Maybe the time has come to shoot the workplace messenger

by Rob Harris

I spent some time with Frank Duffy recently, releasing a stream of memories of working with him, first as an employee at DEGW during the 1980s, and then as a client while directing developer Stanhope’s research programme during the 1990s. Along with his long-term business partner, John Worthington, and thinkers including Franklin Becker, Gerald Davis, Michael Joroff and Jack Tanis, to name a few, Frank helped sketch out the grand scheme of what we now call ‘workplace’. Much of the work of their successors has involved filling in the matrix of detail within the grand scheme. But further reflection has caused me to ask whether, in filling in the finer details, we have recently somehow lost our way. Are we, the ‘workplace profession’, instead of standing on giants’ shoulders, now just pandering to fads and fancies? Or, even more radical, might it be that ‘workplace’ is now done, and that we’ve run out of meaningful things to say?


Back to the beginning … 

I ask these questions because much workplace ‘research’ that I have read in recent years (say, the past five) is not research in the commonly-accepted sense of the term. Rather, much of it is agenda-driven, serving the purposes of narrowly-defined interest groups. Some of it is simply opinion gathering, in the tradition of “eight out of ten cat owners said ….”, with little attention given to social science rigour. Some of it is so devoid of context that it simply crumbles to dust when methodologies are exposed to scrutiny.

Duffy began to publish back in the 1970s and, for my money, one of his earliest articles counts among his most incisive and instructive. The figure represented here (by today’s MS Office standards, a somewhat primitive diagram) appeared in a 1974 article, arguing that different organisational characteristics demand various kinds of office layouts.


The fact is that an organisation and an individual will have different perspectives on what is a ‘good’ workplace. The design imperative is to provide settings which accommodate a balance between the corporate and individual perspectives. Duffy was one of the earliest to link organisational ecology with physical form.

A decade after Duffy’s article two Harvard academics, Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti, released a landmark article in which they sought to … challenge the customary ways of thinking about offices and show how managers can gain the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of the new technologies. Managers can integrate physical layout, design, and communications to support organizational objectives that:

• Emphasize informal exchange.
• Reassign people to different work teams and study groups.
• Provide many employees access to specialized equipment.
• Value individual initiative and mobility.
• Derive payoffs from serendipity.
• Attract talent employees. Increase productivity while reducing office costs.

The authors went on to suggest that: Any coherent rethinking of an office plan requires that management integrate facilities, communications, and computers in accord with company objectives. The article was, possibly, the first formulation of what we now call activity-based workstyles. (For an extended discussion of the benefits and risks surrounding open plan offices, see also “Keeping an open mind about the open plan office” by Maciej Markowski in Work&Place #5 from May 2015)

These two articles illustrate the role of research in helping us understand the relationship between organisation and worker. And, of course, there have been many enlightening pieces of research since these early examples: it would be quite wrong to suggest otherwise.However, over the past few years there seems to have been a step-change in the quantity of material vying for attention and, yes, a consequent dilution in the overall quality of the work.

Barely a week passes without some new research purporting to offer fresh insight into how today’s workplace can be nudged in the direction of a more perfect future. Three thematic examples will suffice to illustrate the nature of the problem: open and enclosed space planning; wellbeing in the workplace; and the march of the millennials.


Open and enclosed space planning

As long ago as 1994, in his much-underrated book How Buildings Learn, Stuart Brand discussed an American model, referred to as ‘caves and commons’, whereby office workers had private offices, often quite small, opening onto generously-planned open areas surrounded by other private offices.

The open area contained vending, couches and informal meeting tables, possibly even a library. Such an arrangement meant that a worker “could shut the door of your cave and concentrate, or you can leave your door open and keep an eye on who’s coming and going in the commons”. The ambience is “congenial and homey” encouraging “casual encounters which … are at the heart of creativity in offices”.

Such a model was given further expression a few years later in New Environments for Working, which introduced the idea of cells, clubs, dens, and hives as alternative work settings. Such work oozed common sense rather than design sense.