Movement to cubicle to open plan to variety and back

A brief flit through the last 50 or so years of office design would tend to suggest that architects, furniture manufacturers and management have spent an inordinate amount of time getting it wrong – usually in an attempt to save money.

In 1964 Herman Miller launched a revolutionary piece of work called Action Office. Created by Robert Propst and George Nelson, the system was designed to encourage movement. It was, as Nikil Saval, the author of the excellent Cubed: A secret history of the workplace, has pointed out: ‘At once homey and utterly modern,’ including a desk, a standing desk, and a ‘communications centre’ for the telephone that was acoustically insulated. Oh and it was breezily colourful too. The future it seemed was here but the problem was the price. All this beautiful work came at a cost that companies were unwilling to pay.

Duly chastened Propst (who by now had fallen out with Nelson) went back to the drawing board and, in an effort to make the office utterly adaptable, came up with Action Office II. Taking up less space than its predecessor it included three walls set at jaunty angles, a desk and a variety of shelving. ‘Intentionally depersonalised, the new Action Office would be a template for any individual to create his or her own ideal work space,’ writes Saval. While the designer’s intention was to provide the workforce with a sense of choice, more often than not those partitions were set at 90 degrees and the hugely popular Action Office II ushered in the era of the now much-derided cubicle – once memorably described in Dezeen by the architect Clive Wilkinson as ‘humiliating, disenfranchising and isolating’.

So to encourage collaboration and transparency (or to save money and make sure the management can keep an eye on its staff depending on your point of view), slowly but inexorably the fabric covered partitioning walls gave way to the open plan office many of us inhabit today. Trouble is people don’t much like that either. Numerous reports have pointed out how going open plan reduces productivity and lowers workplace satisfaction. In an effort to combat this (or, hey, lower costs) and aided by new technology, some firms have become more flexible. During a recent talk at Bisley, for instance, Gary Wingrove, BT’s projects and construction director, outlined how in 2000 the company told 15,000 of its staff that they were going to be working from home. ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,’ he said. ‘It freed up a lot of space around the estate.’ Currently though home workers are down to around 7000. ‘Part of the issue was performance management,’ he explained. ‘You just lose people’s motivation.’

So where are we at now? Flexibility appears to be the buzzword. With workers no longer needing a dedicated desk and designers liberated by the fact that they don’t have to fret so much over cable management, it’s about giving workers a variety of spaces, places and furniture to do different types of work. As Luke Pearson, co-founder of PearsonLloyd, said at Bisley’s ‘Designing for Modern Work event earlier in the year “some people will want to be close to others and some will need individual space for total concentration - different work attracts different types of people with different types of personalities and they respond to different types of environments.

Flexible working is often about encouraging movement and it’s noticeable how many new offices have become, well, more homely. All of which sounds a bit like the original Action Office doesn’t it? Makes you wonder what we’ve been doing for the last half century.