Can you encourage the design of working environments that motivate, stimulate, and empower?
Our working environments lead double lives. On the one hand architecture can be used to control a building population and reinforce a power structure - think of a factory where the offices of the management look over the shopfloor. On the other hand architecture needs to motivate, stimulate, and empower people to feel special and productive. It's a difficult balance to get right and in many ways the modern history of workplace architecture can be seen as a struggle to find that balance.
Open-plan that works This is nowhere more evident than with the idea of open-plan; doing away with corridors and offices, bringing light deep into the building, and freeing up the flow of people through the space. The open-plan office concept originated in the late 1950s in Germany and America, and began to flourish in the UK during the 1970s, continuing to this day. The idea is that crafting an open 'office landscape' using furniture, decoration, and plants, makes work more efficient. This efficiency is achieved by better communication, peer learning, and enhanced creativity in the workforce. Crucially though this only happens when a variety of other social spaces exist nearby, like a canteen, or a sports facility, a place to relax, or a space to be quiet in.
Open-plan that doesn't work Early open-plan buildings such as the Willis building in Ipswich, designed by Norman Foster, took care to build in these additional spaces. Over the years, however, they have gradually disappeared from office architecture, and the negative effects of open-plan have become more evident; the noise and interruption that leads to a lack of concentration, the generic look of the furniture, and the feeling of being continually observed and monitored. Rather than being stimulated and motivated we find ourselves stressed and irritable. The fact that it is cheaper for organisations to make and maintain open-plan buildings only adds to the feeling of a conspiracy.
It's all about the brand Recent architecture has exacerbated the problem further. By concentrating on the external form of buildings to enhance the brand of a particular organisation the open interiors are simply left as an afterthought, not a mix of well-designed spaces. What we end up with is something iconic on the outside and soul-destroying on the inside. Open-plan that bumps up the balance sheet, but is deeply unsatisfying for those that work in it.
The future of workplaces There are reasons to be positive, though. A new generation of architects are beginning to produce workplaces that are more thoughtfully designed for the building users, successfully mixing a range of spaces and technologies. And they're beginning to show that this is not only good for the people that work in these spaces, but it's good for business as well.
Improve your own workplace Good architecture is one of the best rewards an organisation can give its employees. Constructing a building around the constantly changing work patterns of people can lead to high levels of motivation, commitment and productivity. There are also things that you can do to help make your own work environment more stimulating:
- Regular changes to the environment, even small changes like new pictures or displays have been shown to increase productivity. The more people that contribute, the better;
- It is easy to feel powerless but as a user you are best placed to explain what you need and to help initiate change for the better. Employers are often more receptive than you think when faced with a well thought out idea for change.
Professor of Design Studies at The Open University