Insider opinion


Such has been the momentum of the move to open-plan workspaces in the past decade that the office is now synonymous with shared social enterprise. You go to work to collaborate and communicate with others, not to sit quietly in a corner minding your own business.

The contemporary design vocabularies of most new office schemes reflect the language of social interaction. Giant open-plan floors, internal streets and coffee bars, networked soft-seat areas and colour-coded meeting rooms – the whole set-up frames work as one giant brainstorm.

But hang on a minute… Yes, collaboration is an essential part of ‘knowledge work’ and the arrival of open-plan offices was a necessary antidote to a tradition of long corridors of cellular rooms that restricted communication to the formal memo, especially in the public sector. It is true that innovation is a ‘contact sport’ and that being a team player is important, if not essential, in a world that is increasingly multidisciplinary and multinational. A problem shared is a problem solved, as the old saying goes.

But in the rush to turn our leading-edge offices into high-performance venues for collaboration, we have forgotten something. Knowledge work, as defined back in 1960 by the economist Peter Drucker, is not simply about communicating with others, but also about deep personal concentration. It might be a heresy to admit it in public, but the all-in drive to open-plan working with adjacent areas for social networking has drawbacks, not least in that the solo aspects of knowledge work are overlooked. These include uninterrupted thinking, independent analysis of complex information and the writing of detailed reports, none of which can be easily accomplished in a noisy open-plan space.

Drucker’s original ‘knowledge workers’, carrying out dynamic, non-linear and non-repeating work based on prior knowledge, formal training and professional experience, were doctors, lawyers, academics and scientists. Later, he expanded his definition to include ‘knowledge technologists’, from paralegals to software designers. Today, given that computers do the routine processing of information, the term applies to most in general management positions. All of us at some time feel the need to get our head down and simply get on with it. But given that the workspace pendulum has swung so far from concentration to collaboration, the only place we can be sure to be uninterrupted is at home. That is why so much knowledge work is crossing the domestic threshold in the laptop bag. The situation is made worse by the brand-aware tendency in office design schemes towards openness and transparency, ensuring that everyone is ‘on parade’ – there is nowhere to hide away or enjoy privacy. Breakout areas, originally conceived as offering a break from work, are now connected with wireless technology for greater working efficiency.

All this is becoming problematic for knowledge workers, especially those over 50 – and knowledge workers tend to be older because they are the ones who have accumulated knowledge over time. Quite how problematic was brought home to me when I began sifting through the results of a global research study entitled Welcoming Workplace that I am leading at the Royal College of Art.

The project is part of the Designing for the 21st Century initiative and seeks to explore ways to improve the office environment for older knowledge workers. With partners in the UK, Japan and Australia, we have engaged about 80 people in a qualitative research process, resulting in a damning indictment of open-plan as a place to do concentrated work. The chief problem is noise, but clean-desk policies that don’t allow older workers to ‘spread out’ and pin up work for analysis also cause resentment. Many have refined their methods over a long period (much of it in the pre-digital age) and don’t appreciate being confined to a hot desk and a screen.

There is more bad news. If offices now support collaboration to a greater extent, and concentration to a lesser extent, there is a third dimension to working in the knowledge economy that is not supported at all. This is the need for contemplation space – areas within the workplace to switch off, relax, rest, recuperate and be alone with your thoughts away from the public gaze.

Will we ever see a backlash against the big brainstorm? It was interesting to witness a debate at this summer’s British Council for Offices’ annual conference in Brussels on the theme ‘Has flexible working gone too far?’ Delegates voted for the revolution to continue – flexible working still had a long way to go – but not before a few dissenting voices reminded everyone what offices were designed to do. And that includes providing the space for uninterrupted thought. •

Jeremy Myerson is the Helen Hamlyn Professor at London’s Royal College of Art. The exhibition Living Proof, featuring the Welcoming Workplace study, runs at the Royal College f Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7, from 19 – 30 September

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