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Donkin on Work - Workplace Change

July 2005 – workplace design

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the back of a taxi with Chris Moorhouse, the former group vice president of human resources at BP. We had travelled no more than 20 yards before he coughed and shifted forward uneasily in his seat. “Do you mind fastening your seatbelt,” he said. “I’m afraid old habits die hard”.

He was quite right to remind me. I rarely travel in the back of cars and I have been slow to acquire the seat-belt habit as a rear passenger even though I insist that my children belt up in the back (in every sense of the phrase).

I had not pursued his comment about “old habits” but its origins became crystal clear last week when I visited one of the UK’s most advanced office spaces at BP’s 33-acre office park at Sunbury to the west of London.

At BP safety is pursued with a fervour that borders on zealotry. If you stand for any length of time in a corridor you are politely requested to move. If you are spotted, as I was, taking notes while mounting the stairs, you are reminded ever so gently that you are contravening the “stair policy”. This policy forbids the use of mobile phones, pausing for a moment to pass the time of day, or generally doing anything on stairs beyond going up or down them.

Outside, crossing the road, I joked about what might happen if I stepped out while the traffic light displayed the “red man”. “This is Big Brother,” said my guide. The remark was made innocently enough but I found it impossible to dismiss its original sinister overtones. In spite of the remarkably innovative approach to the design of the site by its lead architect, Ian Wallace, a director of Broadway Malyan, architects, it was impossible to escape the impression that this is one workplace where employees are expected to be on their best behaviour at all times.

Can you imagine how stifling this must be for the go-anywhere types who drill oil wells in some of the most inhospitable parts of the world? My own experience of the site was akin to eating buns under the watchful gaze of a maiden aunt checking the carpet for crumbs.

The compensation, however, is a working environment that has tried to second-guess every pet hate of the office worker. For many years it was my misfortune to work in a hermetically sealed, smoked-glass box with no natural light or opening windows. At the main BP building in Sunbury a thin stream of water glides outside its curving north face sending cool air on hot days through windows that open the way windows used to do. This efficient air-cooling system is cheaper, simpler and a far more desirable alternative to conventional air conditioning.

In the old offices staff had complained about a shortage of meeting rooms so the new buildings have “breakout spaces” where people can sit and chat in confidence, or work away from a desk. All staff can use cordless telephones and lap top computers. The idea is to promote better communications and greater opportunities for the kind of unplanned meetings that can sometimes inspire new ideas or projects.

Mr Wallace is convinced that good design in what he calls the “built environment” can have a positive impact on work and productivity. This seems a reasonable assumption. But how much difference does it make? Some of the most sparkling literary and artistic work has emerged from the humble garret. Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom in Arles reveals bare floorboards, a bed, two chairs, a small table, a few pictures and a nail in the wall for his towel.

In their book, Organizing Genius, The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, found that tatty offices and threadbare furniture were commonplace in some of the most innovative programmes to emerge in the US. Hewlett Packard, Walt Disney and Apple Computer were all started in garages.

Experiments at Western Electric’s Chicago Hawthorne Works during the 1920s, seeking to prove the advantages of electric lighting, found that worker output went up even when the lights were dimmed to the level of moonlight. Assembly teams produced better work in spite of the poorer conditions, leading management theorists to conclude that production had improved because the employees were receiving lots of attention and felt special as a result.

This is not to say that great work is linked to poor working conditions, but it does suggest that a scruffy workplace need not inhibit performance. Great work has much more to do with encouragement, trust and the belief that the work is going to make a difference, that it is worthwhile. We all crave recognition and an occasional pat on the back goes a long way. But some managers seem reluctant to praise employees for fear that it might prove divisive or that it could prompt a request for a pay rise. They should take the risk.

Whether or not good workplace design matters as much as good management, companies like BP, that care about the provision of excellent and innovative working conditions, should be commended. Yes, their staff nag each other constantly about safety and, in their business, we must be thankful that they do.

Broadway Malyan are among a number of leading architects and designers seeking to make workplaces more environmentally sustainable. William McDonough and Partners, a US-based design company, is pioneering concepts in sustainable design and recycling.

One of its latest projects has been to design a new city for 2m people to be constructed near Liuzhou in China. The city has been designed so that every window in every building catches the sun at some part of the day. All sewage will be purified in bamboo wetlands on the fringes of the city and every roof will support layers of earth allowing farmers to plant crops and orchards on top. Each building is to be linked by bridges to allow the passage of farm machinery. Imagine raised fields with houses and offices beneath and you get the picture.

The idea of farming on the roofs of buildings, however, is not new. Joseph Bonomi, a 19th century architect, solved a humidity problem at Temple Mill in Leeds by insulating the roof with pitch. A layer of earth was laid to prevent the pitch from melting and grass was seeded to bind the soil. Finally a flock of sheep was introduced to keep the grass short. But Bonomi’s design did nothing to improve the conditions of mill workers.

Sir Nicholas Pevsner criticised Victorian architects for doing little more than work on the exteriors of the early factories. Not until William Morris, the designer and Philip Webb, the architect began to promote the crafts did the most enlightened Victorians begin to appreciate a link between good architecture, good design and good work.

The best architects and designers today have re-established this link. Beyond this they are beginning to broaden their concerns, recognising that workplaces should no longer be designed in isolation from their natural and social environment. Great workplace design is not about fancy exteriors. Sometimes it’s as simple as a window with hinges.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved