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Donkin on Work - Hot Desking & Office Design

January 2002 - The modern office

Sitting in our offices day after day, we find it easy to assume that people have always hunched over desks in rows or cubicles or in sterile, beige rooms doing what is expected of them.

The office is more than a century old. Its occupant, the white-collar worker, is equally antiquated. The phrase "white-collar worker" was first used by Upton Sinclair, the American socialist writer. In one of his novels, The Brass Check, he described the "petty underlings of the business world, the poor office clerks ... who, because they are allowed to wear a white collar, regard themselves as members of the capitalist class".

Sinclair understood the seductive appeal of the office to people whose boiler-suited fathers had known nothing other than the dirty factory workbench, or whose mothers had contented themselves with daily domestic work as housewives. The office offered more than a job; it laid the foundations for the middle class and millions of prospective Pooters who could see the potential of the work space for consolidating their real or imagined status.

In anew century, the office remains the bastion of big business and, in spite of attempts at modernisation, the desk-bound work space appears as important to the working man and woman as it was a hundred years ago.

Never mind the trendy experiments such as Andersen's "Zen Zones" at its London headquarters, or Thomas Cook's Falkirk building with a stream running through the office, or the garden swings for meetings at Digital Corporation's Helsinki headquarters, or the "Work Yurt" self-assembly kits that can be bought for garden-based working; these are the exceptions. The reality of the office for the vast majority of us is a box with windows - if we are lucky.

A new report from the UK's Industrial Society*, based partly on a survey of office workers, found that more people were dissatisfied with their working space than with their jobs. While 12 per cent of those working in offices were unhappy with their jobs, almost twice the number - 23 per cent - said they did not like their offices.

The reason for this dissatisfaction may have something to do with a lack of interest in office design among most employers. In spite of a renewed interest in offices among designers, reflected in some innovative workplaces, relatively few work spaces are custom-built. Most employers base their calculations on the availability of floor space and rent per square foot.

This general lack of interest in the work space, however, does not prevent office dwellers from making the most of their surroundings. In fact, says the report, the office has become a battleground as workers vie with each other for prime window space or the most spacious desk. As Max Nathan, the report's author, points out: "The time, energy, effort and creativity that the UK workforce spends avoiding their places of work or modifying them to something that fits their needs, is time that is not being spent on jobs."

Yet no one, it seems, is more intent on preserving the office system than management; and nothing signals status more than the size and position of the office, not to mention the quality of the furnishings.

Although, as the report points out, "anything can act as a status marker", where there are no obvious differences people tend to create their own status symbols. It may be a subtle change such as placing a desk across the corner of a room. This is a typical assertion of control, providing a vantage point. Often the positioning of a desk is defensive. Many workers, apparently, like to face the door so they can see who comes in. In one US office there was significance in the positioning of exotic plants. Workers with two plants next to their desks were supervisors.

There is no limit to the pettiness that some people will display in an effort to outline a pecking order. One woman interviewed for the report said that she had arrived at her office to find the names of its occupants listed alphabetically outside. Since she was the boss, she rearranged the list to put her name at the top.

The more important the boss, according to those interviewed in the research, the more ostentatious the use of office space, often respecting a traditional hierarchical order. The classic arrangement of offices, typical in UK government ministries, says the report, places the most important managers on the top floor with service staff in the basement and middle-ranking employees sandwiched in between. "Many of the vital cogs of the company - postroom workers, cleaners, care staff," it says, "get the very worst spaces in which to work".

Most office workers these days tend to work in partitioned spaces or cubicles, a layout invented in 1968 by the designer Robert Propst and mercilessly exposed in the Dilbert books, notes Mr Nathan, as a focus of "extreme standardisation, anonymity and isolation".

Even offices that introduce ideas such as " hot desking " or that economise elsewhere on office space, tend in many cases to preserve large private offices for the most senior managers, often with strategically parked secretaries to defend their space. These top managers invariably have exclusive use of their offices, whether or not they are around in the building. As one interviewee put it, when the boss is away, "the door is kept very much closed".

Given the technology that now allows many of us to work from home, coupled with the unreliability and expense of railway commuting, it is a wonder that anyone bothers to go to the office any more. More and more people appear to be opting out. The report says that a quarter of the UK workforce now carries out some work at home. The average desk, it says, is occupied for just 45 per cent of office hours. If employers want workers to spend more time in the office, says Mr Nathan, they should consult people more about work space.

The most extraordinary feature of this report is that it reveals the persistence of hierarchy and the continuing use of symbolism to convey status. One area it does not discuss is the window created by the internet into a world outside the office. But even this window is now denied to some, as is the personal e-mail and private telephone call. Maybe one day, when workers have voted with their feet, the boss will remain alone, unloved and stranded in his room with a view. But don't count on it.

* The state of the office: The politics and geography of working space, by Max Nathan, is published by The Work Foundation, price £20.

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