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Tag: workplace

The office furniture design scene certainly came alive in the early 1990s. New ideas and new technologies wove themselves into the grand narrative of new ways of working. Everything was possible and there was no longer one best way of doing things. In New York, Chiat Day’s offices featured touch-down desks, garish crimson floors and walls and a reception framed by a huge pair of plastic, glistening lips. In Helsinki, Sol Cleaning Services did away completely with ideas as outmoded as desks and working hours. In the UK, British Airways gave their staff olive groves and indoor streams to work alongside. And in London a small media company called Michaelides and Bednash had offices that consisted of a room furnished with a single 20m long serviced table for its 20 staff to share.

Such workplaces were surely one-offs, mere footnotes to the grand narrative. So, while workplace design has almost beyond recognition since that time, plastic lips and olive groves are still a rarity. Little wonder that the eminent workplace theorist and designer Frank Duffy wrote the following of the Michaelides and Bednash office in his 1997 book The New Office:

‘The Michaelides and Bednash table would not work for many of the companies featured in this book. The office space is very specific to the business it houses.’

And that should have been that.

Except for one thing.

The long table with a core of data, comms and power servicing favoured by Michaelides and Bednash – now commonly known as a bench system – has become one of the great office design success stories of the last few years. Pretty much all furniture manufacturers have a bench system as their standard offering.

But why should this be? With all the space planning and product options now available to us why should such a product have taken off in quite the way it has? I ask this question with no vested interest. As designers we are free to create whatever working environment and recommend whatever products we think best meets the needs our clients. It’s also very apparent to me that the bench is a good solution in many environments. I’m with Frank Duffy on that point.

I’m also aware of the advantages of benches. I know the arguments about teamworking, space efficiency and simplicity. But what seems to me to be less apparent is why they are specified in environments where they are clearly not the best solution. Benches can be inflexible, impersonal, often make overly intensive use of space and can be too regimented. They fly in the face of the notion that the workplace is an organic environment that must respond to and encourage complex flows of people, information and ideas.

The real shame is that they have come to dominate so much of what office furniture manufacturers assume as an ideal workplace solution when there are so many opportunities to innovate. Contemporary facilities managers have a wider range of planning models, finishes and products than ever before. The office furniture market in the UK offers a vibrant range of solutions so while the bench is a useful element in the overall picture, it can also become counterproductive when it is selected as a default rather than chosen as the best solution.

…And talking of sci-fi noir movies based on Philip K Dick stories, here’s Blade Runner.

The dreamy setting here is a contrast to the grime and sleaze in the City below and also supports the unresolved notion that Deckard may be a replicant himself. Clearly the workplace smoking ban had been repealed by this time, but then where would a femme fatale be without a cigarette? Even if she is an android.

The new world of work is profoundly liberating for office designers. It used to be the case that space planners applied a fairly simple mathematical model to work out the majority of office designs, based on the size of the building divided by the number (and status) of the people that had to fit into it. Nowadays, a workplace can be a far more sophisticated machine for working in (to paraphrase le Corbusier) and typically include a much greater variety of spaces in which to carry out work.

With people free to wander around with laptops and cordless phones and with an increased focus on teamwork, the need for personal space diminishes just as that for collaborative space increases. That is why so many contemporary offices incorporate a far greater number and variety of meeting rooms, learning areas, break-out spaces and café’s, (and also, conversely, why so many now feature shared, bookable cellular offices for private work – we all need time to ourselves). The same spaces are also perfect for visitors to offices, be they temporary staff, customers, suppliers or road warriors (aka salespeople). As a direct consequence the role of the reception has changed and an increasing number of firms use their reception team in a way reminiscent of a hotel concierge.

The social role of the office is reflected in a new aesthetic with a much greater use of what were once seen as purely domestic forms, colours and materials.

These are interesting times and the great beauty of this new freedom in the way we design offices is the way in which it allows firms to resolve the increasingly complex demands placed on organisations, the people who work for them and the technology they use.


Photos of Acxiom by Claremont Group Interiors


You might not feel like it right at this moment, but most people don’t find Mondays much of a problem. At least they don’t according to a YouGov report published last week. Nearly three quarters of those surveyed claimed they were ‘up for it’ at the beginning of the week and 80 per cent were at the very least satisfied with their workplace. Only 6 per cent said they ‘resented’ going in to work.

Now, one of the problems with surveys like this is that we are left to our own devices when it comes to speculating what it all means. We could be cynical and suggest that people are just saying what they think the researchers would like. Or that people don’t want the cracks to appear during a period of job shedding. Or we could just take it at face value which seems more reasonable. Especially when the survey also identifies the most common complaints about work. Commuting tops the list for just over a quarter of people followed by a fifth who would like better facilities for their lunch.

What we’d take from it is that people like going to work, but they know it’s not perfect. Not exactly Earth shattering, but heartening in a cynical world and in uncertain times.

Published by Ann Clarke

Has there ever been a government more interested in work and the workplace than this one? Following announcements on the procurement, design and environmental performance of property, this week David Cameron announced that he wanted to measure people’s happiness. His statement was peppered with references to flexible working, balance and control. And the questions needed to work out how happy we are now being proposed by the Office for National Statistics should have a very familiar feel for anybody who has ever completed a workplace satisfaction survey.

This is a significant shift for governments in the UK who have typically been more interested in the big economic indicators such as GDP rather than the little ones like GWB (general wellbeing). There are problems of course, not least in measuring and defining what we mean. Happiness is a very subjective notion and we all have our own ideas on how to achieve it, some more mundane or out there than others.

But it does have some heavyweight intellectual backing, not least from Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. It has also attracted the interest of other countries. It is not only a very Zeitgeist-y idea but one that is backed up by the hard facts. What drives us and makes us happy isn’t money. Lack of money may make us unhappy, but once we’ve sorted that out, we need something more that cannot be measured in pounds.

Great Video by Dan Pink called The surprising truth about what motivates us …

The current economic climate is helping to transform the way we work and the places we work. One of the most important trends to keep an eye on in the coming years is the changing demographic of the workforce. According to a report published this week by The Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, around 40 per cent of employees are already planning to work beyond the current state retirement age of 65 and another 25 per cent haven’t decided.

This has only a limited amount to do with Government’s phasing out of the default retirement age next October announced recently. Around half of the people surveyed were against the right of employers to oblige employees to retire when they reach their 65th birthday. Just under three-quarters cited finance as their reason not to retire, followed by a need to continue to use their skills and experience (47 per cent), to maintain the benefits of social interaction in the workplace (41 per cent) and self-esteem (34 per cent).

In short, older people want to go to work for pretty much the same reasons as everybody else.

There are two things we can take from this. The first is that the ongoing reports of the death of the office are as exaggerated as they have ever been. For all its difficulties and imperfections, the workplace is still a source of those things which makes us human; our need for interaction, esteem and fulfilment. It is this that binds us to the workplace.

The second is that the design of the office will have to continue its evolution to fulfil the needs of a diverse group of people. This means addressing the cultural, behavioural and technological demands of people through the physical environment which, in turn, demands a sophisticated approach, one that is not based on preconceptions and stereotypes. For example, it would be wrong to say that one generation is by definition more technologically literate than another, but it may be true that there is a different relationship with technology that needs to be considered.

Posted by Ann Clarke

If you need any more evidence for our changing attitudes to work, it came in a May survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which found that flexible working is the most highly valued benefit for employees, way ahead of pay and bonuses. Flexible working arrangements were rated the most important benefit by 47 per cent of those surveyed, above performance related bonuses, which came second (19 per cent).

Crucially there wasn’t really much difference between the sexes in the survey, and better work life balance was seen as a more achievable goal in the long term than higher pay. Nor is this a straightforwardly generational issue because it is amongst the much discussed Gen Y bracket where you’ll find a majority who picture their future workplace as a city centre office. 

This is clearly a complex issue informed by complex motivations and expectations. Maybe it is a sign of the times, as people look for certainty in their inner life rather than the external economy. With a new government looking to extend the rights to flexible working, this subject will continue to inform the way we design and manage workplaces for many years to come.

Published on April 29th

Despite the best efforts of politicians and CEOs to convince us there is something ennobling about it, for many of us, work is just a means of putting bread on the table - a portrait of the modern workplace which is a depressing one indeed. Commercial lexicon about working life has also traditionally been pretty negative – full of talk of attacking competitors, outflanking manoeuvres and offensive strategy.

So far so grim…

Over the past few years, however, a new vocabulary has emerged that embraces softer notions of creativity, intellect, freedom and – let’s not be coy – fun. And by fun, we’re not necessarily talking about David Brent fun, company endorsed silliness and a boss dressed in an ostrich suit cracking stupid jokes, but rather enjoyment in work, enjoying time with colleagues, relaxed, easy-going and a natural part of the culture of the business. Having a laugh with people you like, doing something you love. ……

Read the rest of the comment at work-doesnt-have-to-be-a-four-letter-word

Published by Ann Clarke







There has always been a pretty close link between the labour market and office design.

So, as the unemployment statistics continue to hover just under the 2.5 million mark but at a time when the recession seems finally to be coming to an end, you have to wonder what impact the changing jobs market and the possible economic revival will have on the way we manage and design our workplaces. How will we be affected by the shift from a knowledge economy in which employers had to compete for talent to one in which there may be an oversupply in some areas? There is no doubt that the downturn is having an effect on demand for commercial property, but will there be any change in the way we work?

The conundrum that has dominated management thinking over the last two decades is this:

if your main asset is knowledge and that knowledge is largely locked up in people’s heads, how do you attract those heads to your organisation? Then, once they are safely in your employ, how do you make them stay there or at the very least empty some of the contents into computers and other people’s heads before they go?

It is this riddle that has led to the dominance of ‘soft’ issues in management thinking and why workplace design has focussed increasingly on softer business issues such as corporate culture, the environment and knowledge management. It has driven the growth of flexible work practices as organisations have tried to give people a better work-life balance. It has driven the softening of the workplace itself, the growth of break-out space and the focus on the team.

The economy is still founded on knowledge, and as we emerge from the current crisis the same soft principles that have shaped workplace design over the last few years are sure to be important factors in business recovery and success.

Posted by Ann Clarke 29th April