In the 19th century, the meteoric rise of global commerce, fueled the need for a white collar “support staff” – a class of the nimble witted, at the ready to sell their skills – examples of these skills included letters to clients, computation, transcription, analysis, records, and of course, promotion. The list of tasks has only grown and mutated from the multiple and long lineages of work as we know it. The physical need to put these workers somewhere, tells us the history of how actual workspace and offices became organized. Who has not seen the photographs from 1910 of rows and rows of cramped desks in large cavernous rooms? Filled to the brim with serious men; clerks chugging away at assigned tasks. These kinds of offices do still exist, but time and new economies have moved us in different directions. Those serious men of 1910 had no say in the design of their office life, and in fact, not many perks at all as we know them today. Much has changed, and many threads of commerce have come to define our notion of “the office”.
Computers have replaced typewriters, and women make up half the workforce. The laws protecting the average citizen have thankfully expanded. Whatever the work is, retaining trained personnel has become important for many a business. The design of the office environment is seen as a draw in worker retention and productivity. Whole graduate programs in behavioral psychology and architectural design are devoted to keeping the workforce content. Depending on the type of work that needs to be accomplished, you now have a dazzling array of different physical layouts to help in the quest of worker retention – which theoretically can predict a happy client outcome. The office has become an elastic and pliable concept, tailored to the combined needs of everyone involved.
There are many kinds of office spaces. One that people usually donʼt think of when they hear the word office is the ICU nurses station. This staff needs places to record and write, hence computers. Also a place for the EKG displays which must be highly visible to the right people within the space. They need a modicum of privacy to sit and relax while still being alert to what is going on around them. There is a need to surveil the rooms with ease. The adjacent halls must be absolutely uncluttered, as lifesaving equipment takes priority.
The immediate leadership usually has a separate closed off space away from the station. In his or her private area, reports are written, and sensitive situations resolved. The ICU is openly interactive. Doctors, administrators, aides, nurses and the families are swirling around at any given time. Quite complex, but only in a few additional ways from the needs of most any type of office.
Banking and Media Office Space
Your local bank and a media concern are good examples of companies that have different purposes from one another, and yet once again are mixtures of similar things: a place to do solitary work, a place to engage with peers, (whether by relaxing or by brainstorming) and a place for private interaction with clients. In addition, banks also use surveillance – but not of your vital signs at least not yet.
Our imaginary media company has a staff of writers that work as a team to produce a product. The collaborative space would be a plus, furthering open communication, leaving no-one out of the loop of change and development. This space could be multipurpose, transforming into a boardroom, or a small event room. Personnel involvement in the design might work especially well here, where group creativity is valued. What people actually want is surprising, and always touches on an insider’s knowledge.
The branch bank on the other hand is prioritized (we hope) for customer service and public interaction. A different focus. Desks arranged with modest privacy without being confining. And of course there is the teller area, fairly unchanging, and another story. How do we make hanging out in a closed off space and interacting through little windows reasonably Ok? Once again, that teller knows, and if design can help, use staff knowledge to good effect.
The London headquarters of said bank has a different purpose than the branch office. Headquarters has all of the client/staff needs, plus the tropes of power considered necessary for being in the world of global competition. Here the upper management requires psychological and physical space to create the desired impression unique to that company. Our media enterprise needs various signifiers of power as well, if that is part of the continuing success of the business.
Your Office Workspace
The way to proceed in designing your best spaces might be to consider what everyone is trying to accomplish in their particular sphere of expertise. Ask. Clear communications are useful and economical. Be sure everyone has a say, and that the right people listen. Do you have moms that need to pump milk, and does Dave have wheelchair access while he recovers. What are the needs in the long term – and how adaptable is the space you already have. The staff themselves will tell you what they want – consult them and see what emerges. A big round table? Windows? Better coffee? A dog run? A distinction between desks (as in walls?) No walls but more legroom? Low walls, sofas? Ping Pong? Maybe the space is just famously intractable – permanently stuck in another (bad) era. Can the staff at least have a wonderful break room – you know, a really good one?
The fashion these days is for the open and airy, but that may not be available….. so what is? The repurposing of older buildings can be a huge challenge. Take care! It makes no sense to reconfigure something only to have to ditch it a couple years later. That ceiling high aquarium with the rare tropical fish, maybe not so necessary when the bills remain high, and public interests have changed. Flavor of the month – tempting though it is – maybe not what you need. Shop carefully. In the end, and looking into the future; some of what was nine to five in a physical space has gone for good. Now it is possible to work from very small devices where your presence is never required, or maybe only at the launch, or the action that you organized. So far this is not the new normal in the laundry list of how and where work is accomplished. But this is coming, and could be a sizable chunk in the future.
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