Just an idea

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Receptions, meeting rooms and hospitality spaces may hog the media spotlight, but we shouldn’t forget that good old workstations are just as important in making people feel welcome at work, writes Mark Eltringham.

Our ideas about the design of offices are shaped by their communal spaces. Exhibitions, books, case studies and features are invariably skewed towards receptions and meeting rooms because what happens there is more interesting and attractive to us than what is going on at desks. It has to be like this for the same reason car makers don’t sell their products with pictures of engines.

There is a problem with it, however, because it distorts perceptions of trends in office design and the ways people work. When we actually walk around a lot of offices, what we tend to see is that, for the majority of people, work involves a desk and a task chair in an open plan office. When we experience the same office filtered through the media what we see will be the reception area, the meeting rooms and any quirky features.

The clusters of grey workstations and the drones that inhabit them are left to the reader’s own imagination. The only desks given centre stage will have something interesting about them. They’ll be made from an old door, suspended from the ceiling, provide a single surface that wraps around the entire office or consist of a rage of geometric shapes with no chairs (all of these are real life examples). The problem with this is that it feeds into the idea that the traditional office is dying. If depictions of workplaces in the media and at shows focus on the spaces that look most like cafés and hotels, it’s easy to conclude that the very idea of somebody working with a laptop on a desk is somehow on its way out. This can easily lead to distortions in the way jobs are briefed to designers by their clients, as was made clear to me in a recent meeting with one of London’s largest fit-out firms. Of course, there is a great deal of truth in the idea that shared spaces are becoming increasingly important, that offices are taking on more of the forms and functions of hotels, universities, cafés and coworking spaces.

“…depictions of workplaces in the media and at shows focus on the spaces that look most like cafés and hotels…”

It is also true that when you ask individuals to describe their ideal office, what they tend to describe sounds remarkably like
Starbucks. They like free coffee, comfortable, non-corporate surroundings and the company of others.

If they could work anywhere at all, it would be in one of California’s tech palaces, which not only offers them their café culture but also a sun-dappled cycle to work, landscaped campus grounds, beautiful young things for colleagues, a gym and the sort of welcome usually reserved for guests at a Dubai super-hotel.

What we need to get across – somehow – is that all of these new forms of work are not replacing the old ways of working at a desk and a chair but increasing the choices we have. The desk and chair is a perfectly evolved combination based on the human form and the tools we use to get work done.

It may not be as interesting or attractive as one of the office’s shared spaces, but it is every bit as important in creating a welcome and hospitable working environment.

Mark Eltringham is the publisher of workplace design and management website Office Insight. mark@officeinsight.org