Workplace strategists, and enlightened architects, often explore the organisation and its needs in order to design the space required to support the business; this is often referred to as “designing from the inside out”. Such organisational analysis includes understanding factors such as: the vision for the business, headcount projections, departmental adjacencies, and the culture. However, quite often fundamentals such as the nature of work, core work activities, preferred work styles and how to improve work performance are overlooked. This got me thinking “what is work” – surely unless we understand this basic question we cannot design workplaces that support work and enhance business performance?

As philosopher Arthur Little[1] once said “false notions of the nature and purpose of work lead logically to unnatural working conditions and these to disaffection and discontent amongst workers”. If you believe that “a happy workforce is a productive workforce” or that the primary function of an office is to support the business that takes place within it, akin to “offices are machines for working in”, then understanding “what is work?” must be the starting point of the design process for a new working environment.

Apparently, French mathematician Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis defined work in 1826 as the transfer of energy from one object to another; I recall from schoolboy physics that work is calculated as the force multiplied by the distance moved. So from a physics/maths point of view, someone sitting at their desk typing is barely working whereas someone playing golf (or any other sport, perhaps with the exception of darts) is relatively working much harder. The physics definition of “work” may apply to the primary (eg agriculture, mining) and secondary (eg manufacturing, construction) economic sectors but it is not at all relevant to the tertiary economic sector of the service industry, “white collar work” and the knowledge worker.

One website, unearthed by a search on Google, quotes some 56 definitions of work but there is much overlap in the definitions. From a business perspective some define work along the lines of “the physical or mental effort directed toward the production or accomplishment of something”. Using the word “something” is a good get out clause as it allows a task to be completed rather than creating a tangible product, and so fortunately covers the service industry. But what are we actually producing or accomplishing in the service industry with our mental effort? In the New York Times Crawford[2] observes “working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day?” It might be argued that at least architects produce buildings, a good tangible output, but it could equally be argued that the architect develops the design concept (the idea) and it is the contractor that ultimately makes the building.

Typically in the service sector, beyond the basic processing of data (banking, insurance, sales, IT etc) where we push information around or the acting as middle men selling the pushing of information around, our main offering is specialist knowledge, good ideas and innovation. This move towards an innovation industry is now referred to by economists as the quaternary economic age. And back to our sales middle man, his success will depend upon on his networks, knowledge of the market, aptitude for risk and negotiation skills. The service sector workplace must therefore facilitate knowledge sharing, networking and innovation, rather than just information processing.

Edison is well known for saying “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” (similarly Willy Wonka said “invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple”). Heerwagen[3] and others remind us that creativity and innovation requires convergent as well as lateral thinking, thus time alone is required for introspection and focussed development with occasional interjections of heavy interaction and brainstorming. We therefore need spaces for thinking, privacy, contemplation, concentration, quiet and maybe even sleeping (power naps). Far too often the designer focuses on the wonderful collaboration spaces and forgets about the 99% perspiration. However, the key to a successful workplace is getting the right balance of spaces to support the different work activities and acknowledgement that the work activities vary by team and individual.

Referring back to the definition of work, another aspect is the timescale for “accomplishment of something”. For example, a networking event is considered good for business but usually does not generate immediate sales. Nevertheless, the long-term final outcome resulting from the event could be hugely beneficial to the business. Not seeing immediate results means that it is difficult to place the value to the business of different work-settings such as break-out and collaborative spaces. This also means that the Business Development Director spending time playing golf will not be appreciated by colleagues, and not perceived as work, unless that golf game results in new business.

But work is more than transferring energy and achieving goals, Morin[4] argues that “work is, above all, an activity through which an individual fits into the world, creates new relations, uses his talents, learns and grows develops his identity and a sense of belonging”. She continues by explaining that the characteristics of meaningful work are: social purpose, moral correctness, achievement-related pleasure, autonomy and positive relationships. These characteristics of work (along with psychological factors) explain why people working in the same jobs, in the same place, under the same conditions can have a very different perception of their workplace.

These notions of work are outside the domain of the architect, and facilities manager, but I genuinely believe that well designed space contributes to work, in terms of performance, effectiveness and meaning. Some years ago, a work colleague of mine, Ken Raisbeck, was conducting research as part of his MBA. He asked if I could help him test if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs still applied to the modern workplace. So we developed a set of questions and I ran some statistics for him. To my surprise the stats revealed three key factors; they did not confirm Maslow’s theory but did support that of Herzberg. The first was similar to Herzberg’s Hygiene factors, eg temperature and light, the second related to his motivational factors, eg reward and recognition. However, we also found a third factor, which we called the facilitators. The facilitators included the facilities, the layout and the branding; all workplace issues that facilitate the motivation of the building occupants.

My point is that although our industry does not have direct control over organisational and motivational issues, the spaces we create and manage do have an impact on them and on work. To help create great workplace the conscientious design team will have engaged with the occupying business and developed a firm understanding of their outputs, services and processes ie work. However, also remember that no matter how good the architect, a great working environment cannot be created if the organisational factors are ignored.


1. Arthur Little. The philosophy of work. The Irish Monthly, Vol 76, No 896 , 1948, pp 56-65.

2. Mathew B Crawford. The Case for working with your hands, New York Times Magazine, May 21, 2009

3. Judith Heerwagen. Chapter 15 Creativity. In Office of Planning and Analysis Communication, Office of Science, Dept of Energy.

4. Estelle M Morin. The meaning of work in modern times. 10th World Congress on Human Resources Management, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 August, 2004.