The changing face, and place, of the workspace

Grant Gibson discusses the continuing trend for the adoption of domestic elements in workplaces.

The fact that our offices are increasingly beginning to resemble our homes isn’t news. However, the fact that this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future was recently reinforced to me during a panel discussion I chaired at the RIBA. Part of the London Architecture Festival, The Changing Face of the Workspace featured contributions from Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A secret history of the workplace, the principal director of design practice MoreySmith Linda Morey-Burrows, Imogen Privett, a research associate at the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and the critic, columnist and educator Sam Jacob, formerly of course of architect FAT.

It was an evening that gamboled from references to Ebenzer Howard’s garden cities to the Halifax Building Society’s advertising campaigns of the 1980s (featuring that bloke with a cat who lived in a loft conversion) via Herman Miller’s Action Office, Primark’s new workspace, and how some office’s are returning to the model of the old Guilds. What each contributor agreed upon was that, thanks largely to technology, the division between work and leisure will become increasingly difficult to discern. Interestingly (and quite independently) both Jacob and Privett showed an image of the same office as an example of Taylorism – the production efficiency model that broke every task into simple segments and effectively turned workers into machines whose outputs could be measured simply –  in their respective presentations, the Johnson Wax Headquarters designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As the classic photograph sat on the screen behind us, I couldn’t help thinking that although the tasks undertaken in that building may have been mind-numbing, there was a simplicity and a strange kind of honesty in the system. It may have been brutal and uncreative but every one knew where they stood.

It was intriguing to contrast this with images of offices Morey-Burrows has done for the likes of Coca-Cola and Red Bull. They looked like beautiful, inventive places to work with splashes of vintage detailing, giving them a warm and, yes, domestic feel. Rather than being tethered to their desks, workers in the images appeared relaxed, laid back and in tune with their convivial surroundings. These were environments you’d be happy to spend a lot of time. Which I guess is my concern. It seems to me that open plan, collaborative offices – with their breakout spaces, great coffee shops and shared digital calendars that let every one know exactly where you are and what you’re doing – tend to be anything but transparent. Instead they operate a model that could be accurately described as a form of reverse-Taylorism. The environment sucks you in and encourages you to spend longer and longer in the workplace – as if it were a home from home, which although beautiful was not a phrase anyone would use to describe the Lloyd Wright building.

It may be that, as Sam Jacob pointed out, the division between work and home was fundamentally a construct of the industrial revolution when workers left the fields to join the factories and that, now so many workers are part of the knowledge economy, we may in some way simply be returning to a pre-industrial model, only with added mobile devices. However, the effect this will have on society and urban planning in the medium to long term can only be guessed at. As Nikil Saval proved during his talk the history of the office is fundamentally the story of (almost certainly well-intentioned) designers creating problems that other designers have to fix.