Imagine a co-working space built for maximum flow, original invention, and empowering culture.
A place where you can shut off all distractions and dive deep into a problem, as well as sweep yourself up in a whirlwind of collaborative work.
In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, we meet architecture professor David Dewane, who designed such a place. He called it the Eudaimonia Machine.
He envisioned a long rectangle with five rooms in a linear progression. You’d need to walk through each room to get to the next.
It’s never been built, but I’m convinced it won’t be that hard to create a “compromise” (or even an improvement) as a high-end co-working space. More on that later.
First, here are the five rooms explained.
1. The Gallery
Off the street you enter a room that gets the creative juices flowing. Then it slaps you with the fact that you need to step up your game if you want to keep up with the others in this building.
The gallery displays selected examples of work produced in the deeper rooms of the “machine”. It creates a form of positive peer pressure as well as social status based motivation (wouldn’t you want to be one of the cool cats with your work proudly displayed in the gallery?).
2. The Salon
The next room contains a bar with high-quality coffee and perhaps even some booze for after hours. Sofas line the walls and wifi is provided. The salon is basically a coffee shop actually meant to be full of laptops.
In the salon (or does he mean saloon?), you’ll sit with colleagues and peers to bounce around ideas and chew things over in a social setting.
3. The Library
Once you’re buzzing from Colombian single-roast and fresh ideas, it’s time to enter the library. Here you’ll find a permanent record of all work produced in the machine, as well as all reference material used to produce it. You’ll use the printers and scanners here to collect all the information your project needs.
Dewane calls the library the “hard drive” of the machine.
4. The Office
All projects require some low-intensity activity, and most also need meetings and some group collaboration.
The office is meant for what Cal Newport terms “shallow work”. Although the term sounds derogatory, shallow work is essential. It’s only shallow in the sense that you don’t go spelunking into an issue for hours on end, and instead work through the necessary nitty-gritty or discuss things as a team.
5. The Chambers
Finally, we get to where the “deep work” is going to happen.
Each worker gets one chamber, which is sound-proofed, and fully stocked. The purpose of the chamber is to allow total focus and uninterrupted work flow.
The chambers are, of course, what most workplaces these days do not have. We all know how much less productive even tiny distractions can make us, yet we still think working in open-plan spaces is a good idea.
Why? Maybe we took the wrong lessons from history.
How the Nazis Forced Us to Create the World’s Most Productive Workplace
The Eudaimonia Machine seems odd on first glance. However, it has the potential to be the most productive place ever conceived.
Its “secret” lies in the combination of isolated deep work and collaborative shallow work in one place.
In Deep Work we’re told of two examples where this was done in the field of scientific research to astonishing effect. The full excerpt can be found here.
Building 20, MIT
The first example was the “plywood palace”, a temporary structure built during World War 2 to handle the overflow of scientists working in the Radiation Laboratory. They kept up after the war was over due to a surprising influx of new recruits to science. Many different disciplines bustled around in the simple, leaky structure, with scientists bolting equipment to beams and knocking through walls to further their experiments, feeling no remorse due to its shoddy look.
“In MIT lore, it’s generally believed that this haphazard combination of different disciplines, thrown together in a large reconfigurable building, led to chance encounters and a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace, innovating topics as diverse as Chomsky grammars, Loran navigational radars, and video games, all within the same productive postwar decades.”
Mervin Kelly, who was involved in stocking Bell Labs with a new department, rejected the old idea of separating different disciplines into different departments. To encourage interaction between a diverse mix of scientists and engineers, Kelly plopped them all in a conjoined structure connected by exceedingly long corridors. They said it was impossible to go to lunch without random encounters with
“This strategy, mixed with Kelly’s aggressive recruitment of some of the world’s best minds, yielded some of the most concentrated innovation in the history of modern civilization. In the decades following the Second World War, the lab produced, among other achievements: the first solar cell, laser, communication satellite, cellular communication system, and fiber optic networking. At the same time, their theorists formulated both information theory and coding theory, their astronomers won the Nobel Prize for empirically validating the Big Bang Theory, and perhaps most important of all, their physicists invented the transistor.”
But We’ve Missed the Point
These examples seem like perfect supporters of the claim that we should work in open-plan, distractible spaces where “serendipity” has more chance to happen.
The sad truth, however, is we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
While chance encounters between experts in various fields was undoubtedly important for the breakthroughs mentioned above, so was the isolated, focused periods of work that is so iconic of scientific research.
Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, arrived at the successor to Building 20 (which eventually had to be torn down), in the fall of 2004.
“I was a member of the first incoming class to be housed in the new Stata Center, which, as mentioned, replaced Building 20. Because the center was new, incoming students were given tours that touted its features. Frank Gehry, we learned, arranged the offices around common spaces and introduced open stairwells between adjacent floors, all in an effort to support the type of serendipitous encounters that had defined its predecessor. But what struck me at the time was a feature that hadn’t occurred to Gehry but had been recently added at the faculty’s insistence: special gaskets installed into the office doorjambs to improve soundproofing. The professors at MIT — some of the most innovative technologists in the world — wanted nothing to do with an open-office-style workspace. They instead demanded the ability to close themselves off.
“This combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported. It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.”
The Eudaimonia Machine is an inspired example of a hub-and-spoke design, with a few other elements thrown in. At it’s core, however, it’s purpose is to allow people to come together in a hub, then disappear into their spokes, only to reconvene later, and repeat.
How Are We Going to Make This a Reality?
Obviously, a large room with a few chipboard tables thrown in is a preferable option to a full-blown Eudaimonia Machine if you’re the founder of a lean startup. Even established businesses would find the investment hard to commit to if they build exactly what Dewane drew out (and if they make it look as funky as the pictures I chose above).
So let’s make it ghetto instead.
- Cheap old warehouse turned hipster coworking space.
- Get rid of the library and combine it with the Office and Salon.
- Turn the rooms into floors. Ground floor — Gallery and Salon. Middle floor — Office. Top floor — Chambers.
- Make the Salon a coffee shop / bar. Make the ground floor open to the public, and recoup more of the investment by making it a unique and trendy local venue.
- The chambers at the top all have skylights. Glorious amounts of natural light while saving space (no need for a courtyard).
- Make everything look intentionally rough. Use cheap plywood and insulation to soundproof the chambers, for example.
Make it even more productive beyond the physical structure by hosting conferences and workshops, business or skill development programs, and by stocking the shelves with the best books the world has to offer on professional development. Make added revenue through courses for non-members.
I frequented a lovely coffee shop near where I last worked which was set up in an old warehouse. There was a ton of unused space in that structure, especially upward.
Maybe I’m delusional, but that seems at least semi-feasible.