Are We Still Building Dark Satanic Mills?

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We still haven’t reached ‘peak oil’ but Steve Gale thinks we could be a bit nearer to ‘peak office’.

In three words William Blake really nailed the foreboding presence of a workplace (quite literally) from hell. Rebellious and romantic, he captured the worst of the industrial revolution.

Over time the mills became a bit less dark, and a bit less satanic, but now that 80% of us are employed in ‘services’ whose natural habitat is offices, are we still building dark satanic mills?

Although our output consists of weightless words, images and numbers that can travel at the speed of light, most of us still get up every morning, travel to an assigned spot and work long hours before fighting our way home again.

So no more undesirable Victorian mills – they’ve gone – but have we substituted them with a modern equivalent? What drove Julian Birkinshaw, a professor at the London Business School, to write ‘the vast majority of workplaces are stultifyingly dull. The physical surroundings are drab’? Has he got a valid point and, if so, what can we do about it?

“The way we use offices is costly and inconvenient for both employers and employees”

Perhaps the current model has run its course and service jobs don’t need the old version anymore? There is a chance that the wrong question is being asked, so although we tweak the old way of working, we end up with a familiar format with some subtle rearrangements, add-ons or extensions to make life more bearable.

It’s not just better communication technology, it’s the spiralling office rents, irregular career expectations and the cost and time invested in traveling which add up to a new hierarchy of needs for knowledge workers, demanding a different fit and a better allocation of scarce resources of money and space.

The way we use offices is costly and inconvenient for both employers and employees. A viable alternative would be worth a second look. Perhaps there is a mainstream solution that will maintain (or increase) productivity, reduce commuting, promote a home life and make people happier at the same time.

The station car parks are half empty on Fridays, and all the tools I have on my desk can be picked up and carried anywhere. This is not a global bid for fewer desks, although that is probably inevitable, but a suggestion that workers might trade their current office for one with more character, charm, scale, interest, personality and variety – if it were to be offered. We can convince ourselves that functional requirements are the Holy Grail, like the demand for meeting space, connectivity and quiet working, and these define the main design issues, but this is actually just the starting position.

Take, for example, the experience of a close friend who recently spent a day in a co-working space to do some serious writing and loved it, not because of any particularly efficient offer of meeting rooms or desks, but because it was a ‘lovely space’ and ‘felt friendly’ with a ‘good atmosphere’. Try putting those words into a design brief.

There must be something in this. Co-working outfits and similar spaces are mushrooming everywhere, and it’s not just for short term tenure. If you look at any of the spaces currently operating, you will notice the coffee shop ambience, the choice of settings, the non-corporate materials, plants, wood, rugs and sofas. The services and technology all work as they should, but the space has been humanised. If people like less corporate architecture and more warmth, texture and choice, then why should they settle for less? This unoriginal idea has caught on anew. How about letting designers do what they are good at and create engaging spaces that people love?

Production tools and office environments are now almost completely decoupled thanks to technology. The one essential activity that cannot be done elsewhere is human interaction, so maybe this can take pole position. The emphasis can now shift away from an evenly lit production layout, to one that better suits the primordial needs of a knowledge business, offering a centre for the culture to crystallise around, and for discussions and sharing ideas. I bet that looks different to most offices we are currently developing.

Employers and their staff save money, the rush hour dissolves, and the result will attract good people and make them happy and feel valued. If we invest in these different priorities we will have reached ‘peak office’, and the pressure to build more neutral office space will abate. If demand really tails off, maybe we can repurpose the unused real estate for other things, like living accommodation. I think that is what they call a double whammy.