If you are reading this column, you are probably either sitting at a desk in an office, in a car, or at home in the evening, having stubbed out the working day. But you could work just as effectively in an air-conditioned shipping container in a warehouse in California or in a wireless-enabled lounge overlooking a lake in Texas, according to Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross, authors of Space To Work: New Office Design. This latest book from two leading researchers on office design is a riveting compilation of radical workspaces that shatter the Dilbert archetype, spanning private, public and non-profit sectors.
Striking a balance
Myerson and Ross’ thesis is a universally valid observation that “knowledge workers will increasingly seek to achieve a balance between four conflicting sets of relationships: colleagues within the employing organization; professional peers; customers in the marketplace; and friends and family in the home. Work itself will thus spread across a continuum of locations—corporate campus; city; home; and settings for professional association and networks”.
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Companies seeking to maximize productivity will give their employees more choice about where and how they work, rather than constantly watching over their shoulders. Contemporary work practices should be reflected in up-to-date physical environments. Depending on the kinds of relationships most important to your business, this is how your workspace could be configured:
The academy, or learning campus
The academy describes companies which actively encourage a collaborative approach to work, with a “conscious desire for knowledge workers to cross-pollinate ideas”. With modern work life being dominated by meetings and group discussions, this spatial typology applies to almost any industry.
The built environment in cutting-edge “academies” promotes employee communication in unexpected ways, from the literal (such as a 200m-long continuous concrete table for an advertising agency in London) to the symbolic (BMW’s stunning new factory, where the actual car production line itself cuts through the offices in the central administrative building).
The guild, or professional cluster
This is the authors’ term for a new type of workplace that “brings together people with a shared professional skill or specialism” and is inspired by medieval trade associations that existed in many European cities before the Industrial Revolution. A new breed of professionals, such as creative practitioners, scientists and engineers, are re-establishing such associations. Case studies include enlightened public institutions such as the national parliaments of Scotland and Finland, whose architecture provides a contemporary work setting without compromising on grandeur.
The agora, or public workplace
In ancient Greece, the agora was the central marketplace of a city, the destination for trade and commerce. For many companies today, being “visible” and close to their customers is a central need and they must have a public face. Organizations can choose to do so by constructing iconic city landmarks, such as Norman Forster’s “Gherkin” for Swiss Re in London, or occupying historic public buildings such as the San Francisco Ferry Building of 1898, which now houses a law firm.
The lodge, or live-home setting
Living and working in the same setting can be an attractive proposition, as start-up entrepreneurs or freelance writers will testify. Creative examples of this growing trend include purpose-built “Live/Work” apartment blocks in Seattle and even an eccentric ‘wigwam’ office in an English garden.
Space to Work was published before the downturn transformed employee-employer relationships into a one-way street. An inspiring office may seem a luxury today, but companies bold enough to think of innovation during a downturn will find it a worthwhile read—it is as much a compilation of visionary organizations as it is a study of their physical habitats.
Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross, Space To Work: New Office Design, Laurence King Publishing (London), 2006, £35.
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