Wednesday 10 June 2015

Offices on the airwaves

Tooley Street, Southwark Council Offices where AMA introduced
modern ways of working
Images © 2012 Gareth Gardner

Offices are in the news again, prompted in the UK by new advice on the health benefits of standing at work and in Finland by the decision by Juha Sipilä, the recently-elected Prime Minister of Finland, that his Cabinet will work alongside officials in an open plan office*.

Following the news from Helsinki, the BBC World Service asked Alexi Marmot to comment on open plan offices. Alexi pointed out that, whilst organisations tend to cite better communication, collaboration and supervision, open plan offices offer great economic gains - are generally cheaper to construct - requiring fewer walls, less servicing, and simpler environmental controls. And they also enable organisations to accommodate more people more efficiently.

Open plan space can be fine for routine work but can become more controversial where work is confidential or privacy for conversation is needed. The most frequent criticism from those working in open plan offices is that they are noisy and disturbing but, says Alexi, noise is partly a function of how you interpret sound: “It’s possible for people to get into a zone of concentration in extremely noisy environments. Working in complete quiet can also be a problem.”

Last week BBC Radio 4 re-broadcast The Search for The Perfect Office a half-hour programme presented by Claudia Hammond with contributions from researchers, including Professor Dylan Jones and Dr Bill Macken (Cardiff University School of Psychology;  Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University and Professor Alexi Marmot (UCL and AMA).

There certainly seems to be a gap between our dreams of the “perfect office” and the reality, with those interviewed hankering for a cafĂ© table in an Italian square or a garden room with a view.

As expected, architects come in for some criticism, particularly over their choice of materials. Favoured finishes such as stone, glass, metal and concrete are all hard, reflective surfaces that contribute to the most common complaints about modern office life – noise and lack of privacy.

There seems to be something of a paradox here as people (both managers and staff) often say they like the “vibrant”, “buzzy” atmosphere of their office whilst complaining that they can’t concentrate there and retreating to the coffee shop or home.

The notion that lively, quirky offices are particularly conducive to creativity was questioned by contributors. Quiet and noisy people, introverts and extroverts are all creative, so we need to think about individual traits rather than stereotypes.

The researchers pointed out the subtleties of acoustic design. Volume is not necessarily important in terms of interference, change is the key. A relatively loud background hubbub may also be preferable to perfect silence which can be intimidating. Research shows that people do not get “used to” intrusive noise  - a point picked up at the recent Healthy Workplace event, see

Addressing the issue of research, Alexi Marmot said that most architectural research is geared to the physical aspects of buildings, rather than to the organisations and individuals that occupy them and their perceptions. She explained that most office buildings are designed not for occupiers but for the market, so cannot necessarily be attuned to specific users’ needs. The margins on most architectural work make it difficult to do new research or even to spend time reading the research that exists.

“The building industry and clients generally don’t want to hear bad news but when we do post-occupancy evaluations (POEs) we nearly always identify quite small, simple things that can be fixed there and then, often quite cheaply.”

Alexi pointed to the trend towards “activity-based working”, which means people can move to places appropriate to the work that they’re doing.

“Our research suggests that the ‘perfect office’ often starts with where it is and how you reach it. Daylight and a view, especially of nature, are important, along with environmental comfort and good IT support. However, the best workplaces, as voted for by users, consistently demonstrate more abstract values such as trust, respect and fairness. These are a function of organisational culture but the physical space can also express these values.”

*Listen to a report on the Finnish government’s plans and comparisons with other administrations (from 24:10)