The furniture between our ears

Workplace design is now driven by higher human needs,
not actions, says Steve Gale

The models that people use to describe and design the workplace have evolved in a fairly lumpy way, but they do seem to have a general direction of travel. The frameworks, theories and claims have migrated from the physical towards the metaphysical realm, from the mechanical to the psychological. If we go to work for more than money, we also design for more than our activities. Here’s a quick sketch.
Let’s take the ‘scientific management’ of Frederick Winslow Taylor as the Big Bang. He proposed that productivity grows with more efficient movement – the assembly line would be an example. You study the actions of individuals and devise their space and tools to remove unnecessary input. Less time wasted means more stuff done.
Bureaucracies were not new in the 20th century but this was their time – and they cried out for an intellectual discipline like the one Taylor gave industry. So management of people and workflows started to become professionalised. Early office models must have taken their lead from the military, which knew a thing or two about managing people, and allocated space according to rank. All ‘managers’ had an office and, unsurprisingly, the size was directly related to their position in the hierarchy. This idea is far from extinct – it was not too long ago that I visited the old Ministry of Defence headquarters and the 1,000 doors along a 200 yard corridor, each hiding a blackboard, desk and the smell of pipe tobacco. It left a lasting impression.

Team working saw its stock rise so high that it almost wore out the word ‘collaboration’

We know how the economic sense of open plan offices spread across the UK and the US, and it needed a design framework. So we graduated, 50 years after Taylor, to a more office based version, which gave us the handy phrase ‘activity based working’. The general idea is that people are more effective if they have a choice of settings instead of being located in one spot to do everything. So you provide quiet spaces for concentration, breakout areas for casual meetings, soundproof booths for telephone calls – and so on. This way we transcend the search for efficiency with a demand for effectiveness. This simple and rather obvious idea retains its currency today.
Productive settings were never going to be the holy grail. Next, we admit that people need colleagues to advise, assist and learn from. Team working saw its stock rise so high that it almost wore out the word ‘collaboration’. The workplace began to morph into a forum for knowledge exchange. Designers and furniture makers competed to create physical catalysts for people’s infinite appetite to work together. This was done in the name of creativity and innovation, knowing that a man is not an island. Captains of industry promoted the value of ‘collisions’ and bought into the idea that accidental encounters on the way to the loo or the cafeteria would create osmotic transfer of relevant knowledge and information. Again, this idea is alive and well.
But there’s more, and this is where I feel we are today. The right settings, tools and proximity are still not enough to guarantee output, commitment and productivity. The attention has turned to individual motivation and happiness. How can the working environment help here?
The centre of gravity has swung glacially through doing, thinking and now feeling. It is common to talk in terms of emotional intelligence, the whole person, work/life balance, wellness…
Taylor would not have wasted time with biophilia, bürolandschaft did not include ping-pong tables, ‘nap rooms’ were not provided in the MoD HQ. The effect of the workplace on the primitive brain, which psychologists agree makes all the important decisions for us, is now being actively studied and experimented with. Designers are looking at our innate need for curiosity, variety, excitement and calm – and they are beginning to understand the human desire for respect and some control over their immediate surroundings.
This does not mean the earlier theories have been over-written or discarded, it only implies that they are just a part of the story, and can be assumed to be automatically incorporated into good design, just like a modern car has reclining seats and indicators as standard. Despite all the energy expended on creating the best functional environment, we are now reflecting on the importance of our internal furniture, between our ears.

Steve Gale is Head of Business Intelligence
at M Moser Associates.