Work Ethics

While impressed by a new book that looks at how changing demographics should be changing the way offices are designed and the way work is done, Aidan Walker, wonders how you get management to read it

One of the most interesting – and perhaps depressing – things about Jeremy Myerson’s recently published book New Demographics New Workspace, co-authored with anthropologist Jo-Anne Bichard and psychologist Alma Erlich, is that throughout it assumptions are made about the readiness and willingness of managements to engage with the current zeitgeist of workplace design theory.

The managements I have come in direct contact with, God help me, have for the most part been far more interested in how many people they can cram into a space, and how cheaply, rather than taking the a la mode design route. All workplace design theory becomes more or less redundant when there is no client.

It’s an overstatement of course; most reasonable people would agree that a better environment will contribute to better work, and a worse one is damaging to productivity. It’s also true that the admirable book by Myerson et al does not ignore the sort of management that stays firmly outside the definition of ‘design client’. A small example, from the chapter where the authors get stuck into the reassessment of open-plan working (it’s not all good, folks – something I think we’ve known all along, haven’t we?): ‘It seems in the rush to break down walls, confidential work has become synonymous with non-transparent and nonproductive work. Closed-off spaces are assumed by management to be misused for private, nonlegitimate purposes…’ It’s refreshing that the book recognises and includes ‘unenlightened’ management, depressing that it’s still there, managing away – and, although well-nigh impossible to quantify, it’s my personal belief that in the UK, it’s in the majority.

This is probably because the majority of UK businesses are SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) employing fewer than 250 people. I say majority; how about 99.9 per cent? And that’s not all. The 2009 statistics from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tells us what we need to know: ‘4.8 million UK private sector enterprises employed an estimated 22.8 million people. Almost all of these enterprises (99.3 per cent) were small (0 to 49 employees). Only 27,000 (0.6 per cent) were medium-sized (50 to 249 employees) and 6,000 (0.1 per cent) were large (250 or more employees). So that means 22.64 million people in the UK work in companies with less than 50 people. No surprise that management are more concerned with how they’re going to pay the wage bill at the end of the month than giving everyone £500 chairs.

It�s a bit backward to start with one single observation of course, and I do not intend to detract from the book, which I repeat is an admirable piece of work from one of the UK’s most respected design theorists and academics (and journalists – Myerson was the launch editor of Design Week, having edited Design magazine for some years). He often quotes another workplace theory giant, with a reputation to equal, if not outstrip his own – Frank Duffy, long of workplace architect DEGW – but the truth is that although Duffy’s thinking is deep and wide on these matters, it is the estimable Myerson who has pursued this line of enquiry in strictly academic research terms for a generation now, and most enlightening it is. As long as you remember that his best and brightest workplace ideas, in UK terms at least, are unknown to 20 million or so people.

It all trickles down though, doesn’t it, (or at least we hope it does) like the anti-lock braking systems that used to be found only on Formula 1 racing cars and are now pretty much universal. Whether that argument holds or not, it is certainly the job of the researcher who strives to define a workplace design template for modern management to follow to track the latest ideas and match them against the reality.

And that is the express intention of the book, which is by way of being a ‘sequel’ to Myerson and Gavin Turner’s 1998 work New Culture New Workspace – which, says Myerson, ‘aimed to persuade senior managers in business and government to tear down walls, eradicate bureaucratic structures and remove cultural barriers to create more open work environments.’ Enter the open-plan office. ‘We felt we’d helped win the argument,’ continues Myerson, ‘about the direct impact of physical conditions on how people work, an issue often overlooked in management.’

In 2011, of course, that’s all changed. Open plan is heading for the pile marked ‘Unfashionable’ – and worse, ‘Ineffective’. But the new signifier, say Myerson and his colleagues, is demographic. ‘Demographic trends, which can be predicted with a measure of accuracy and confidence, provide a more stable basis to plan for change than either technological trends… or economic ones…. Demographics have a clear-cut, profound and entirely predictable impact on the workplace.’

The book’s thesis hinges on the two clear-cut and entirely predictable characteristics of today’s workforce (SME or not): a) they are older and b) more and more of them (us) are ‘knowledge workers’. The research was done in Japan, where the ageing of the population is more marked than anywhere else in the world – by 2050 the average age will be 55 (in the UK the number of people of pensionable age has just exceeded the number of those under 16; Australia, which although seen as a ‘young’ country is following the same demographic trends and one in four Australians will be over 60 by 2025).

As for knowledge work (as opposed to process work), which depends on cerebration rather than manipulation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines knowledge-based industries as medium to high-tech manufacturing, financial services, business services, telecommunications, education and health services. Plus let’s add ourselves in there – the creatives, the communicators. OECD data indicates that 43 per cent of the national income in the USA and Germany is from knowledge-based industries; in the UK it’s 41 per cent, and bizarrely, top of the list is Ireland at 48 per cent. Not quite a majority in any terms, but enormously significant, enough so to spark a whole new set of workplace design parameters.

To cut a long story short, knowledge workers, who are usually older, not only need recognition from those old-fashioned managers we met earlier who often don’t understand what their people do for a living (one of the book’s cartoons has a manager observing someone at a desk saying: ‘He’s unusually quiet, even for a knowledge worker. How do we know he’s not asleep?’) but also a range of work environments depending on which bit of their work they happen to be doing.

Concentration, collaboration, contemplation are the names of the knowledge workers’ games. And in many ways, concentration is the most important. An open-plan office, where even though you might not be able to hear exactly what someone is saying on the phone two desks away, it is audible enough to destroy your thought process, does not make for good concentration. Likewise, collaborative spaces are important and necessary – when they are needed; and contemplative spaces, where traditionally we can go to stare at the wall and be productive in a way a traditional manager will never understand, will also make the knowledge worker more productive (though how productivity is actually measured in this context remains to be seen).

We can design flexible offices, and move not only tables and chairs around, but also walls and corridors; we can even disassociate ourselves from being fixed in one building and adopt a more light-footed, ‘networked’ approach to office accommodation; we can facilitate mobile and home working (although traditional management’s fear of people skiving off has to be overcome); we can install smart furniture systems like Pearson Lloyd’s PARCS for Bene, whose unusual and eccentric forms can support the three Cs, as long as the floor plate is big enough and management’s attitudes are flexible enough. We can even head, as Frank Duffy has been telling us, towards a world where office buildings themselves are more or less redundant and work, for the most part, is done on the fly.

We can do all of these things, and a significant minority of enlightened management will push the process forward. That’s why books like this one are crucial: they set the agenda. If Myerson and Turner were indeed successful in helping management see their responsibilities towards their workers’ wellbeing and productivity in new ways in 1998, then New Demographics New Workspace will, without a shadow of a doubt, perform the same function in 2011. It’s meticulously researched, accessibly written, and properly supported in true academic (and journalistic) fashion with references and closely reasoned argument.

Any workplace designer needs it – but not as much as those legions of managers of 20 million or so people and who are not, nor perhaps ever shall be, that workplace designer’s clients. That’s who we need to reach. Lord knows how.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial