In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that IBM had announced that it was obliging a significant number of its staff to give up on remote working and instead move back to corporate offices, many of them regional hubs. There was a predictably major backlash to the news that a major corporation was apparently turning its back on the idea that the office of the future will be no office. This wasn’t the first time this had happened of course, because Yahoo made a similar announcement in 2013 when it summoned primarily home based staff back to the corporate bosom. The decisions by both firms have become important markers in an enduring debate about where we work, office design and what it all means across a range of factors including our productivity, wellbeing, sense of belonging, access to information, the way we structure our time and our ability to communicate with and develop relationships with our fellow human beings. If those things were the same regardless of how and where we worked, there would be no debate in the first place. But they do make a difference. Of course the press likes a sensational headline and so the debate has been characterised by hyperbolic statements about the death of the office at one extreme and the death of flexible working at the other. The reality is rather more reasonable and rather more sophisticated.
Earlier this month, BRE launched The Biophilic Office project, a ‘groundbreaking’ office refurbishment in test conditions that will seek to provide quantified evidence on the benefits of biophilic design on health, wellbeing and productivity of office occupants. The project centres on a 650 sq. m. 1980s office building on the BRE campus in Watford, which will be refurbished according to biophilic design principles. BRE are partnering with architect Oliver Heath, who will lead on the design element of the refurbished building. This is timely, because biophilic design is one of the two most talked about workplace issues right now, alongside its related theme of wellbeing.
The first paperless office opened in the Spring of 1979. Designed by a management consultant as a model of the office of the future, the building in Washington DC was filled with the first generation of electronic scanners, microfiche readers and other products. A computer expert who was present at the launch recalls that the demonstration was going extremely well until a phone rang. The tour guide sat down to answer the call, listened to the person on the other end and then sheepishly asked if anyone had a piece of paper.
Over recent years the principle of inclusive design has extended beyond its original focus on meeting the needs of disabled people to incorporate a more general principle of how to use office interior design as a way of making sure everybody can work in the most appropriate and most productive way possible. So what can designers and managers do to make sure that their office fit-out does not exclude or make life difficult for a large proportion of the workforce?
The Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) is an incredibly important piece of legislation and one which gave workers and employers their first basic rights pertaining to the workplace. But the act is over forty years years old and while no one questions that it was a turning point in the way things were, today’s world is virtually unrecognisable to that of 1974. The modern generation of workers are very aware of their rights, what they are entitled to demand, from working hours to pay to the temperature of the office and this means lawsuits if employers can’t keep up and comply. This is imperative for businesses that must go further than the official guidelines demand if they are to attract and retain the best talent and allow them to thrive. They must be offered freedom as well as safety.
The quest for a proper understanding of the links between the places we work and our wellbeing and productivity has been ongoing for a very long time. It predates the health and safety debate as we now know it with roots in research such as that carried out at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the late 1920s. The Hawthorne work has become seminal not only in the study of productivity and wellbeing, but also in wider management thinking. When it was discovered that productivity fell back to some degree at the end of the experiments, a second interpretation was postulated; namely that the workers were not merely responding to better conditions but also to the experiment itself. They welcomed the focus on their wellbeing.
Language may be constantly evolving but if you want to see how a word can lose its meaning quickly, there’s no better example than watching the way some companies can misappropriate it in a misguided attempt to help them sell their products. For example, the big problem with the way some people talk about the term ‘ergonomic’ is that they use it to describe the design of stuff when really it’s about a relationship; that between a person and the things around them. It’s an abstract idea, dependent on a number of variables. And when those variables change, what we mean by good ergonomics changes too. Although the idea has been around for a long time, ergonomics first came to prominence in the wake of the intensive growth in the use of computers. That wasn’t really all that long ago, maybe 25 years or so, but already we are encumbered with a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes an ideal workstation and an ideal posture. We know the standards and directives, we know about training users, we know the sorts of environment people need and the products they should use and we know the consequences of failure.
Although the idea has been around for a long time, workplace ergonomics first came to prominence in the wake of the intensive growth in the use of computers. That wasn’t really all that long ago, maybe 25 years, but its legacy is already a fairly fixed and traditional idea of the ideal workstation and the ideal posture.What we learned about ergonomics in the past is still valid but the world of work has changed dramatically over the last quarter of a century with people no longer restricted to their own workstation to work on a PC. We are largely free to work how we choose and we have the products and workplace design models we need to make those choices a reality. Continue reading
When people talk about the pace of change in the modern world, they often refer to the speed at which technology develops. In fact, almost every aspect of the world in which we live is subject to near continuous change. In the case of workplace design, the world is shifting very quickly indeed, often as a direct response to changing technological and cultural needs. The past ten years have seen a steady and profound revolution in every aspect of the way that we design and occupy spaces. The forces that are driving this revolution are wide ranging and complex and include the products, technologies and services offered by suppliers as well as the attitudes, demands and behaviour of buyers and their own customers.
The idea that for every action there is an equivalent reaction applies just as much in culture as it does in physics. So just as life speeds up to the point where Twitter is taken seriously as a way of communicating serious ideas, a growing number of people are looking at ways of putting the brakes. Most famously a few years ago, a Canadian called Carl Honoré established something called the Slow Movement. The popular science writer James Gleick was banging the same drum with his book Faster and we all hoped that things would slow down just a little now our attention had been drawn to the problem.