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Workplace Blog

A blog of all things workplace related (when I get time).

© Oseland 2011

An Afternoon in the Pub

Work Posted on Mon, May 28, 2012 17:33:06

Some of you are aware by now that I have become a bit of
a fan of an Afternoon in the Pub
(AitP). According to the website:

Afternoon in the Pub was conceived as a ‘business social’ event to bring
together local businesses to chat and have a drink in an informal, friendly
setting with no rules … it is most
certainly NOT a business meeting, nor is it a networking group. It’s a place
where you can feel relaxed in the company of like-minded local businesspeople
in an informal environment with no pressures at all. You won’t see a name badge
or hear an ‘elevator pitch’, nor will anyone thrust their business card into
your face for no apparent reason whatsoever”.

Thanks to Si, Matt, Tom and Chrissie for coming up with a simple but great idea. I have become so much a fan of
AitP that I have offered to help organise their first Berkhamsted event. So what drew me to AitP?

After being made redundant and spending
six months getting fitter, and enjoying time out of the corporate grind, I
realised it was time to get back to work. I decided to set up my own business
and I began exploring the marketing opportunities of twitter and that is where,
by accident, I first discovered the AitP group. At the time I was either working
from home (well my shed) or out pitching my services. This way of working can
feel quite isolated for some people, including myself. As a psychologist I do
believe we are social animals and the extroverts amongst us particularly seek
out and thrive on social interaction, see one of my old papers for evidence. Anyhow, I had tried other networking and
social events but always found them either a bit contrived, too formal, at
unsociable hours, plus mostly based in London. The idea of an informal and
local group therefore appealed, not to mention the opportunity to take a break
from “work” (whatever work is) in a pub on weekday afternoon.

I was a little apprehensive of the first meeting but
those attending all seemed quite approachable and willing to either chat about their
work, my work or life in general. At the first few meetings the most useful
element for me was talking to other start-up businesses about how they were managing
their own marketing, technology and finances. It was also good to share and test
new ideas with people outside of my usual work community. It is not only beneficial
to get an outside view and to practice explaining succinctly what you do in a friendly
arena, but it is more likely to lead to new ideas (as you are not thinking within
the confines of your own expertise). The informal atmosphere, as well as the
alcohol, certainly seems conducive to the generation of creative and
alternative ideas.

As I got to know the AitP regulars, I also found new
contacts in related areas of work and this has now started to generate leads. I
am convinced that getting to know potential associates through an informal
event is far more useful than sounding them out in a formal business environment.
Once the level of experience and skills are established, it is the
personalities and trust that make for a good solid team. Using local associates
also has the advantage of easier logistics for face to face meetings. I also
have the AitP to thank for helping me find a friendly and willing accountant. Whereas
others could not be bothered to answer my queries, this guy gave me free advice
and followed up when he got back to the office. I also like the fact that he
has also just started up his own business so is keen for work and able to offer
me the fresh advice.

I don’t want to underplay the local aspect of an
Afternoon in the Pub. I have spent the last 20 years living in Berkhamsted but
have spent most of that time working away from it, in London or overseas. As a consequence
I feel slightly detached from the community in my adopted hometown. AitP provides
an opportunity to build a more sustainable local network by understanding more
about what services are on offer within the community.

So come and join us at the Rising Sun on the 8 June 2012.
The worst that can happen is that you spend an afternoon having a cheeky drink
on a school/work day. But it is more likely that you will meet like-minded
people willing to share ideas and help solve work-related problems.

The Shed-working Life

Work Posted on Fri, January 27, 2012 15:42:30

The lexicon describing the choice of places to work is
ever increasing. The now familiar terms home-working and tele-working have been
supplemented with hub-working, co-working, central-working and shed-working. Alex Johnson
refers to shed-working as “the art of working from home in a shed-like space
separate from the house” [1].

Since taking redundancy and setting up my own business six
months ago, I have gradually migrated from the kitchen table to the shed. I do not intend to discuss the merits of shed-working in elaborate detail here.
Alex has already done that and he has done it well using beautiful images of
“shed-like” spaces from all over the world that illustrate his thesis. I can
only offer a personal account of why I prefer shed-working.

After browsing through Alex’s book you will agree that
“shed” is probably an understatement for most of the “shed-like” structures
used as home offices. My own has an insulated roof, large double-glazed windows and doors, 40 mm thick walls and a high pitched roof. It’s more of a mini log cabin than a B&Q garden shed.
Nevertheless, compared to the alternative of extending the house or converting the
loft it was a fraction (20%) of the cost. Also at 12 sqm and with no plumbing
it didn’t require planning permission and the delivery and build was much
quicker and far less messy.

My office

When discussing the merits of shed-working we first have
to separate out the general benefits of home-working. Occasional home-working
provides a break from the buzz of the office, it provides space to focus and concentrate,
it offers solitude, and time to finish that dam report without continuous interruption
from colleagues. It also reduces the time wasted travelling to an office and
the discomfort associated with it – as Alex Johnson eloquently puts it “you get to bypass the sweaty, arduous,
face-in-stranger’s-armpit commute”. But unless you have the luxury of
hiding away in your own private study, working from home is prone to disruption
from the family or other unproductive distractions.

Personally, that the shed is completely separate to the
house is the biggest benefit. Firstly, I have to get dressed for work and make
a short commute. So psychologically I am changing my mind-set to one associated
with going to a place of work. My shed is at the bottom of the garden (behind a
bush), a good 75 m from the house. Once down there I am more inclined to settle
in and “get on with it”. My focus is punctuated with occasional, rather than frequent,
visits to the kitchen which allows me to stretch my legs and rest my eyes.

Secondly, the distance from the house means I have fewer interruptions.
The wife and children never bother me down there. I am not a fan of
architectural determinism but I am a believer in Baker’s behaviour settings [3].
Barker proposed that our experiences and expectations of a space determine how
we behave in that space as much as the physical attributes of it. My family
respect that the shed is my primary place of work and treat it as they would treat
the office of any organisation I worked for. My main visitors these days are
my cats and other distractions come from the occasional squirrel running
across the roof, the pitter-patter of rain and a friendly robin prospecting for
worms – all welcome.

Welcome visitor (Paddy)

Thirdly, as my office is not within the house I can plan
it, design it and manage it as I please. I am quite a tidy person and therefore
my office is also kept tidy. However, like a teenager’s room, I could
technically leave it as messy as I like but, unlike a teenager’s room, without constantly
being told to tidy it up.

There has been some debate around whether occasional
home-working is good for the environment. Although less commuting reduces the
carbon produced there is some concern that homes will be heated for longer offsetting
any environmental benefit. Shed-working means that only a small space needs to
be heated; in my case this is with a thermostatically controlled 2 kW Dimplex
convector heater that is rarely on. And in summer I just open the windows and
cool via cross-ventilation without fear of traffic (air or noise) pollution.

I like to break up the shed-working with occasional
co-working; I joined a London club which I use for formal meetings and informal
networking. But today I have (man) flu so I am having a “duvet day” and working
via laptop – more akin to bed-working than shed-working.

1. Johnson A (2010) Shedworking:
The Alternative Workplace Revolution
. London: Francis Lincoln Ltd.

2. Smarta. Shedworking: The cult of the office garden.

3. Barker R G. (1969) Ecological
Psychology: Concepts and Methods for Studying the Environment of Human Behavior
Stanford University Press.

The Workplace Zoo

Work Posted on Mon, January 02, 2012 13:51:03

I visited Colchester Zoo over the Christmas holidays and was
really impressed with the quality of the animal enclosures. Clearly a lot of
thought had gone into their design and a great deal of effort made in meeting
the animals’ needs and making them comfortable. This was evident in the way the
animals behaved and through the success of their breeding programme.

It got me wondering whether any lessons learned in zoo
design are relevant to the workplace. However,
I am not the first to make this comparison. Judith Heerwagen suggests “For
insights, it is useful to look not at buildings, but at zoos. Zoo design has
gone through a radical transformation in the past several decades. Cages have
been replaced by natural habitats and geographic clustering of animals. And, as
in nature, the animals have much greater control over their behaviour. They can
be on view if they want, or out of sight. They forage, play, rest, mate, and
act like normal animals”[1]. She continues “A key factor was concern
over the animals’ psychological and social well-being. Zoos could keep animals
alive, but they couldn’t make them flourish”. Heerwagen proposed that we learn from the new
philosophy of enriched zoo enclosures, providing for well-being rather than
simple survival, but can we also learn from the basic design principles in zoo

Humans are social animals

Provision of a suitable environment is the most fundamental
of five key principles in zoo practice – “the temperature, ventilation,
lighting and noise levels of enclosures must be suitable for the comfort and
well-being of the particular species of animal at all times”[2]. Painstaking
effort and meticulous detail has been taken to ensure the enclosures at modern
zoos provide each species and sub-species of animal with the best environment to
allow them to “flourish”. In contrast,
in the workplace, post occupancy evaluations (POEs) repeatedly show that
satisfaction is low with temperature, ventilation and noise[3]. Although much effort is made to ensure that
comfortable environments are provided in the workplace, POEs often show satisfaction
with comfort is significantly below 50%. Individual preferences, behaviours and
activities mean it is difficult to provide comfort for everyone, but such a,
repeatedly, low level of satisfaction is neither acceptable nor considered good
design. Similarly, when commuting into London last summer when temperatures on
the Underground reached 40°C, as I stood sweating in a crowded
carriage I often wondered to myself why it is illegal to transport livestock at
temperatures above 35°C but not humans[4].

I am a fan of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[5]; he
proposed that for humans to perform to their maximum capability several categories
of needs must be met in acceding order. The lower order needs refer to comfort
and safety, the basics of zoo enclosures, and if these fundamental needs are
not met then our performance is inhibited. In contrast, the higher order needs
refer to more psychological, emotional and social factors. Interestingly, another
core provision for animal enclosures is the opportunity to express most normal
behaviour – “accommodation should take account of the natural habitat of the
species and seek to meet the physiological and psychological needs of the
animal”[2]. I have previously explored the psychological needs of
humans in some detail and have also expressed my concern that they are not
being met in modern homogenised workplaces[6]. It seems that a focus
on space efficiency and reduced property costs override the individual needs
required for maximum well-being and performance in the workplace.

It might be argued that zoo enclosure design is easier than
workplace design as it accommodates a single species with a basic animalistic
drive for survival. Firstly, humans have evolved into different races that have
adapted to different climates, but nevertheless we are one species. Secondly,
Richard Dawkins postulated in the Selfish
[7] that the single motivator for human behaviour is survival.
So, on the one hand it could be counter-argued that both the design of zoo
enclosures and workplaces comes down to a thorough understanding of the
occupants’ needs and designing to meet them. Although we share the territorial
and social behaviours of animals, these are often overlooked in the workplace.
In addition, I believe that there are many other factors that drive how humans
behave on a daily basis. We are a complicated species, separated from the
animals by our intelligence and personality, as well as neo-cortex size and
opposable thumbs. We know that specific
personality traits, e.g. introvert versus extrovert and internal versus
external, lead to certain behaviours and needs. In a zoo, if an animal exhibits
a particular characteristic that requires a specific environmental adjustment
for them to “flourish” then it is very likely that the zoo keeper would make
the provision. However, this is not the case in the workplace; we provide a
homogenous environment for a “single species” and there is little recognition
of individual differences and the associated requirements to enhance comfort
and performance.

Although Heerwagen beat me to the analogy between the workplace
and zoo enclosures, I think I was the first to compare the modern workplace
to chicken coups[8]. Battery-farm hens are accommodated in high density environments
with poor daylight and ventilation. In contrast free-range hens have lots of
space in which they can roam and explore, and have access to the outside with
unlimited daylight and ventilation. Battery hens are sad unhealthy chickens
with a short life-span, whereas free-range hens are happy, healthy, inquisitive
and playful chickens that live around five times as long as a battery hen. In
terms of productivity, there is a high yield of eggs per sqm for battery hens,
but the quality of the eggs is poor and the demand and market value of them is
low compared to free-range eggs which offer a higher return on investment. So I
recommend free-range workplaces with high quality space which offers people a
choice of environments where they can explore and socialise or alternatively
seek privacy. I wonder if the original bürolandschaft
office might be considered free-range whereas the modern open-plan office is
more akin to a battery-farm?

So isn’t it about time that we follow the example of the modern zoo and design workplaces so that individuals (and businesses) flourish rather than simply survive?


1. Heerwagen J (2008) Psychosocial Value of Space. J.H. Heerwagen & Associates, Inc.

2. DETR (2000) Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. Department
of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

3. Oseland N A (2006) Gauging
after effects of workplace design
. Urban Land Europe, 8 (2),

4. DETR (2010) Welfare of Animals During Transport Council Regulation (EC) No 1/2005
on the Protection of Animals During Transport and Related Operations and The Welfare
of Animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006.
Department of the Environment,
Transport and the Regions.

5. Maslow AH (1943) A theory of human motivation.
Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.

6. Oseland N A (2009) The impact of psychological
needs on office design
. Journal of
Corporate Real Estate, 11
(4), 244-254.

7. Dawkins R (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.

8. Oseland (2008) Designing offices to improve business
. Presentation at Herman Miller, June.

The Office of the Future: Smaller & Distributed

Work Posted on Fri, October 28, 2011 18:40:21

This is a blog I recently made on behalf of 2degrees.

We all know the old adage “work is an activity not a place”. Due to emerging technology, particularly wireless networks and digital storage, we are no longer dependent on attending the office and can work at home, in arbitrary places – such as the café, library, clubs-hubs-pubs – and on the move. But the technology we have seen so far is just the start. Computing power is increasing exponentially and dramatically reducing in price, while the internet, wireless networks, cheap laptops and smart phones mean that we are now all connected in and out of work, locally and globally.

But work is not just about computer usage, it involves networking, meetings and creative thinking. Currently most of us in the UK work within the service industry, but we are entering a new industrial age, one of creativity and innovation. For UK plc to stay ahead we have to move towards an innovative and creative based industry.

I believe that providing space for interaction and collaboration will lead us to economic recovery, not processing information at rows of desks. Of course work is not just limited to the office and creative work is actually best performed away from it. Original ideas tend to break through when taking a bath, doing exercise or in the bar with colleagues. Google introduced a contemplation area – with baths – into their offices, but places outside the usual workplace, those that facilitate “non-taxing involuntary attention”, are the most effective in problem solving and ideas generation.

We are social animals that can’t work in isolation indefinitely and seek social interaction. Face to face interaction is fundamental for communication, particularly non-verbal, so perhaps offices are needed for this interaction. However, technology and its end-users are changing. New technologies make virtual interaction more life-like. The business case can easily be made for introducing full virtual systems to reduce overseas travel but virtual interaction is also becoming cheaper, easy to use and portable, such as Skype and Face Time. The next generation of workers will not only differ in their attitude to work, but also in the tools they use, the way they interact, and the way they do business. By 2030 the workplace will be predominantly occupied by Gen-Y/Millennials with the Gen-X in decline, the Gen-Z/Net-Gen coming through and ‘baby boomers’ a distant memory.

Add to all this positive change our poor transport infrastructure, unpredictable economic cycles and recurring business disruption (through inclement weather, security scares and health pandemics), and it is evident that the office will not continue to be the first port of call for work. Flexible working is rapidly becoming the norm and it is not just restricted to a few enlightened organizations. It is now an acceptable strategy across all sectors. Indeed, when the US government came to a standstill last winter, President Obama hosted a series of forums on Workplace Flexibility at the White House.

It is often argued that offices haven’t changed much since the turn of twentieth century, when the introduction of typewriters and the Dictaphone resulted in the desk-bound model we are familiar with today. But of course the office is constantly evolving; consider how the London skyline has changed over last 10 years. Consider all the new workplaces where the percentage of space for interaction and collaboration, contemplation and socializing, or for quiet work and private conversations, has gradually increased over time. But despite these obvious visual changes to the workplace, for me it is the things that we can’t see that have changed the most – the technology infrastructure; the building services; the way that buildings are managed; and most importantly the way they are used. And it is these invisible things that are changing the most rapidly and will have the biggest impact on the workplace.

I believe that the workplace will always consist of a variety of places that offer connectivity, and support different work activities. In addition I would also assert that ‘the office’ itself will become smaller and distributed – a hub or guild for like-minded people to network, socialize, share knowledge and test ideas.

Nearly There – Workplace Trends

Work Posted on Wed, September 21, 2011 16:04:06

It’s just one month to go before the next Workplace Trends
conference on 20th October. It seems like a good opportunity to
share my views on this year’s programme. It’s a great line up which I am genuinely
looking forward to; this year could be our best set of speakers yet, but then again
I do say that every year. But first a little history.

Did you know this will be the ninth Workplace Trends
conference? It all started during the last recession (2002), I had just joined
an architectural practice and, to be honest, I was getting a little bored at
work. I proposed to the Board that we hosted a conference for our current and
potential clients, to which they agreed. We had around 60 delegates at that first
conference, my colleagues and some of our clients presented case studies. I
quickly realised that the format was too constrained – how would we learn if we
only drew knowledge from our own limited pool of expertise. The following year
we brought in some heavyweights from our industry, paid for some Americans to
come over, and invited our peers/competitors to speak or join the audience. That
year we attracted nearly 200 delegates – we were off and, as they say, haven’t
looked back.

The remit of Workplace Trends is to explore how factors (such
as social demographics and attitudes to work, emerging technologies, economic markets
and new business models, new working practices, world influences such as
climate and security) will affect the way the workplace is designed and used. Over
the year’s our speakers have not just included architects and designers but
also psychologists, technologists, futurologists, economists, philosophers and
anthropologists. We like to give our speakers a reasonable amount of time to
express their views; I hope you agree a refreshing counter to the superficial panel
sound-bite approach of most conferences. Our aim is to provide a good platform
for research and best practice that will influence future workplaces.

This year is no exception and our theme of Property is a People Business has
resulted in some compelling speakers. I am pleased that we have finally landed an
expert on biomimicry. Michael Pawlyn will tell us about his latest book on Biomimicry in Architecture and how
offices are complex organic mega structures of which the occupants are one biological
component. Craig Knight, an experimental psychologist who appeared on the TV
show The Secret Life of Buildings,
has in my opinion produced some of the most credible research into productivity
and he will share his latest, yet unpublished, findings. Thomas Bene, the main man
behind Bene furniture, will present on megatrends including changing work
patterns, a shift to creativity, and the office as a “knowledge factory”.
Anne-Marie McEwan and Ziona Strelitz join forces to discuss the impact of the
increasing use of social media and third spaces on future offices. After lunch
we will continue with, what has become a bit of a tradition, Paul Morrell being
challenged, this year by Paul Finch, for a debate on the conference theme. Kerstin
Sailer will present her recent doctorate on the social life of offices which
explores designing for interaction and culture change. As usual we also have
two contemporary case studies – Robert McLean speaking about PwC’s new More London
Offices and Mette Hasle Rasmussen, with Philip Tidd, discussing a workplace
strategy for Novo Nordisk. Neil Usher of Rio Tinto will keep us on track and
entertained during the afternoon sessions.

Over the
years the conference has developed its own personality. Many delegates return
to share the informal atmosphere, one where they are surrounded by their peer
group interested in creating great workplaces rather than surrounded by sponsors
selling the latest kit (although we do let a select few in). Take a look at what
others think about Workplace Trends.

I hope to see you there, it’s going to be a good one, go on join us.


Rethinking the Design Brief pt2

Work Posted on Tue, September 20, 2011 20:01:21

At the recent CoreNet Paris Summit, the delegates at my
session on Rethinking the Design Brief
were asked to prepare a three minute response to our presentations using the
materials on each of their tables. One table had Lego, another Fuzzy Felt, another
plasticine, another coloured paper and scissors and so on. The idea was that
using different materials to a flip chart or PowerPoint might facilitate producing
a more creative or lateral response.

Preparing a response

My first observation was that some groups were more engaged
than others, perhaps some delegates were willing to use the materials but
others found it all a bit strange. Some tables, particularly plasticine and Lego,
used the materials to make individual models and then bring them together into
one joint contribution, where other materials such as pens and paper meant that
one person was creating the output. The plasticine groups also found that manipulating
(warming up) the clay was tactile and helped them form a response. There was
clearly an order to the constraints that the material placed on the output –
plasticine was the most free form followed by Lego, the picture cards, magazine
pictures and Fuzzy Felt were already preformed to some extent. In terms of the
response, the table with the pens and paper opted for a diagram with bullet
points and their response was the most traditional/expected, I am not sure whether
this was a consequence of the people or the materials.

Picture cards, Fuzzy Felt, Lego, colured card

The groups picked up on a number of key points:

the importance of recognising cultural and
personal differences and how to design for them;

that some people need order and structure
whereas others want chaos and choice;

a need for individual/solitary space and social/group

places for work requiring focus and
concentration not just interaction and collaboration;

supporting mobility and choice through multiple work-settings;

bringing nature and fun into the workplace.

Magazines, pen & paper, plasticine x 2

Rethinking the Design Brief pt1

Work Posted on Tue, September 20, 2011 19:27:04

It’s not every day that you meet Donald Duck on the way to
work, but this did indeed happen en route
to presenting at the CoreNet Global Summit held in Disneyland Paris. I shared
the platform in person with Brian Szpakowski and virtually
with Neil Usher, with the help of Susan Wagner who kept us
on track. We each presented pecha kucha style then facilitated a
practical session using different materials.

The theme of the session was “rethinking the design brief”
and our idea was to challenge the way that our industry usually writes the brief
for a new workplace. When you visit the majority of modern offices they appear,
to me, to all be quite similar. They have large areas open plan desks with the
more interesting (collaboration) spaces positioned around a central core; the
desks are bench systems in white or grey with low screens and accompanying tambour
units; colour comes in splashes at the end of corridors or in the limited
number of breakout spaces; informal meeting and soft seating areas are parked
in the irregular spaces that desks do not fit in, and so on.

My conclusion is that these homogenous and repetitive working
environments are the consequence of repeatedly using a similar project brief. The
focus of the brief tends to be on space efficiency and cost-effectiveness,
branding and sustainability may be added as an afterthought, but here is little
regard for other key factors. The
main purpose of an office environment is to facilitate the occupying business
and support its occupants in performing their job, and this should be reflected
in the brief. The intention of
the session was to challenge the way we brief and explore the consequences of using
different success criteria in the brief such as: a) happiness rather than cost,
b) personal identity and development rather than corporate brand, and c) personal
and psychological factors rather than organisational needs.

Brian informed us that the Kingdom of Bhutan has pursued a
goal of Gross National Happiness since 1972, and western leaders are now
looking beyond traditional indexes of economic well-being and national policies
for measuring happiness. People are
productive when they are happy and they are happy when they play, so Brian
explored the differences between play and work and the notion of play at work.
Brian is an architect and explained that when he receives a brief from a client
he is presented with a “schedule of areas” specifying a specific number of
space components, plus a little brand information, some RAL colours, and workplace
standards. He continues “there is very little that is aspirational in all of
this, the language is strictly utilitarian, the brief is a ‘serious’ document’
related to ‘the business case’ and all judged by effect on ‘the bottom line’…”.
Brian argues that we all need to be more open minded about what the workplace
is and may possibly become, especially in a world of dispersed and flexible
working in the knowledge economy, and as such the “office could be somewhere
you go when you want to talk to people, when you want to be inspired, when you
want to be invigorated or challenged, when you want to be with friends or be
part of a community”. Brian concludes that the office design brief needs to
focus on comfort, beauty, sharing, friendship, community, and most importantly

Neil’s presentation postulates
that the workplace brief is designed to achieve emotional constraint where the
spaces are designed to contain emotions how we should feel in those spaces: “the
workstation says ‘be quiet and respect those around you’, breakout spaces say ‘politely
and positively interact with your colleagues, even those you think are morons’,
and meeting rooms say ‘sit around a table for hours on end looking at slides,
thinking about your holiday, sneakily checking your e-mail and wondering why
you were called there in the first place’”. The standard work-settings dictate an
emotional response such that free emotional expression now requires
unpredictable spaces designed to surprise and liberate the emotions. Neil’s also
challenged the complexity of the brief. He observes that scientific method is ingrained
from youth and therefore we crave complexity whereas simplicity is seen as
negative and undervaluing our contribution. However, although “our workplace
design briefs are bedecked with analysis, data, statistics, surveys – they all look the same when they’re finished –
complexity isn’t getting us anywhere different .. The simplest design brief
that will allow us as human beings the space and time to grow is one based on
emotion. The workplace should not be a physical response to occupancy data, but
instead to human feelings and”. He continues that all around us are symbols of how
we belong to the organisation; the workplace reflects our needs as an employee,
as part of the organisation. Consequently the workplace brief is usually
entirely focussed on our part in the organisation and fails to respect the ever
more expansive place we have in broader society, where we lend our three dimensional
identity to our employers for a portion of our time. The key is how the
workplace can support our wider involvement in beneficial and productive
relationships and associations outside of our organisation.

My own presentation focussed on the relevance of psychological
theories to the design brief, a topic which I published a couple of years ago.
I started my career as an environmental psychologist researching the impact of
the built environment on requirements, behaviour and performance. My intention
was to help create great environments that enhance individual performance and
business productivity. Over the years, mostly in response to my clients, this has
been diluted to providing space efficient and cost effective workplaces. But my
simple premise still stands “the main asset of any business is its people and
if the people don’t perform then the business will fail”. Therefore the most fundamental
element of any design brief must be how the workplace will accommodate the basic
needs of its people and recognise that those needs will also vary between
individuals depending on their personality and their role. My presentation touched on personality theory and how the extroverts
are thrill seekers who require stimulating environments and get easily
distracted when working alone, whereas introverts prefer calmer environments
and solitary activity. I also introduced the concept of arousal theory, which reoccurs
throughout the psychological literature and states there is an inverted U
relationship between arousal and performance. We are most productive at the
optimal level of arousal, but too much stimulation can cause stress and too little
stimulation leads to boredom, both resulting in poor performance. As extroverts
have a natural low level of arousal they require stimulation whereas introverts
have a high level hence their preference for quieter environments. Complex
tasks also increase arousal so need calm environments, whereas repetitive and mundane
tasks reduce it so are best suited for stimulating environments or carried out
by introverts. I also presented Maslow’s and Herzberg’s motivational theories, Lewin’s
theory that behaviour is a function of the environment and personality
including our expectations and experience of place; Hall’s proxemics framework
and the preferred distance between people; Altman’s privacy model which
explains that territoriality and personalisation are coping mechanisms for
controlling the required level of interaction; evolutionary psychology and
biophelia which highlights our preference for natural environments; and
Dunbar’s number which calculates our preferred social network is 150 people.
All these theories have direct and very relevant implications for how we brief
for and design workplaces.

What has work got to do with it?

Work Posted on Fri, June 24, 2011 10:59:01

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.

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