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How the office landscape has evolved to keep pace with modern working life

Posted on November 1, 2017 by admin

One of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the social upheaval it created – coupled with advances in science, medicine and sanitation – was a rapidly increasing population. By the end of the 18th Century it had already become apparent that overpopulation was something that the human race would need to at least talk about at some point, especially as it became clear that the number of people might overwhelm the world’s resources.

One of the first people to address this issue was an English cleric called Thomas Malthus. In 1798 he published a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, which spawned a way of looking at the problem that endures to this day and coined the term Malthusian to describe it. At the heart of the book is a paradox. Malthus argued that because at that time the population of Great Britain was increasing exponentially, doubling every 25 years, while food production was growing arithmetically as a correlation to the amount of land that was farmed, the ultimate result could only be starvation and poverty. The book became a sensation and led a startled Government to introduce the regular censuses we take to this day.

The problem with Malthus’s thinking was that he hadn’t realised that it was possible for food production to grow exponentially too. He had extrapolated what he knew about contemporary demographics and agriculture in coming to his conclusions and hadn’t realised that the future would be very different from his present. New farming technology and methods meant not only that people wouldn’t go hungry, but that we would end up in our present predicament that we have so much food that in 2015 British households threw away 4.4 million tonnes of perfectly edible produce.

There are parallels between this and the way that office design and facilities management thinking have progressed. In the past there has been a direct correlation between the number of people who work for an organisation and the amount of space that organisations needs to provide for them. This made perfect sense in a world in which people work in the same place and at the same time each day, but less so in a world with more fluid structures.

In the past this approach has been codified in guidance such as the British Council for Office’s Specification Guide which was last updated in 2014 and sets out guidelines for the amount of space to be allocated for each workspace, in this case somewhere in the range of 8-13 square metres of a building’s net internal area per workstation. In agricultural terms, this leads to a monoculture in office design, first with cellular offices based on the status of the people inhabiting them and more recently with open plan offices, the intensive farms of office life. Indeed, certain types of office design such as call centres have often been somewhat unfairly compared to battery farms.

Yet, as BCO chief executive Richard Kauntze acknowledged at the time of the BCO Guide’s publication, this linearity is no longer the whole story for occupiers. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and the guide includes invaluable advice for occupiers and the latest thinking on how to make the most of offices,” said Kauntze. “Property is a significant expense for businesses, but if it is understood properly and used efficiently it is a resource that can be optimised to deliver real benefits in employee performance through increased productivity and wellbeing.”

This is a new era for office design, based not on what has gone before but new certainties. The application of simple arithmetical models to equate workstation allocations with the numbers of people working in a building are no longer enough in a world in which flexible, agile, collaborative working environments are the norm.

That is not to say that the open plan and cellular office have no place, but just that they are part of a more diverse workplace ecosystem. The mainstream design of offices, including of call centres which have more rigid working patterns than many other organisations, is adopting a range of settings that meet the needs of this new reality. In farming terms, they are free range, allowing people to roam and find the best space for their current needs, be that as part of a team in a shared open plan, break outs space, quiet working or rooms for group and face to face meetings.

These new realities embrace a wider range of issues, including the environment itself, wellbeing and not least the quality of the work produced. This is the new landscape of office design.

Image: Wivenhoe Park by John Constable, public domain