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For many modern organizations, their work processes are increasingly concerned with the sharing and creation of knowledge rather than the production and distribution of physical goods. This research-paper is concerned with excellence in the design of physical spaces for such knowledge work. It draws on good practices from around the world.
It needs to be emphasized that the concern here is not primarily with architectural design, although architecture and architects clearly perform a crucial role in shaping the effectiveness or otherwise of modern office space. Concern is much more about ensuring that the design of every aspect of the work space, of which the physical building is one important dimension, contributes strongly to successful work processes going on within that building.
At the start of the 20th century, one single new office building provided an inspiration for much of new design thinking about offices—the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, it influenced countless others for decades. Yet the building itself no longer exists. It was gradually run down, the company who owned it went through hard times, and after a period where it was used for bring-and-buy sales, it was eventually demolished only half of a century after being built. This demolition was a tragic loss for the architectural historian and for those of us concerned with preserving the symbols of the modern era. But it also symbolized the reality that the needs of users of office space had moved on, and Frank Lloyd Wright himself was unsentimental about the fate of the building given its decline and fall from the originally designed purpose.
For many years, particularly since the end of the World War II, there has been a constant stream of predictions about what the office of the 21st century would look like. In his 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplain envisaged a steeper form of hierarchy and control, reinforced by obtrusive control methods, for example, video surveillance. In 1948, George Orwell similarly envisaged an environment of extreme control in 1984. Many of these predictions have come true. There is routine detailed monitoring of call center workers, for example, to a degree undreamed of in 1948.
The term office is actually a rather loose one. It has three somewhat distinct meanings:
- A place of largely solitary work, similar to a study, often a room within a domestic house
- A location for clerical workers ancillary to a production or operational function (e.g., back-office in an investment bank)
- In a services company, the main place of business itself
Since the 1980s a fourth meaning has emerged: a virtual office—although the workers are not physically colocated, it provides the equivalent of a physical office through use of outsourced physical facilities and intensive application of electronic media.
The design of office buildings to win architectural competitions can be done only through successful architects and architecture. It is top-down design. But the design of effective office space to support successful knowledge work can be achieved only through the actions of those who work within the building—it is much more about bottom-up design including the accumulation of many small actions and behaviors by the knowledge workers themselves.
Successful knowledge work can take place without any building at all, as when poets, writers, and composers are inspired by a walk along a lake, up a mountain or through countryside. Successful knowledge work spaces can be carved out of the most apparently unpromising physical structures. In one well-known case study, the U.K. Post Office converted a condemned temporary building into one of the most exciting innovation centers in the country. Many inventions and artistic inspirations have taken place in garden sheds.
The topic of office of the 21st century affects a wide variety of those involved in design:
- Information technology
- Property development
- Facilities management
- Knowledge management
- Virtual work
- Users of the office
So when it comes to the question of design of space for knowledge work, this is a topic not simply of concern to the professional designer, to the property developer or the facilities manager. It is a topic of direct concern to all those of us who do or may work within those spaces. All workers help shape the effective knowledge work space by their daily actions, and all can contribute to designing even more effective spaces for the 21st century.
It should be noted that this newly emerging concern with designing physical space for effective knowledge work is a matter of international concern. There are studies taking place all over the world into this, not least in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden. This entry draws on this leading-edge international good practice.
Some people commissioning new spaces for office work are anxious to spend money on beautiful objects, furniture, and equipment. But design of effective spaces for knowledge work is rarely concerned with who makes the physical objects that appear within the building or with how expensive they are. Effective knowledge spaces have to work for the particular people who are employed there. Much can be done with imaginative use of day-to-day objects as opposed to those from famous designers.
Good design is concerned with the question of being fit for purpose. One of the reasons why there is dissatisfaction of employees with their work spaces can be that too much attention and money has been devoted to the design of the physical building, and too little attention and money has gone into the fitting out and what might be called the exploitation of the physical space.
When Frank Lloyd Wright was putting up the Larkin Building a century ago, the work in it was primarily concerned with processing mail-order correspondence. This type of work can be called information work. Millions of people have information work at the core of their jobs, and almost all workers need to carry out information tasks such as dealing with e-mail as one part of their jobs. But the focus here is on the parallel type of work: knowledge work. This is where much of the competitive advantage of nations will arise in the 21st century, from its ability in particular to create and share knowledge.
Just as all workers carry out information work for at least part of the day, so too do all workers carry out knowledge work for at least part of the day. One of the major limitations of the decreasingly used terms blue-collar work and white-collar work was the very idea that blue-collar workers used their physical skills and capabilities, while white-collar workers by contrast used their mental skills. Today every single worker would be recognized as being important sources of knowledge and with the potential for creativity. In one famous example, the service engineers of a photocopier company had far more knowledge about the company’s products and customers than did the engineers and the sales force respectively.
So it is possible to talk about knowledge work and information work but be reluctant to talk about information workers and knowledge workers. Most workers carry out a range of types of information and knowledge work, though of course some are much more heavily engaged at one or other end of the spectrum.
Frank Lloyd Wright created the Larkin Building at the very time when scientific management was becoming popular in the United States. This was concerned with detailed measurement of work activities and with devising the “one right way” of work organization to carry out that work most efficiently. Wright did consciously or subconsciously reinforce standardized approaches to work through his design of desks and work spaces. Scientific management may even today be sometimes an appropriate approach for completely routinized work. But today this mechanistic approach to work design has generally been rejected.
It is particularly inappropriate for work that is primarily knowledge based. One very clear message, which comes through both from case studies and from the wider research carried out into knowledge work, is that workers do have a wide range of approaches to such work. There is diversity between individuals—one prefers quiet and another prefers noise. There is even diversity for any individual—he or she may prefer a noisy environment for one type of work and a quiet environment for another type of work.
Any work environment that is completely standardized runs the risk of being inappropriate for some workers all of the time and for all of the workers some of the time.
The nature of work changes over time, and well-designed work spaces may have ensured flexibility at three levels:
- Ability to reconfigure a space very fast for short-term purposes
- Ability to change the fundamental layout in the medium term
- Ability to change the use of the whole building in the long term
Specialist Space And Facilities
There are inevitable economic and practical pressures on both property developers and the corporate occupiers of major office spaces to develop generic standardized office shells that permit internal flexibility. One problem with this is that the practicalities of the generic can be obstacles to the achievement of the specific. It is particularly striking at how meeting rooms, for example, appear to be almost an afterthought in the design of offices, when in reality enormous amounts of time and energy are spent in those rooms. Similar considerations apply to library or resource areas and in some organizations to storage.
The most valuable type of knowledge is that which is locked up in people’s brains—tacit knowledge. The workplace or office should now become a vital ingredient, in the processing not so much of low-level information but of unlocking and sharing that tacit knowledge. This has been understood within the design industry itself, often rather theatrically at the moment through pinball machines and wacky furniture. But the underlying message that many of the eccentric environments have absolutely understood is the need for diversity of spaces for knowledge work.
Group creativity needs its own spaces rather than taking over the whole space. These spaces do not so much need to be comfortable, but they need to be fit for purpose. One of the most impressive innovation centers in the United Kingdom is that created by Royal Mail at their management development center in Rugby. This is aimed specifically at group work. The overall environment, somewhat along the lines of a museum or even an art gallery, is aimed at unfreezing the conventional mind-sets that visitors bring with them—it offers challenging visions of the near future. There are then a series of specially designed meeting spaces. All of them have wall-to-ceiling whiteboards. Two have full laptop support including brainstorming software that is geared to anonymous and instant sharing of ideas and preferences within a group. The meeting spaces are oval in shape to symbolize the attack on straight-line thinking. They have impressively wide, curved doors that can be closed to create focus and intimacy or opened so that the activities can become part of the wider environment.
Some researchers have advocated the primary school as one of the key metaphors for spaces for management learning in the 20th century. One of the Royal Mail meeting spaces is set up exactly like a primary school classroom and is used particularly when visitors first arrive as another vital part of the unfreezing process. It is a far cry from the typical bland and uninspiring corporate meeting room, which almost seems to be deliberately geared to ritualistic meetings dominated by one-way presentations.
There is not a universal consensus over the meaning of good design in this area. There are several controversial areas:
- Do 21st-century organizations need cellular offices?
- Should they have a “clear desk” policy?
- Should they altogether banish smokers from the office precinct?
There are certainly no absolutes in this area of work space design—what is right for a health center may be wrong for an advertising agency and vice versa, and what is right for one advertising agency may be wholly inappropriate for another. It is important that the work space be designed to support the culture that the organization seeks to achieve, particularly at times of organizational and cultural change.
It is important to be extremely cautious about fashions in workplace design. There is little doubt, for example, that some types of knowledge work are performed much better in enclosed offices than in open-plan space. So a strong commitment to removing enclosed office space can be counterproductive. One of the benefits of diversity is that it can often contribute to flexibility.
The human and political factor is also close to the surface in the real world, so it is common to find those who neither need nor can justify an enclosed office, demanding one of grounds of status, for example.
According to environmental psychologist Becker (2007) the control of information is the essence of privacy is the control of information flow. In their seminal review, Stone and Luchetti (1985) called privacy versus participation and independence versus inclusion office design quagmires and argued that, while compromise cannot resolve the tensions between these needs, multiple activity settings can.
Instead of an office design that assigns a workplace to one person, Stone and Luchetti (1985) proposed a workplace that offers a variety of activity settings—each of which supports a limited range of activities rather than trying to meet all of a person’s privacy needs. These specialized settings are conceived as spanning the variety of at times contradictory office worker requirements. For example, some tasks people require inclusion and participation while others necessitate quiet and solitude.
Activity settings might include private offices with doors to serve as “home bases,” bullpen areas with rearrangeable tables for shared work, and quiet spaces or library areas where people can reserve tables to spread out on, lounge chairs for reading, or secluded corners for concentrated thinking.
Space for “courts” or shared-activity areas could be found by limiting the “caves” or “home bases” to very small areas with just enough space to write, make phone calls, and store personal files. Creating the full range of settings would require various combinations of permanent and movable walls and freestanding and systems furniture arranged to form private offices, open-plan environments, and bullpens.
Stimulus To Creativity
A creative environment, whether outdoors or indoors, will tend to contain a variety of stimuli to thought, whether at a personal level, or to stimulate interaction between a group. It is also important to design workplaces where the stimulus is totally absent in order to encourage convergent thinking through focus and concentration.
The Work Space Is Three Dimensional
It is striking to observe the increasing importance being placed on walls as a fundamental asset in the modern office. In Orange’s London Imaginarium, almost every piece of wall space was covered with whiteboards, TV monitors, and even a pillar that visitors are encouraged to sign. At the Royal Mail Innovation Lab, the whole of some meeting room walls are covered in whiteboard material. An unexpected role model for wall space is the modern primary school—packed with information and examples of student work.
The dream of the paperless office has been fuelled by at least two different perspectives. The first is a possibly transitional phase whereby existing paper-based materials are scanned into an electronic format. This format may be
- wholly image based, as in a photocopy whereby the viewer sees a facsimile of the page on screen; or
- wholly text based, where the image has been translated via optical character recognition into a text document.
A combination of the two is also possible, which is the area of document management and a whole variety of software tools are available to manage the scanned databases.
The second perspective of the paperless office is very different. In this perspective, paper documents are never produced in the first place, whether external or internal. Under this perspective, the office world is end-to-end, fully digital. Small amounts of scanning may still be needed for a handful of external sources, but the emphasis here is wholesale redesign of business processes to take advantage of the digital formats. A very clear example is in collaborative engineering such as for the Boeing 777 design whereby work is organized around shared design databases and shared design tools.
Drivers Of Office Design
The offices of the first half of the 20th century were dominated by cellular design. Many office workers and particularly managers had individual offices. With the postwar boom in high-rise offices, open plan became dominant. Outside metropolitan centers, most offices have reverted to low rise, but the open-plan pattern still dominates, albeit that there are now much more better designed public areas, cafeterias, atriums, and so forth. The most significant changes in the modern office are in the supporting and largely invisible technological infrastructure. There will be much more scientific control of temperature and humidity than 50 years ago. Security devices tend to be more visible and more effective. There are massive demands for telephone, computer, and video networking infrastructures. One of Professor Parkinson’s laws was to distrust the prestigious head office, and although there remain many ostentatious head offices, there are fortunately today plenty of examples of a more muted approach.
Improvements in physical design can undoubtedly improve performance where other elements of the sociotechnical system are in balance. But it is noteworthy how in the United Kingdom and other countries, office workers feel subject to greater stress than ever before, and managers in particular are actually working longer hours than 20 years ago. The redesign of the physical office, therefore, has to be considered against the actual problems faced. If stress due to the pace of work is a serious problem, and information overload is increasingly prevalent, serious consideration needs to be given to redesigning the office to address these contemporary problems. Too often both the specifiers and designers of modern offices appear to be addressing variations on yesterday’s themes such as the need for flexibility in internal layout when there have already been very significant changes in structural and personal flexibility, perhaps to an extent not even envisaged in the more hierarchical 1950s and 1960s.
A senior executive in an ultramodern prestige office was quoted as saying that it was impossible to do knowledge work in the office, so it has to be done at home. Cases such as this should provoke some revisiting of the assumptions behind conventional wisdoms in office design.
There are undoubtedly clear examples where a revised office layout can brilliantly complement progressive management thinking—for example, the abolition of cellular offices right up to the very top level at Oticon in Copenhagen and at Thomas Miller in the city of London. In these cases, the office moves were the final part of a major systemic change—flattened organizations.
The Office Within A System
The office can be seen as a physical entity (a building), as part of the organizational structure, as an information processing environment or as a congregation of people. It is, ultimately, a system and in fact a complex system. This makes it appropriate to use a systems approach in analyzing the office of particular relevance in the sociotechnical systems approach. This envisages business systems as having four main dimensions, summarized by Emery and Trist (1960) as task, technology, structure, and people. These dimensions constantly interact with one another. One can rarely be changed without altering the other. For the office of the future, the following need to be considered:
- Task. In particular key business drivers—flexibility, speed of response, management of expertise and knowledge, increasing creativity, and virtuality
- Technology. The physical building, the information technology, and the internal furnishings and fittings
- Structure. The formal and informal organizational structure
- People. Their individual and collective values, skills, assumptions, and so forth
In analyzing the nonachievement of some of the dreams of the office of the future, a great deal of the blame comes down to naive beliefs that there actually is a direct link between changes in technology and the achievement of task goals. A new office format is in itself expected to improve productivity and creativity. But in practice, changes in only the technology are unlikely to have any direct impact on task performance. This is because if organizational structure and people aspects remain unchanged, the main causes of improvement—new business processes—are unlikely to be implemented.
Knowledge of technology throughout history suggests that simply because an improvement is theoretically possible via technology does not mean that it will happen effectively or at all. This is very marked indeed in the area of the office.
It can be established that the physical office of today, despite the imaginative efforts of modern architects, is generally based on a model of work that although post bureaucratic, is essentially preoffice automation. The physical office of today technically integrates leading-edge communications and data storage technologies. But it has almost completely failed to address the growing bundle of problems that are arising from flattened organizations, greater number of mobile workers, and the fast growing nightmares of information overload and time-based stress.
There are at least seven core functions of the modern office:
- formal meeting place with colleagues and business associates
- base for mobile and remote workers
- base for static workers
- base for information intensive work processes
- base for knowledge intensive work process
- creating opportunities for serendipitous human-to-human contact, and hence stimulating creativity and innovation
- a symbol of the organization to both external and internal worlds
The classic rationale for having offices at all relate to (1), (3), (4), and (7). It can be observed that considerable effort has been taken in the most progressive offices to take on board (2) and (6). However, many offices, even ultramodern ones, have still not fully grasped all six of these. Concerns particularly relate to the lack of awareness of (5)—knowledge intensive tasks—and of the rapidly changing set of problems surrounding (4)—information intensive tasks.
The most progressive design of the physical office is literally only a shell. The simple sociotechnical systems model that this physical and technological shell is entwined with tasks that are often rapidly changing; with organizational structures, formal and informal, that are increasingly fluid and involve many external partners; and with people, whose needs are also changing and extending, and many of whom are increasingly stressed as a result of their office work.
The 1960s office theory was to create flexibility through physical layout, and this remains a strong influence. The very concept of flexibility has greatly extended since then to include remote working and external partners, but office design has often not kept pace with this. Surprisingly little attention has been given to the fundamental and worsening problem of human stress in the modern office. In particular, it can be doubted that much modern office design is reducing stress—a suspicion in fact is that such stress may well be made worse, even by designs that appear admirable in outward form and intention.
The very idea of the physical office is subject to almost continual critique by futurists. Many of these are writers and consultants whose personal style is often highly mobile and highly individualistic. So it is perhaps not surprising that they fail to engage with the needs of typical businesses and the average information/knowledge worker. There remains a strong humanistic need for face-to-face contact on both a structured and unstructured basis. The physical office can score well on both these counts. To adapt Mark Twain, reports of the death of the physical office are greatly exaggerated. It can be expected to see much more virtual and remote work over the next 20 years. This may make central offices smaller. It will also reinforce the need for some form of central physical offices, but the configuration of these offices may need to have some very different emphases in this more virtual and fluid world of the 21st century.
Role Model Of Great Design Of Work Space
Although there appear to be new trends in working patterns and in their implications for office work, some research has looked at the past as well as the present. In a context where so much corporate office space is unfit for the purpose of knowledge work, historic examples can still be used as excellent role models. These spaces understood the need for diversity to take account of the many different types of knowledge work. The best role model of all is very far from a glitzy big city office. It is in the medieval monastery. The monastic orders learned over long periods how monks worked most effectively as knowledge workers and pretty much perfected the design of monasteries to support this.
They may not have had floor-to-ceiling whiteboards or pinball machines, but the monastery had superb and surprisingly democratic meeting facilities in their research-paper houses. They had designated areas for reading, writing, listening, and private reflection. They had open air in the countryside for one particular type of reflection. And they had their own particular invention—the all weather cloister. Not only did this allow for both semipublic reflection and study (in the often now disappeared study carrels). It was also a place for conversation and accidental meeting: both still vital ingredients today in the sharing of knowledge.
Unfortunately, the monastic lifestyle has particular implications that do not always chime with 21st-century mind-sets. But it is a powerful metaphor for the office of the 21st century. Knowledge work is human work and is best carried out in humane surroundings that enable diversity and in particular both private reflection and intensive group work.
This type of space was first articulated by sociologist Oldenburg (1989). He suggested that for a modern complex society the “third space” is vital, in between the first space of home and the second space of work. The subtitle—Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day—of his book is a clear indicator of what he means by a third space. In practice, this idea has been most strongly drawn upon for rethinking the workplace, so it has turned out to be as important for business as much as for social purposes.
One building that has been conceived around third space and knowledge management is the British Airways Headquarters, Waterside. Almost everywhere has an informal corner for the accidental or even deliberate informal meeting.
One of the best known modern offices is that of Oticon, the Copenhagen-based hearing aid manufacturer. Its headquarters, located in a refurbished Tuborg brewery building, welcomes employees with a marble pillar engraved with the company slogan “Think the Unthinkable.” The Oticon office is a monument to creativity, as well as to team working and flexibility. Every detail has been designed to further these aims. There are no desks, just standardized PCs on tables. Once again, staff have caddies but tend to work in project groups for several months at a time, not hot-desking. Immense care has gone into designing the coffee areas to encourage conversation—even the staircases are extra-wide to encourage people to stop and chat there. Despite the ruthless elimination of paper and total electronic storage of documents, there is also a fundamental belief in talking to people—e-mail is discouraged, for example, in favor of oral discussion.
In the United States, advertising agency Chiat Day created a famous experiment in Venice, California with an extremely technology driven approach to the Creative Office. However, in 1998, Chiat Day announced that they were, in the light of experience, reining back on their extreme design.
Companies Without Offices?
There are some excellent examples of companies that now exist without any of their own central offices at all. Catalyst 400 is a U.K. reseller of IBM midrange computers. When it was set up in the early 1990s, a conscious decision was made to start without an office. This helped significantly reduce overheads. It gave greater flexibility. It has also proved to be a symbol and a marketing tool in itself.
This is only possible through use of exceptionally well thought through modern technology. It is perhaps not an accident that Catalyst uses the services of an innovative serviced office provider, the Virtual Office Company. Founder Richard Nissen has been driven by a vision of how his own physical services based in an extremely tangible location—211 Piccadilly—can support truly remote, mobile, and flexible working. Nissen’s company not only enables firms like Catalyst to appear to have their own switchboard and secretarial services but also has sophisticated methods of redirecting faxes, voice mails, and so forth to their intended recipients.
Catalyst, as with many sales organizations, wants its sales force to spend time mostly with customers and these staff would in any case be very mobile. When there is a need for internal meetings, these are held at centrally located rented hotel meeting rooms. Where a client wants to visit, the meeting is held at an IBM office. The rest of the time staff will work from home or in their cars.
What is noticeable here is that although Catalyst definitely does not have offices of its own, it remains dependent on other people having offices—its service provider, its customers, its hotels, its main supplier, and in particular, its staff’s home offices. Even the company without offices of its own still depends on offices—it is just that these are of a much greater variety than under the conventional head office model.
The Design Process
In reviewing the design process, several points need to be emphasized. First, there needs to be concern with how spaces for knowledge work are designed rather than with the physical architecture of the building itself. It is naturally also important to be concerned with how effectively those spaces support knowledge work including the design of the interior layout, furniture, and work processes; again, issues that go far beyond the formal building architecture.
There are many examples of modern offices that are striking, beautiful buildings. This visual aspect of design may well contribute to the success of the work that goes on inside those spaces, but this does not emphasize the need for world-class architecture. Excellence in design of work spaces can take place even in the most unpromising physical environments. The first version of the Royal Mail’s Innovation Laboratory was constructed inside a condemned portable building. The HHCL advertising agency offices are inside an unprepossessing, prewar London office building and Circus Space learning center is in a converted Victorian electricity works.
What clearly comes through is that the most effective buildings for knowledge work do not end that way by accident. They tend to be very consciously designed, and the most crucial influence on that design is not, perhaps surprisingly, the architect. The key influence comes from the client commissioning the work, who turns out to have a concept of some special factor that is needed in the work space in order to unlock the creation and sharing of knowledge. Of course, architects place an equally vital role in converting that concept into viable physical space, but in each case, one or more senior managers provided the leadership from the client side necessary to unlock the design puzzle of creating space for effective knowledge work.
The spaces studied in literature of successful offices all arose out of a particular context—of business drivers, of current building assets, and of financial and human resources. Their excellence in terms of design relates to meeting the needs of an organization for knowledge work within such a particular context.
Writings on great architecture may well make little or no reference as to whether the building was actually fit for purpose. One famous building that has won architectural awards and acclaim is said by a senior executive to have never really been suitable for the knowledge work that was supposed to go on inside it. The executive argued that this was because the architect took almost no interest in the underlying work processes, and he and the sponsors were more concerned with using the building as a vehicle for making a statement.
Fit For Purpose
When writing about great design, it is important to be crucially concerned with fitness for purpose. But it does not mean that the actual physical designs could or should be replicated in other organizations. Many of the individual components in excellent work spaces can and possibly should be replicated, but the important thing is not the visual look of the work space, but rather the design process that ensures that what is implemented actually meets the needs of that particular context.
It may be that a successful design for a particular organization does have some longevity, but this is more a feature of how it continues to meet the changing context rather than because it is in some permanent sense a good design.
A key issue in being fit for purpose is that the design is achievable within the finances available. The first version of the Royal Mail Innovation Lab was a pilot project on very limited resources. The Bromley-by-Bow center is a public/voluntary project where resources were never easy to find, and Circus Space was for some time an idea in search of resources. So what is impressive about such examples and what makes them good design is precisely their ability to achieve a great deal within very finite resources. It can sometimes be queried, when looking at extremely expensive work spaces constructed by large corporations, whether there was in fact too much money spent on the structure and expensive internal ornament (perhaps as a
symbol of success) when greater value and more effective design could have been achieved internally through more thoughtful ways of leveraging the knowledge of the workforce inside those symbols.
The lessons of a good design process are much easier and, indeed, necessary to replicate. For this reason, it is important to pay particular attention to the design process. Some factors constantly recur. The well-informed client, already mentioned, is particularly crucial. The willingness constantly to question underlying assumptions throughout the design process is also important, and in this regard, the role of consultation is vital. A signature architect may well be completely uninterested in the views of the people who are going to have to work inside the building. A designer of work spaces cannot afford to be so aloof. This does not mean that the design process is simply one large focus group because there are often key trade-offs to be made due to resource constraints, and particularly where part of the aim of a new work space is as one part of a change in organizational culture. But even in the latter case, it still makes sense to consult with those who are going to work in the work space, not least because they know far more about how knowledge is created and shared in their organization than any external designer.
Consultation means allowing the central client and designer assumptions to be challenged in the light of actual experiences on the ground. It also enables some of the more difficult aspects of change management to be articulated from the client point of view. If an organization has been, for example, insufficiently creative, it is not enough to decide from on high to move to new ways of working and then suddenly impose them through the vehicle of a new building. This tactic is particularly unlikely to work in areas where most knowledge is directly created through the employees. The move to the new building can be only one part of a wider program of cultural change, and the consultation process needs to involve management being willing to address their concerns and objectives as managers directly with staff.
From examining numerous case studies of the design of work spaces for knowledge work, it is clear that all too often the distinct needs of knowledge work are not actually taken into account at all in the planning of work space. It is possible to caricature a dysfunctional work space design process as follows:
- An organization outgrows its existing work space or is forced to move for some other reason.
- The senior management decides on a new or refurbished building and prepares a business plan for the move including statistics on likely future office space requirements and on other types of space need in the building. There is no significant staff input into the business plan.
- They hire an architect to develop the plans, who eventually produces a master plan for the building. This striking building exactly meets the quantitative requirements as laid down in the business plan. It is a little more expensive than the business plan but clearly prestigious. The master plan is approved with no detailed consultation with staff.
- Construction is nearing completion. A space planning exercise is carried out to allocate departments and individuals to specific spaces. A furniture procurement exercise is carried out. There is virtually no consultation.
- Budget overruns on the building mean that key aspects of internal fitting out are eliminated, creating a more Spartan internal work space than ever envisaged with significant defects, for example, in meeting spaces.
- On moving into the new building, knowledge workers discover that they are less efficient and less effective due to a continuous stream of arbitrary decisions made and imposed on them.
This nightmare caricature, by no means, is unusual. In the case of public buildings, the lack of consultation may well extend to the public users of the building as well. Fortunately, such a pathological approach to work space design is not inevitable.
Buildings And It As Linked Systems: Implications For Roles
When the first computer systems were introduced, they were very accurately described as “data processing systems.” But even these early systems had impacts—often dramatic—on the workforce, on the business structure and processes, and on the physical configuration of the office. Too little attention has been paid to the interplay between evolving computer systems and the physical office. Clearly, there are direct, legally constrained impacts relating to detailed ergonomics of desks, chairs, lighting, and so on. But at the present time, there are even more profound impacts caused by the impact of technologies that uproot “the office,” for example, via teleworking, or which like electronic meeting systems make quite different demands on the physical offices that still remain.
It is not so much that IT is directly leading to reconfiguration of the physical office. The continual changes in organizational structures and business processes cause the reconfiguration. This does lead on to a need to consider who then designs the physical office. Where IT was a low-level operational tool such as with telephones and typewriters, offices simply had to make space for them. IT systems and physical systems did not have particularly significant interactions. As IT, albeit indirectly, is leading to potentially radical changes in the nature of physical offices, it may no longer be possible to rely wholly on the physical architect to design the physical office, simply feeding in inputs and specifications from the information or knowledge systems architect. It is now possible to conceive of a situation where a business that is reengineering around (a) new organizational structures and networks, (b) revised business processes, and (c) new climate and culture should seriously consider taking on workplace “systems designers” who take responsibility for all of the key levels of change including the design of the physical office. In leading examples where office change and strategic change were closely linked (e.g., Oticon), the specification of the new offices took place under the close attention of the CEO. At Wellington Fund Managers in Boston, one of the senior partners actually had been an architect and this unquestionably enabled some radical physical designs to be implemented.
However, we cannot always assume that the CEO or top team will personally have the insights or design flair that were clearly present at Oticon. For these organizations, it is possible see much more holistic “business architects” who would include building architects in their team but where the building architect would be one of several parallel system component designers.
To summarize, the office building is no longer essential to a business for purposes of efficiency in low-level data and information processing. Its role is shifting to knowledge processing and to creating a physical environment that ensures effectiveness in that knowledge processing.
Each decade since World War II has involved a technology-driven dream about the office of the 21st century. Not one of these dreams has come fully true. Although each dream exists fully in a few organizations, what is most remarkable is just how resilient white-collar workers are to change. Even the heralded growth of the PC and of e-mail has often only automated what was manually or semimanually done before. E-mail and the World Wide Web potentially offer radical new models, but organizations are currently in an intermediate phase where problems with them could actually be outweighing benefits in many organizations.
There will always be pioneering companies actively seeking to reengineer the office. But the vast majority will move perhaps too cautiously and too incrementally. A common vision of the office of the 21st century would not involve use of the technology for the sake of it, but rather a focus on what are the information processing tasks most critical to
- operations processing—information work, and
- creation and accelerated sharing of knowledge.
It is necessary to develop packages of solutions including not just IT but also working practices, climate and culture, skills development, and learning methods. There is no single silver bullet to make the office of the 21st century significantly more efficient and effective. But there are undoubtedly packages of poor practice as well as the proposed packages of solutions.
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