Moments after entering the Norwegian consulate and mission to the United Nations in New York, you may be surprised to hear a hum of varying tones. It’s the sound of a hanging textile piece that a Norwegian artist, Pearla Pigao, wove with conductive copper thread and connected to an oscillator that detects electric currents. It can read when a person approaches or passes by, creating sounds based on the person’s proximity to the textile.
This musical artwork was welcomed by colleagues at the joint Norwegian consulate and mission when they moved into their new office a few months ago, piloting an innovative open work space design for a UN mission and a foreign consulate in New York. All Norwegian foreign ministry offices are planning to fully transition to this same open office style by 2024.
Beyond the reception area, a large common space features vast windows facing southeast, toward the UN grounds on First Avenue, between 42nd and 46th Streets. In the common space, a large communal table sits under hanging slanted wood pieces that resemble the ceiling of a Norwegian cabin, a typical weekend destination in the home country.
Holly Tolo, a partner at IARK, a Norwegian firm that designed the new office, says this area was purposefully installed in the corner of the office with the best view, so everybody could enjoy it.
Everything in the consulate-mission was designed with Norwegian nature and culture in mind.
Norwegians’ love for nature is reflected in the use of wooden walls, carpets designed as a forest floor, tiles in the color of leaves in the bathroom and audio of birds chirping through a speaker system.
Norway gifted the interior of the Security Council Chamber originally in 1952 and helped pay for its refurbishment during the UN’s major renovation in the 2000s. The Norway office now features many of the same motifs that decorate the walls of the Security Council: anchors of faith, wheat bundles of hope and hearts of charity, originally designed by Else Poulsson, a Norwegian textile artist, for the Council chamber. (The same heart of charity symbol is the branding used for Norway’s current campaign to win an elected seat on the Council for the 2021-22 term.)
Interspersed throughout the Norway office are variously sized conference rooms and smaller huddle rooms for private conversations. Employees were given the chance to suggest names of the hash-tagged conference rooms, inspired by both Norway and the UN sustainable development goals: the largest conference room is #Peace, the second largest is #GoGreen and smaller rooms are named #SaveOurOceans and #Equality.
Nationally, Norway has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gases 40 percent by 2030, and Oslo, the capital, is implementing ambitious green initiatives, like tripling the number of bikeways and removing all car traffic from its city center. This same stance on climate change is reflected in how the staff members in New York are encouraged to be mindful of their waste at the office and to bike or run to work. Reusable utensils are stored in the shared kitchen to forgo the plastic utensils typical of New Yorker lunches; a shower stall, for post-exercising, and outdoor bike parking are also available.
The Manhattan office is also the first foreign office outside of Norway to become Eco-lighthouse certified, which is similar to the green building LEED certification here in the United States.
By increasing the efficiency of the space, the Norway mission can fit the same team into an area that is a third less than its previous space, on Third Avenue, lowering rent costs. They also expect to reduce the cost of utilities and maintenance because the office has been modernized to be more energy efficient.
Standing near her desk, which is nestled among dozens of others in the unwalled layout, Harriet Berg, the general consul, says diplomats are not used to working in such open areas. (She is interviewed further in the video above.) In preparing for the change, Berg and her consulate team conducted many long discussions about potential issues they believed could be difficult, like privacy concerns, noise and smells.
“Before, we would go into each other’s offices, start to talk and were not bothering anyone. Here, we were afraid that no one would dare to speak. But we realized that sometimes we speak and sometimes we’re quiet, and it comes and goes in waves,” said Berg.
To mitigate any problems with sound, two large phone booths to make soundproofed calls are located across from open desk spaces.
Norway is known for its egalitarian culture, with public and private organizations tending to have a flat structure, and this no-hierarchies approach is reflected in the open office space. But Berg said it was still important to keep in mind that people are different and need the opportunity to participate in discussions or get creative.
“The new workspace concept challenges hierarchy by placing all employees in open space. This resulted in no private corner offices, but instead upgraded meeting rooms where the ambassador has priority use,” Tolo of IARK said.
“People have the same size desks,” Berg added. “They are not sitting according to rank, they are sitting according to what is practical. So the only guy who has the largest desk is the ICT guy because he has a lot of equipment.”
Norway’s ambassador to the UN, Mona Juul, said it was still too early to tell how successful the office will be in balancing private versus public space, but the consulate put a lot of time and energy into making it a smooth transition for everyone. (See the PassBlue video, featuring Berg and Juul on how they suggest other consulates and mission offices can prepare for similar office space changes in the future.)
The new concept fits the mission’s work well, said Juul, who among other career achievements was part of the small Norwegian team that handled the secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that led to the 1993 Oslo Agreement.
“How I see it, as our sort of product, or commodity, is information, and whatever we can do to make the flow of information better, the better we are to do our work,” she said.
The open landscape, Juul added, “makes us communicate more, and the more we communicate, the more information we get.”