How changing attitudes are affecting the workspace
The Developing City exhibition has taken over the lower floors of Foster & Partner's Walbrook Building in the heart of London to examine the city's changing role as a workspace over last five hundred years.
As part of the exhibition calendar, we joined the debate on the future of the office that brought together leading industry experts, including WAN Workspace Interiors Award judge Neil Usher, to discuss how revolutionary attitudes are forcing in major workspace reforms.
The Office is Dead - Long Live the Office debate began with a discussion about the evolution of management models. Neil Usher, General Manager of Group Property at Rio Tinto, reflected upon the 2011 centenary of scientific management or Taylorism - an ideological method of management based upon efficiency.
Developed by American industrialist, Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late 19th century, Usher explained that "Taylor was one of the main founders of the time and motion study [in which] there was only one best way to work, [Taylor] believed that fundamentally there was only one optimum process of all method that would derive the maximum productivity." This method of "management by observation" was based upon "quantitative measures not qualitative" in terms of production, treating staff as mechanical cogs of a larger machine whose goal was pure output or efficiency. Usher suggested that it remains the "essential infrastructure of the management system [most offices] still operate today."
He went on to say "the workspace is driven by the infrastructure of management and for that to change we need to start questioning the very roots of Taylorism, the very roots of efficiency," we need to recognise the value of inefficiency and spontaneity that can develop within the workspace, he added. This opened up the discussion as to nature of modern management systems and how they differ between industries.
Author and former Editor, Peter Thompson argued against Taylorism as a positive management model, saying that the management practices we still have in "a lot of organisations today are based on the view that managers control people, that people somehow need to be controlled and that work is something done mechanically," however, with technological advancements he pointed out that office workers are no longer seen as "quantitative production machines" as those jobs have now been given to computers.
"People are being used for more creative things that can't be done by machines," Thompson explained, leading to a "social change in the attitude towards work, enabled by technology, which is questioning traditional values." He predicts a "major revolution in the way people work" and warns that "management practices in place that are based upon control" are out of date.
"People are different... and management needs to give people as much freedom as possible about the time and place that they work but also the working environment that suits them" to promote productivity.
"I sometimes get my best ideas when I'm out walking," he explained. "I recognise that creativity is something that doesn't happen sitting at a desk... yet we tend to force people to sit at desks to work." He went on to say that "humans are not the most creative when they are forced to work between 9 and 5:30. Sometimes I do my best work at 3am because I'll wake up with a good idea and just get on with it."
This sense of self management that is already alive in so many ways outside of the traditional office space will have a long-term and sustained influence, suggested Thompson, who even sees the future possibility of a "democratic approach to government [where staff] decide on [their] own managers" through a process of election.
Technology entrepreneur, Charles Armstrong, was also on the debate panel. He has been involved in the "start up" culture in Shoreditch, London since its genesis and set up collaborative workspace, The Trampery, in 2009. According to Armstrong, this "mesh of interconnection in the shared workspace" facilitates a "matrix of friendships and trust relations." Armstrong sees a "progressive disaggregation of corporate workspaces" that will be replaced by spaces "much more in touch with the emotional qualities of workspace interiors that inspire, innovate and encourage creativity."
Armstrong sees "the real [workspace] revolution [as] about socialisation and communities" dispelling Taylorist ideas by saying, "if you want to get the best out of people you don't treat them like component." He suggested that "we need to stop thinking about workspaces as factories but rather as social environments facilitated by shared workspaces." In terms of collaboration he explained that at least "a third of the businesses [at The Trampery] have partnered with six other businesses in the space."
However, this is not just a question of corporate attitudes versus creative in approaches to workspace management. It is a question of collectivism, of individual people finding momentum through a radical shared ethos towards work.
And although this flexible attitude towards workspace, management and behaviour would seem to come from grassroots and creative industries, such as the start-ups of Tech City and collaborative workspace co-ops, the attitude is rising up into the ranks of the corporate world.
A good example of the start-up attitude turned corporate is Google. Founded as a start up at Stanford University, USA in 1996, the company is now an international conglomerate, which has commissioned the design of new offices in London, Istanbul, Santa Fe and Düsseldorf this year alone.
These new designs would seem to epitomise the collaborative workspace interior however, the offices themselves are in danger of creating isolationist spaces that divert the attention of workers from the outside world.
By this point in the discussion, a split had become obvious between the people who claim autonomy within a workspace - the freedom to create their own effective work environment - and another group of people who continue to be controlled by archaic management models.
Professor of Psychology at the University of Exeter, Dr. Craig Knight, believes the traditional "lean" attitude to work spaces, commonly associated with Taylorism, is anti-productive and detrimental to health and output. If "you enrich [a workspace], add design to it, you can increase wellbeing by up to 40%, you can increase productivity by up to 70%."
"Lean does not work," he suggested. "If you empower people within a space, if you say, "this is your space, why don't you do what you want with your space" in a small business then you get productivity increasing by up to 32%." He concluded, "If we share the empowerment, we are likely to get much better results."
Essentially then, the argument would seem to one of space. It is a tug of war between the traditional territorial attitudes towards space as power, e.g. the higher up the office hierarchy you climb, the more space you are allocated and a progressive attitude sees space as a flexible workspace tool.
Host of the debate and Head of Consulting - EMEA at Gensler, Philip Tidd, explained that "one of the problems in our industry [architecture] is that we have been driving the efficiency of workplaces too hard for too long ... effectively trying to get more and more people into less and less space," which, despite sustainable and financial gain he sees as counterproductive. The traditional "open-plan" office space in cities such as London are "still laid out like factories in the sense that you have long benches of people crammed together and not a lot of diversity within the office building" leading to "increased levels of stress... and distraction."
"As seniority increases, occupation decreases and yet we allocate space the other way." If you implement a reverse of that "from a spatial point of view you get a reverse hierarchy going on so that the people who are maybe more junior and are actually in the office more often get a better quality of space, the people who are travelling more get less space."
Tidd who himself travels extensively, has not had a desk in over 15 years and sits at a meeting table when he comes back to London. "Why should I have an allocated desk that nobody else can use when I only use it 10% of the time?" He pops in to the Gensler offices for a cup of tea and to reconnect with his colleagues. Tidd concluded that the future of the office lies in the fact that "it provides a social nexus for the organisation," the nature of which will differ from company to company.
Subscribe | Unsubscribe | Contact | Advertise | © World Interiors News 2012