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.
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
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
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.
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
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.