Room for improvement

Why we need to rethink how office spaces are designed

Office design is always transforming, reflecting different types of work and ever-changing organisational needs. The current trend towards creating more open-plan spaces to support collaboration at work has been shown to be less effective than originally thought. So what are offices currently designed for, and what’s important to consider when designing an office today? We take a look back in time to understand how office design has evolved before considering the problems we face today and what we can do about them.

A step back in time

While the first dedicated office spaces were created in the 18th century, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the modern office was born. These were open-plan spaces that promoted efficiency of work, with employees sitting in rows monitored by roaming managers. The bullpen rooms were designed in accordance with Taylorist and Fordist thinking which attempted to maximize the productivity of a collection of individuals.

By the 1960s and 1970s, these open-plan offices had gradually developed into multifunctional spaces that integrated more privacy as well as encouraging more interaction between employees. As post-Fordist thinking began to take hold and the idea of knowledge work emerged, offices became less regimented and offered a more organic layout, for example as seen in the Bürolandschaft movement. Developed by the German design group Quickborner, this “office landscaping” sought to cluster teams together to create easier and more natural communication. These changes were also driven by improved labour rights and represented a shift in office design from fulfilling purely organisational needs towards incorporating the needs of employees.

Through the office cubicles of the 1990s to the return of the open-plan office today, we see the continuation of a post-Fordism focus on productivity in the context of an increasingly digitised workplace and a rise in remote work. Software such as cloud computing allows both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration at a distance, removing the need to be together in the same space when working together, fundamentally changing the value of the office. Serendipity, for example through canteens and communal workplace eating, is now intentionally designed, as much for employee satisfaction and retention as for productivity reasons.

Behavioural design and the office

However, today’s offices are not always set up to be the best work environments. While open-plan offices can be symbolically and economically favourable in the short-run, they also give rise to veiled disadvantages such as distractions and perpetuating inequality.

The French social theorist Foucault argued that architecture and design could be used as a political technology by controlling the behaviour of individuals in space. In trying to promote collaboration at work through nudge theory techniques, there is a risk of removing human agency and autonomy. As observed by Donna Flynn of Steelcase, the US-based furniture company, office spaces are often “still set up in a way that does not support individual choice”.

The problem is not that offices are designed for collaboration per se, but that the focus is still on promoting specific behaviours rather than trying to understand the people working in these spaces.

Designing future workplaces

Instead of only thinking about what we design for, we should be thinking just as much about who we design for. Human-centred office design means focusing on wellbeing and community in the workplace through ongoing conversations that give employees a voice in the design process and empower them to create meaningful places to work in.

Knowing how effectively different people work in different spaces would not only help humanise employees in the workplace, it would support individuals to work together in ways that best suit them. Collaboration should not be viewed narrowly as meaning one thing but should be open to multiple interpretations. The spaces we work in should reflect this diversity.

// Will Buckley



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