Back to the nest

Cellular and open plan systems failed as office models. In the wake of London show Workplace, Jeremy Myerson looks at some alternative solutions

One of my favourite cartoons on the vagaries of the modern workplace is by Roger Beale from the Financial Times. It shows a cowed executive hiding glumly beneath his desk, knees hunched up to his chest. Two colleagues stand next to him. One comments: “The open plan office doesn’t suit everyone, of course!”

Beale’s cartoon cuts right to the quick of office space-planning in the Nineties: the steady shift towards open environments over the past decade has not necessarily been accompanied by any great mental adjustment by the majority of office workers, who still find open plan irritating, demeaning and unhelpful when it comes to carrying out basic tasks.

Business gurus may preach the mantra of teamworking, group dynamics and social cohesion; work may be less linear and more cognitive than ever before; layers of management hierarchy may have been stripped out through two recessions. But that doesn’t prevent people from continuing to prize personal territory they can own and defend, rather than shared space, which facilitates interaction.

When quizzed on the subject, few office workers oppose open plan on ideological grounds, with the exception perhaps of those who object to the loss of status or have special sensitivities in their work which require privacy (corporate lawyers and personnel managers are most frequently open plan refusniks). Rather, the general disenchantment stems from the lack of work choices which a sterile, uniform open plan landscape will impose. Collaborating out in the open with colleagues is fine, but there are also inevitably times when considerative work needs to be done in a more enclosed space, without constant interruption.

Balancing private and team tasks has long been a focus for the office furniture industry, especially in the US, where the battle for the future of the workplace is being fought coast-to-coast across a dozen US cities at the frontiers of real estate and organisational change. On the evidence of recent vanguard US office schemes, there has been some retrenchment back to cellular and individual accommodation after all the hype surrounding the non-territorial workplace of the mid-Nineties.

The touchstone project is a new workplace designed by Clive Wilkinson in Los Angeles for advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, the creative brain behind Apple’s Think Different campaign. During the Nineties, TBWA/Chiat/ Day became synonymous with “free address” and “hoteling” in office planning, as its work-anywhere culture was given stunning physical expression by such design luminaries as Frank Gehry and Gaetano Pesce.

But this latest scheme, which unites the entire agency of more than 350 people within a giant renovated warehouse building, marks a retreat from that degree of openness. Not that it lacks innovative qualities: it is planned as an entire small-city environment, with multiple levels, green park space, landmark structures, an “irregular” skyline, distinct neighbourhoods, café spaces, “cliff dwellings”, light wells, even a baseball court. But the unpopular hoteling concept which underpinned Gehry’s Venice, California, office for the agency has been dropped.

Now all TBWA/Chiat/Day staff have their own personal workstation, together with facilities to promote teamworking. Wilkinson and his client worked with furniture giant Steelcase to develop special workstations called Nests which encircle the “city centre” and accommodate project teams in office neighbourhoods. Project dens – ethereal full-height enclosures realised as tent structures, are interspersed within a “community-style” layout. This combination aims to maximise creative collaboration, while ensuring everyone has their own home.

Space-planners who study TBWA/Chiat/Day and similar office schemes may struggle to grasp the strands of the new thinking. It may be open plan – but not as we’ve known it. Is a puzzling new paradigm emerging? Fortunately, elucidation was at hand at the 1999 edition of Neocon, the world’s largest office design fair, held annually in Chicago, where interior designer Joyce Bromberg, a senior figure in product development at Steelcase, spoke on reinventing the workplace.

Bromberg, who is based at Steelcase’s design pyramid in Grand Rapids and has consulted closely with Ideo on products and services for new ways of working, talked generically at Neocon, rather than about specific projects. But what she said made sense. She explained that the current evolution in planning is closely tied to the relentless pursuit by companies of great new ideas which can rethink, reshape and redefine their business. Bromberg described this generation of “intellectual capital” as the sum of “human capital” (individual talent and skill) and “social capital” (trust and knowledge) – a neat way of summing up the private space/team space dilemma. As she observed, “You cannot have innovation without social capital, but not all social capital yields innovation.”

Providing the right environment to generate intellectual capital required, she said, a new “community-based approach” to planning office space. As Bromberg described it, there have been four distinct approaches to space planning over the past 20 years: hierarchical, universal, activity and community planning. Community is the new kid on the block.

Hierarchical planning, a throwback to the scientific management of Frederick Taylor in the early 1900s, survived in many US offices until the mid-Eighties (and continues to this day in others). Its planning focus is on the individual and on the work process of individual tasks, although its understanding of personal motivation is limited. Its organisational model is vertical and linked directly to the hierarchy of the company, with size of office, quality of finish and type of desk all governed by corporate rank. Hierarchical office space is 90 per cent owned by individuals; there is little public space and no focus on groups or teams. There is a 60:40 split between open-plan and cellular space. The chief business benefit is that the hierarchical approach recognises status.

From the mid-Eighties, recessionary and competitive pressures made the hierarchical approach look outdated. Organisations needed to downsize, strip out costs, shed real estate. Space plans needed to be swift and efficient. Universal planning, a much simplified approach, came to the fore. Its planning focus is generic and its organisational model based on flattened hierarchy, with far fewer management levels. Simple adjacencies and departmental block plans determine the layout, with two sizes of office – open and closed – fitting all. Universal office space is still largely owned by individuals, but the split between open plan and cellular space is 80:20, reflecting the move away from expression of private status. The chief business benefit of the universal approach is an increase in efficiency, realised through a reduction of real estate costs.

By the mid-Nineties, there was another shift of emphasis. Companies recognised that they had probably downsized enough. Just cutting costs was an endgame. Now they wanted to re-engineer, refocus and recalibrate their business. They wanted to add some value. Enter activity-based planning, a more interesting concept in which the planning focus is on individual and group tasks. Its organisational model is based on a matrix which combines functional authority and task to facilitate cross-disciplinary projects. Office planning provides a vocabulary of different spaces such as home bases, enclaves and private spaces. The split between open plan and cellular space remains 80:20, but the big change is in the growth of group ownership of space. The advantage is that the activity-based approach provides more effective use of real estate, as well as greater employee efficiency.

Activity-based planning would probably have been the end of the story, except that perceptive researchers in the US recognised that its focus is based on explicit process (in other words, what people say they do at work). The fourth and newest stage in the evolution of the office interior – community planning – is based on tacit process (what people really do at work, as discovered through observation). Its planning focus is on the notion of “we” and its organisational model is based on community, integrating formal hierarchy and informal networking. Bromberg commended this user-centred approach as: “Understanding the tension that exists between the hierarchy necessary for governance and how the work really gets done through informal networks and alliances.”

Community-based planning offers new types of space, such as community constellations, gathering spaces, touchdown spaces, between spaces and social oases; it also introduces new roles such as gatekeepers, pulse takers, mentors and wizards (wizards, we learn, are “keepers of tacit knowledge who know how to make things happen”). If all this sounds hard to swallow, consider the business benefits: the community-based approach understands the culture, supports learning, uncovers innovation and yields employee effectiveness. Or so the theory goes. Steelcase has already rehearsed many of the arguments with its own “leadership community” for Steelcase senior managers on the fifth floor of the company’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, which has reportedly been very successful in sowing an innovation culture. TBWA/Chiat/Day might yet provide more compelling evidence.

Whatever the merits of community-based planning in developing intellectual capital, Bromberg’s thesis inevitably asks new questions of design practitioners. No longer is office space-planning an exercise in linear measurement based on hierarchy of one sort or another. Instead, it enters the realms of cultural anthropology, in which designers learn to keep an open mind, observe users over time, understand what really happens at work, and tease out the right design response to tacit processes.

But before we all get carried away with observational studies of dynamic work communities rustling up great new ideas with the morning brainstorm, let me return to another favourite Roger Beale cartoon from the Financial Times. This shows two colleagues wearing name badges at an office drinks party. One says to the other: “Never have been much of a team player have you, Rawlins?” The man’s name badge simply says: “Get Lost”.

Jeremy Myerson is co-director of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, Royal College of Art. His book New Workspace New Culture, co-written by Gavin Turner, is published by Gower Publishing, priced at £3

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