Manzetti, Taylor, Haws, Girard and Saarinen. Rest their souls. They have no idea about the contributions they’ve made to the transformation of our present-day workplaces and to the “new” way we communicate.
Human contact — What a concept!
Among its many positive attributes, human contact is one of the main ingredients in the evolution of our work habits. For example, you can’t have that new thing we call “collaboration” without it!
Maybe it’s because they look so cool, but the so-called collaborative workplaces of today seem to be a brand new concept. Long ago, in the span of more than a century, from roughly 1844 to 1953, several inventions that promoted human contact emerged, and have now come full-circle to be essential elements in our 21st century workplaces.
Who are the creators of these “modern-day wonders” of yesteryear now making a comeback? For starters, next time you want to type a long message to someone on your little handheld device, stop and consider Innocenzo Vincenzo Bartolomeo Luigi Carlo Manzetti. A full 30 years before Alexander Graham Bell produced the first practical telephone, Manzetti came up with the idea.
You’re saying, “Wait a minute. The telephone?! That dust-collecting hunk of plastic next to my laptop?!” Yup, it’s making a comeback, and it’s kind of surprising it took this long! Who would have thought using the telephone (or mobile) to actually have a conversation would become “new” again. But it has! Here’s why:
Whether we like it, modern-day technology has depersonalized the way we communicate with people. As a sales person, I find that especially alarming. Furthermore, while we love to text and tweet, we realize that when we try to convey our more complex thoughts using those methods, we either run out of characters or our fingers cramp up.
Probably the greatest broken promise of technology is that it will simplify our lives. The very exercise of trying to text or email our thoughts to someone waiting at the other end is illustrative of how things actually have gotten more complicated. Communicating from your smartphone go something like this when you type this reply:
“Let’s get the LOI(you forget to type a space)signed.”
Auto correct changes LOIsigned to “Lozenge”
Backspace to LOI
Space to type next word
Spell check doesn’t recognize LOI, corrects to “Lion”
Backspace to start over
Start retyping and touch escape by mistake
Screen goes blank
Recapture message screen
Dental appointment reminder pops up (D’oh!!!)
By this point, if you haven’t spiked your device on the pavement, you are a likely member of an increasing segment of reformed text addicts who are hitting the “dial” button and delivering your message the old-fashioned way: by phone.
We do this because the telephone is one of the foundations of day-to-day contact with our professional peers that we have actually come to crave after going too far with the texts and emails and, for that matter, the depersonalizing practices of teleworking and hoteling. In short, we miss talking to people, especially face to face!
At the turn of the last century, something as simple as drinking water could still cause great harm to the population. Typhoid was commonly transmitted through the water supply. Taylor and Hawes wanted to find a way to provide a supply of purified, chilled water to their office, mostly to prevent transmission of Typhoid, which had claimed the life of Haws’ father.
They unwittingly became the Wright brothers of office interaction when, somewhere around 1906, they invented the earliest known version of the water cooler. This invention went on to be not only an indispensable office fixture but also a gathering point for people and a catalyst for conversation. And, in keeping with the “Mad Men” culture and human nature in general, its name also grew to be associated with office gossip.
True, the freestanding water cooler doesn’t enjoy the same ubiquity that it had in the past, but other vehicles for spontaneous human interaction have taken its place.
There is a campus of a leading info tech company built among corn fields and cow pastures outside a certain Midwestern city. This campus — well, more like a corporate playpen — has been built specifically to cater to the needs of its fast-growing workforce, comprised mainly of Millennials. On a recent visit, I experienced their version of the water cooler: refrigerators everywhere, stocked with a better variety of beverages than you would find at your local Wawa.
Simple premise: The more you stock the refrigerators, the more people visit the pantry, where spontaneous interaction often breaks out.
Lastly, consider the duo that collaborated on the design of a house commissioned in the early 1950s by wealthy industrialist J. Irwin Miller. This house, a National Historic Landmark and one of the best-preserved examples of midcentury architecture in America, was designed through the collaboration of Alexander Girard and Eero Saarinen. Eero was the more famous of the two, having designed icons such as the main terminal at Dulles International Airport.
The Miller House has one particularly noteworthy design feature: a conversation pit. What a simple concept! Put people together in a “defined” space, make them comfortable, and they will communicate and collaborate!
One of the first known examples of the “Conversation Pit” in the Miller House, a midcentury home in Columbus, Ind., designed by Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard, ca. 1953 (Home-designing.com)
This concept has morphed into an eclectic modern-day collection of pits, pods, platforms, nooks, nodes, cocoons, lofts and tree houses. And they all serve a common purpose: to bring people face to face in a casual, thought-stimulating, conversation-promoting environment. Further, these vehicles for interaction prove that we can be both social and productive at the same time!
So, the next time you and your teammates climb into one of those cool pods to solve the world’s problems, take a moment to thank some of the individuals who pioneered office interaction. And remember: They did it before your great, great grandpappy was born!
Steve is Senior Vice President of Colliers International in Washington, D.C. Having worked for both owners and occupiers, he writes about regional and national business trends. In his spare time, Steve is an accomplished cook and is also putting the finishing touches on his first movie screenplay. Connect with Steve on LinkedIn.