The design of offices has been a contentious issue since the beginning of the twentieth century and no doubt will continue to be so for many years to come.
The questions as to what we need with regards to privacy, confidentiality requirements, access to daylight and the ability to control our own environments has been the focus of many a research paper and caused many sleepless nights for designers and employers alike.
Open plan offices in the early twentieth century consisted of rows and rows of clerical workers in large rooms. It was easy for the managers to supervise the employees, tasks could be split up into particular groups to improve work flow and more desks could be accommodated in the space.
These conditions were not particularly comfortable and in the early 1900s Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo. It was a purpose-designed building for a specific organisation, with 1,800 workers accommodated in a single large space of galleries with glimpses of the sky. Whilst it was the first of its kind, it was not particularly well accepted and his innovations were declared to be “without any sympathetic alliance to culture.” This statement would align with other critics who suggested that the furnishing was designed to fit the architecture.
It was not until the late 1940s that designers started to look at the office. George Nelson, at Hermann Miller, invented the first modern workstation and followed this idea with an overall office design program to “consider employees’ physical and psychological needs” in tandem with streamlining workflow. This is still the ideal concept in designing quality office environments.
Concurrently, a design team in Germany designed a system called the Burolandschaft, or “office landscape.” The long rows of desks were broken up into more organic groupings to design the spatial organisation of the physical office in line with the workflow and internal communication needs.
Office design has continued to develop based on these early ideas, but while they still have merit in the design of offices they are often overlooked in the requirements for maximum use of floor space and minimum expenditure. This results in design based on ‘bums on seats’ rather than a culture and needs-based design philosophy. The direct consequence of this is unhappy employees with complaints regarding a variety of issues.
Whilst the proximity to colleagues makes it easier to have spontaneous dialogue, it also results in more interruptions and in many cases causes conflict amongst employees, particularly when the dialogue relates to the social antics on Saturday night rather than business related discussions.
The noise factor is often raised as a major irritation in the open plan office environment, whether it is too much noise or not enough. Too much background noise potentially affects a person’s ability to concentrate, and therefore impacts their productivity. Conversely, too little noise means it is harder for people to have confidential or personal conversations.
A more recent idea that causes complaints from employees is the ‘hot desking’ or ‘hotelling’ system where no one has a dedicated desk and desks are either booked or allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. These systems can be difficult to have group discussions as teams are located in different areas of the office, finding a colleague in the office involves a phone call and personal space has all but vanished from the office.
Where managed appropriately, this system has proved itself to be a successful strategy and there have been software developments to ensure such a system works. However, the main aim is to reduce office overheads and running costs by accommodating more people in less space rather than the well-being of the employees.
Unfortunately, the important developments in the design of offices spaces that make a successful open plan environment such as planning to suit the workflow, the balance between private and public space, shared spaces that employees want to use, breakout spaces including video games, music rooms and sleeping pods, and white boards for brainstorming are restricted to the larger companies, resulting in the majority of office workers continuing to work in the large room with separate desks.
Since many employees still work in an environment similar to that developed by Wright in 1904, perhaps his planning for the Larkin building was not wrong. Perhaps designing furnishing to suit the building is a reasonable design decision. Maybe simplicity is the key and focusing on a company’s culture, and rewarding innovation and results in conjunction with the design make a more successful office environment.