January 30, 2024
It has become something of a preoccupation of mine to consider why so many of the conversations we hold about workplace design are largely about the rediscovery of old ideas. It may be because there are constants about how people interact with their surroundings and each other and the truisms underlying those interactions. Although these are often reframed by the amount of data we now have to support them, some things never change.
But that can’t be the whole story, because it ignores the reasons why we have to rediscover ideas, rather than internalise them and absorb them into the foundations of working culture. One answer might be found in the corruption of the open plan and the commonly held belief that it is inhumane and counter-productive.
This perception has little to do with the original people-centric principles of the open plan as a model of progressive workplace design. Both Robert Propst who created Action Office for Herman Miller (pictured) in the 1960s and the European Quickborner team who developed the idea of Bürolandschaft saw their ideas as focussed on the needs of individuals and espoused organic, flexible design as a way of achieving them.
Both saw these ideals corrupted, especially with the now familiar exposed and regimented layouts that fail to provide people with proper acoustic and visual privacy. The current solution we have fallen on is to offer a range of spaces that allow people to escape the hubbub on an ad hoc basis. Even this idea, now called agile or activity based working harks back to the combi-office in European parlance and caves and commons in that of the US. Whatever it is called this is an old solution to an old problem.
A descent into order
Both historically and currently workplace designers and managers have sought ways to improve the flows of information and people around a building. The proposed solutions from Bürolandschaft through to the work of Tom Allen, Dieter Rams and the organic forms expressed by the team from Zaha Hadid have relied on the creation of organic, if not exactly chaotic layouts. Although it too is an old idea, there is also a focus on engineering serendipity, the vaguaries of which are discussed by Neil Usher in this piece.
Yet over time, there appears to be a propensity for the hierarchy to impose itself on the structure of the workplace, regardless of its original intentions and those of workplace designers. In the case of Bob Propst’s Action Office, especially its second iteration from 1967, the original intention to create a workstation that would allow a worker to arrange a space to their needs almost immediately morphed into the cubicle farm that characterised North American offices for years.
The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes
In a 1998 interview with Metropolis magazine, as described in Nikil Saval’s book Cubed, Propst bemoaned how the flexibility of the system, rather than freeing people, had allowed organisations to impose their own character on the workplace. “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive,” Propst said. “Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes.”
This is a chaotic system descending into order. It is negative entropy and we can see it in action in the recent decision by some organisation to reverse flexible working policy, or to create offices that are so enticing that people prefer to work there. It was also apparent in the famous decision by Yahoo to issue a similar edict to its remote working employees to return to the corporate fold.
One of the least discussed aspects of this controversial decision from the CEO Marissa Mayer was that it was informed by the data generated from the work of Yahoo employees themselves. We might see this replicated in future as firms wake up to the reality of knee-jerk post-pandemic workplace changes.
Which begs another important question about the trade-offs implicit in the creation of a workplace.
If you create a culture based on remote working and an agile working environment and empower people to move around it and work with whom they want and in what way they want, what do you then do when the data tells you they should be working with other people and in other ways? How do you resist the descent into order?
It strikes me that it is the resolution of these competing forces that drives the debate about workplace design and working culture. We are subject to negative entropy and often forget that we have already fought and won the battle against it before.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.