoted to a different way of being in a shared space: Taking up space, marking space, and earning space.

Added Jan 30th:

In the meantime…

A little tour of our studio

Our studio is in the old, residential neighborhood of Nishi Azabu, tucked behind a temple. It’s an unnamed backstreet of Roppongi Dori, halfway between Roppongi and Shibuya. The 12min trek from Omotesando Station is gazing at the ever-evolving window displays of a dozen major fashion brands and squeezing past photo shoots on the street.

The ground floor is an event space, with movable whiteboards and felt-covered walls to pin butcher paper and sketches. We’ve hosted countless workshops, parties and community events here.

There’s a full kitchen, shower facilities, a terrase, and a ton of equipment and layout configurations to host interviews for UX research. In the early days of the pandemic, we added two tatami beds and a linen cleaning operation to offer accommodation options for staff and friends of the studio.

The list of shared utilities grows with non-obvious items when a team inhabits a place for years. We have a hair dryer from the time someone spilled water on their laptop, and shampoo bottles from the time some of us were running or cycling to the office.

Our desks are on the second floor, where we used to spend most of our time. The nicer chairs now live in our home offices.

Going much further back in time, here we are on March 11th, 2011 (the day of the Tōhoku earthquake) and some scenes from 2010 when we moved in.

With thanks to Chris Palmieri and Johnny Linnert for taking photos over the years and keeping them organized!

To be notified of upcoming essays, please follow the AQ Medium account or keep an eye on Twitter at aqworks or tomomiq.

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Ideas about design, research and culture from our product design studios in Tokyo and Paris

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Tomomi Sasaki

Tomomi Sasaki

Strategic design, user experience and conversations.

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