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Artwork is Disappearing from the Open Office Environment

Take a look around your department. Do you see artwork hanging on the walls? No? Let me guess: there are no walls on which to hang the artwork.

The open office environment has claimed another casualty in addition to our ability to focus and concentrate on a daily basis. The pretty pictures that once decorated our corporate cubicles and hallowed workplace hallways are disappearing! They have been replaced by glass, glass, and more glass. Glass windows, low-to-no partitions and gobs of open office space separated by -- you guessed it! -- glass walls.

In what would seem a strange contradiction, the open office environment that's meant to spur our creativity is instead actively purging artistic works from the workplace. Like Edvard Munch's The Scream, professional artists and other creative types are lamenting the waning availability of workplace wall space on which to display their finished masterpieces. A fascinating Workplace Insight article paints a rather sad picture of the modern open office environment:

A survey exploring art in the workplace ('Making Art Work in the Workplace') conducted by the British Council for Offices (BCO) found that almost 88 percent of respondents felt that "art is more relevant in the workplace than ever before". Yet, with the arrival of the clean modern office aesthetic, full of open plan space and glass partitions, we frequently find ourselves rather short of walls on which to hang any workplace art in the first place. "There are no bloody walls left' [sic] and those that are left are glass," protests Jack Pringle of architects Perkins+Will, pointing to the fact that traditional hanging space is on the decline.

In fact, 94% of employees think artwork makes the workplace more happy and welcoming, which would seem to be a good reason for incorporating everything from eye-catching colorscapes to trendy pop art. Alas, the art that remains at work has been subjectively relocated to conference rooms and reception areas where vendors and clients may enjoy them. If it's pretty and worth contemplating, then it isn't for employees.

Apparently? Check out the walls at Space X. There's one lone, framed picture hanging near the reception area. The rest of the office canvas consists of blank space and glass, except for a...random Goddard poster.

Feeling Framed
Meanwhile, senior managers have taken on the task of selecting any remaining artwork that appears inside the company. So your CFO is not only managing the company's financials, she may also be meditating on Matisse vs. Marc Allante vs. a Pablo Picasso print, in addition to the proper dimensions of any selected artwork. Should we go with the 24" x 36" frame for the 30' x 24' wall, or go with the smaller frame?

Hmm. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you have no say in the matter -- even though past studies have found employee productivity and wellbeing increase as much as 30% when employees are given a say in the artistic selection at work.

If you look around the office today and wonder where all the artwork has gone, then go look in the client conference room. Otherwise, you get to watch your co-worker master the art of clipping his toenails while talking on the phone.


  1. In many of the open offices I've been in, sculptures on desks have replaced paintings (ok, in my case, it's Lego models). In addition, we do have some walls here at Atlassian Mountain View, which are decorated with posters of our company values, of customer case studies, profiles of Atlassian employees, TV screens that show key customer metrics, etc. So I'd say there has been a shift from "artwork" to "business-specific motivators" on the walls.

    1. Painters, take note. Thanks for your insights, Cate!

  2. I read some articles on the open concept office recently and not only is artwork being reduced so is productivity. Research has shown that distractions in an open office space offset the communication benefit.

    1. Yes, open office environments do seem to be having a highly negative impact on employee productivity. They look nice, but they don't work very well for employees. They come with far too many distractions. Thanks for your comment!


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