Autonomy boosts morale and productivity

Let’s begin not in the world of schools, but in the world of marketing and advertising – a world that interests many school board members who are keen to see enrolment numbers grow.  In the late 1980s, one of the most prestigious advertising agencies in the world was Chiat/Day.  Based in Los Angeles (USA), the company had an enviable reputation for innovation and creativity based on the spectacular success of Apple’s famous “1984” launch of the Macintosh computer at the 1983 Super Bowl, an advertisement that was developed by Chiat/Day, followed by subsequent iconic ads starring the Energizer Bunny bursting through any and all competing products.

In 1993, the company’s co-owner, Jay Chiat, announced a radical plan to boost creativity within his own company.  The proposal was to eliminate separate offices, individual cubicles and even desks.  These would all be replaced with open spaces that would be “zany, playful and stylish”.

The famous Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry was commissioned to design the changes for Los Angeles headquarters.  His design was certainly creative.  It included a four-storey high sculpture of a pair of binoculars surrounded by randomly spaced, curved two-seater pods based on amusement park rides that were thought to encourage creative thoughts and discussions.

Design of the company’s New York office was handled by the Italian designer, Gaetano Pesce.  It included a wall-sized mural of a pair of red lips and a luminous multi-coloured floor covered with hieroglyphs.  The floor in front of the men’s toilet featured a large picture of a man urinating, while the round tables that were shared for work, rest and eating, would amusingly grab and hold important papers used for meetings.  Some of the chairs had springs instead of legs, and they would tip backwards unexpectedly to the amusement of everyone present (who was not wearing a skirt!).

The new offices quickly became famous for their colour, fun and creativity, and design magazines featured enthusiastic coverage of their innovations.  Chiat/Day even started charging for tours of their offices by tourists.  The New York Times published an article claiming that the New York office was “the apotheosis of the dream factory” and that agency staff were “happily at home inside the dream”.

Chiat/Day’s “free range” office concept was certainly ahead of its time.  Many schools and companies now consciously use mobile technology, ‘hot desking’ and bright colours to encourage creativity and allow work to be done in whichever location within the “campus” works best for the task and the individuals concerned.

Unfortunately for the employees whose desks and spaces had suddenly disappeared, problems quickly began to emerge.  Disgruntled employees found themselves carrying their temperamental, clunky laptops and heavy armfuls of paperwork all over the office in search of a temporarily vacant desk.  Some employees chose to convert the boots (trunks) of their cars into filing cabinets, walking out to the car park when they needed to retrieve a document needed for their work.

Rather than being able to retain their shared clunky portable phones and computers from day to day, employees had to return them each evening and then sign in to retrieve a different one when they returned to the office the following day – if there was one available – and often there were not.  Because of the shortage of shared equipment, employees would line up outside the office several hours before the doors opened each morning to get their precious phone and computer, then go home to sleep for a few hours, before later returning to do their day’s work.  Senior staff would arrange for their subordinates to arrive a few hours before them to secure their equipment on their behalf for the day’s work.  Rather than creating flexibility to work anywhere at any time, the new system had staff queuing before daybreak just to collect basic equipment.  It wasn’t long before disenchantment started building into resentment.

The Chiat/Day office in New York in 1995.  Photo by Donatella Brun and originally published in Domus 769, March 1995.
The Chiat/Day office in New York in 1995.  Photo by Donatella Brun and originally published in Domus 769, March 1995.

The “dream factory” was becoming a “nightmare” for those who had to work there.

In 2010, Alexander Haslam and Craig Knight conducted research into why some office spaces alienate workers, whereas others make them happier and more efficient.  They examined four types of office space:

The results were very clear.  People in the enriched office worked about 15% faster than those in the lean office, with no more errors, and they reported fewer health-related environmental complaints.  Productivity and wellbeing increased even more – by about 30% – in the office that participants customised themselves.  However, when employees’ personal choices were overridden (in the fourth type of office), their performance and wellbeing dropped back to the same levels they showed in the lean office.

Haslam and Knight conclude their study with these words:

“Why are people who work in spaces to which they feel a personal connection happier and more productive – even healthier?  We think that when people feel uncomfortable in their surroundings they are less engaged – not only with the space but with the work they perform in that space.  Arranging offices in ways that ignore employees’ preferences and individuality can undermine production and focus, even if well-meaning planners intend the opposite.  When employees get to surround themselves with personally meaningful objects at work, the efficiency gurus, enrichment experts and plastic palm-tree peddlers can all stay home.”

The lesson here is that office design matters far less than letting people design their offices.

This helps explain why the “zany, playful and stylish” spaces that Chiat created, and which were so loved by magazine editors, architects, visitors and designers, were reviled by those who had to work there.  The employees were not responding to the aesthetics but to the feeling of disempowerment they were experiencing as the aesthetics were imposed upon them by an over-confident employer.  As one of Jay Chiat's deputies recalled, "Jay didn't listen to anybody.  He just did it".

Jay Chiat summed up his office experiment by claiming that it was “the only thing I ever did in business that I was satisfied with”.  His employees disagreed, and the bold interior designs were torn down after just a few years.  

So, here is the key lesson for school leaders and their boards.  If the aim is to enhance teachers’ productivity, effectiveness and morale, then give them the autonomy to make their own decisions about the workspaces where they spend their days.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

The photos in this article show the Chiat/Day office in New York in 1995.  Photos by Donatella Brun and originally published in Domus 769, March 1995.


Berger, W (1999) Lost in Space, Wired Magazine. 

Haslam, AS & Knight, C (2010) Cubicle, Sweet Cubicle: The Best Ways to Make Office Spaces Not So Bad, Scientific American. 

Muschamp, H (1994) It's A Mad Mad Mad Ad World, New York Times.

Zanco, F (1995) Hot desking in 1995: an office by Gaetano Pesce, Domus Archive.  

We support schools that want to improve their physical and cultural environments in many ways including school appraisals, mentoring, critical friendships and curated consultations.

Further information on best practice in school leadership and governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at You can subscribe to receive future articles by e-mail using the red button below.