A few months ago I read an article by Gary Miciunas, “The design of work and the work of design” in Work+Place. Miciusnas focuses on the collaboration between the Director of Work, Director of Work-Place and the workplace designer – bringing together facilities management, human resources, information technology and business services to deliver new service oriented work place models. The collaboration of these teams would be a significant improvement over current typical model of workplace design where it can be a challenge to get all of these people to even sit down together in one meeting (I’ve talked a little about this before – What makes a great workplace design client). However this approach got me thinking about the question of where and how the individual knowledge worker fit into this collaboration? Given the flexibility to choose a place of work – work from home, work from a cafe or work in the office – may mean that workers vote with their feet. What impact does this have on the design of the workplace? What if we design a workplace and no one shows up?
As the choice of place to work becomes a choice of consumption, does the individual workplace user need to become more involved in the workplace design process? Or can the role of the ‘user group consultation’ possibly be reduced as variety or a menu of workplaces are built into the design? The challenge of involving all individuals in workplace design is already a problematic issue. Workers frequently have very fixed ideas of the settings they need to do their work. Sometimes this is based upon existing layouts or settings, at other times those seen elsewhere or an idealised setting. Whilst the worker knows their work best – are they equipped to imagine other possibilities? Do they understand how their work fits in with other work within the organisation?
The idea of ‘the design of work’ perhaps provides a good starting comparison point to the ‘work of design’ of the work place. As anyone who has ever worked within a large organisation knows many individuals design their own processes, systems and software optimising these to suit their own individual needs to best get their job done. However if there is too much individualisation and not enough organisational standardisation, this comes at a huge cost. Each individual worker has spent significant time to customise their work process and it differs from the work process of the other 50 people doing the same job. This is not efficient for an organisation. However too much standardisation and the individual knowledge worker is likely to get frustrated – because whilst there might be 50 others doing the same role, the way they do their job and apply their knowledge is not, and does not need to be identical. Could some of the same thinking apply to the workplace? How can we give people the individuality and flexibility to optimise their work place without losing the benefit of standardisation?
To me, the idea of Activity Based Working can be seen as a potential solution. A variety of different workspaces and settings are offered within the work place ranging from different size and shape workstations, differing levels of privacy and enclosure and different styles of furnishings. The worker has the choice of where to sit each day or each hour depending on the task at hand. The worker may also have the choice not to be in the workplace at all but working elsewhere. By offering a variety of workplaces, can the worker gain sufficient control to improve productivity by enabling choice of environment?
What happens if the workers do indeed vote with their feet, and large parts of the workplace remain unoccupied? This is surely not the aim of a workplace, and would appear to suggest that the design has failed. How do we as designers determine what types of environments to offer? Is it through user consultation, co-desgin (an even more intensive user involvement) or can we start to combine these activities with a more objective evidence based approach?
Currently workplace design (especially in Australia) tends to be based upon the experience of individual designers or companies, with very little high level research applied across multiple sites or projects (what research there is tends to be focussed on green building measures or space utilisation and is not necessarily comparable across studies). Through more research that captures what workers do across similar task types or industries and what design elements provide improvements to productivity, job satisfaction or collaboration – best practice can be defined. This kind of research could give a design team the confidence to know what kinds of spaces to design, based upon defined activities.
Research on the design of the workplace needs to be both qualitative and quantitative – this is where it has the advantage over traditional user group consultation which tends to be qualitative. Quantitative research needs to include testing of actual workplaces. The idea of beta testing our workplaces is already is use on larger projects. Frequently organisations with many thousands of square metres of office space will install prototype work areas for testing during the design process – from the scale of 1 or 2 workstations for workers to drop by to look at, up to the scale of whole floors where staff are working and formal research is being undertaken of how the space works. This is not always practical for smaller projects and if the knowledge of larger projects was made available to smaller projects could give more small to medium size organisations the encouragement and hard reasons to move towards different workplace models. Perhaps through benchmarking and physical testing, in the future simulated computer testing based on previous project data could also become a reality.
Whilst benchmarking and best practice need to be considered, each workplace still needs to be designed for individual organisations and teams. Ideally each individual work space should be be evaluated and tested to ensure it is providing value to the organisation. This can’t occur as part of the way the design process is currently structured, where the design is completed before the work begins. Perhaps the design process needs to be enlarged, to encompass ongoing evaluation and if necessary redesign with testing of workplace continuing beyond day 1 occupation. Therefore the space that remains unoccupied is not seen as a failure of design but as simply as an area which needs more development. Perhaps it also needs to be considered that it is not design that is the issue, but that the workers need to learn how to use this new kind of space. This then has impacts upon how we procure work place fitout. Can furniture and fitout companies offer components that are offered on rotation for changing needs over time, with leasing instead of outright purchase? Or designs with common component parts that can be reconfigured from a workstation setting to a meeting setting?
Are clients prepared to invest in these kinds of workplaces and the research required to achieve best practice? In Australia, in particular, research into workplace design and productivity has always been very limited and as in many other places has suffered further as a result of cost cutting in tough financial times. However does the changing nature of work and the workplace mean that the creation of great work places is no longer a choice but a necessity in order to attract and maintain the best workers, and get the most out of them?
Are today’s interior designers equipped to manage this process? Do they want to be? Unfortunately there are still too many clients who view interior design in a similar category to interior decoration. A strategic collaboration between interior design, research and the new Director of Work could see this change – or will this see interior design marginalized by a new genre of workplace productivity and strategy experts? What do you think as a designer or as someone who works in an office? Do you think workplace consultation is necessary? Would you like to be able to chose between a variety of work environments each day?