Work Space – Getting the Best Out of Employees

‘Put the key of despair into the lock of apathy. Turn the knob of mediocrity slowly and open the gates of despondency – welcome to a day in the average office.’

David Brent (The Office)

Sadly, the work environment at Wernham Hogg, in the BBC TV series, The Office, was all too typical. Millions of people inhabit similar spaces, a sterile world of open planned, brightly lit rooms, with beige carpet tiles, grey walls, low false-ceilings, air conditioning and the sound of photocopiers to break the oppressive silence. Privacy is teased at with shoulder high partitioning. The space offers nothing to make Monday morning something to look forward to.

Intuition tells us that pleasant spaces are likely to get the best out of us. Yet we house office workers in small spaces, under low ceilings, with artificial light and few windows. Could we hinder them more? What are we saying to them?

‘Buildings are manifestations of many things, including the regard in which an employer holds his employees.’ (Thomson 2008: 82)

Should we succumb to the forbidden temptation of looking up, what we see is not art or beauty, but a smoke detector, air conditioning vents or lights to blind us; all references to appalling possibilities; fire, pollution, torture. How can we feel relaxed about our day with all this hanging over us? We should be able to look up to dream, not to be reminded of our worst nightmares.

In times past, ceilings were often high and celebrated. They contained beautiful art, ornate coving and spaces to dream into. If there is space above us and we can look up without our view being blocked by something ugly, it will discourage depressive postures and allow us to look towards our aspirations.

‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains: from where shall come my help?’  – Psalm 121

The recruitment agency, Manpower, carried out its own research and found that increased staff productivity is the number one goal of all businesses . . . ‘

If we are happier in a space we are far more likely to perform better. In commercial buildings, where 80% of costs are staff salaries, a 6.5% productivity increase would justify a building four times as expensive. (Day 2006: 2)

Natural light is becoming more popular in new builds, yet we still see business planners being primarily motivated by function and cost, rather than human being.

Many modern office buildings are made from cheap, throw away materials, perhaps a hint that the business is not expected to last. Staff appear to be just another of these materials.

‘We will all burn out in these buildings and be thrown aside like old light bulbs.’ (Sardello 1986: 74)

Often office building walls are windows of glass, lacking any detail that cannot be penetrated by the human eye on the street, but those inside can see us on the street. Those strangers, others, faceless individuals, that we know are in there and up to something. One world is completely hidden from another, creating an aura of suspicion and distrust. Is this the image a company really wants?

At lunchtime, few people stay behind this glass, most flood out to be human for just an hour, in an old, busy pub with character, the natural environment of a park, or a seat by the river.

Buildings should have intimate relationships with their inhabitants. How do we really feel about the buildings we work in? How much emotional investment is there in these offices we spend a third of our lives inside. If yours was going to be pulled down, would you take to the street in protest? St Paul’s Cathedral probably doesn’t serve functionally as a building as much as a glass tower of offices in the city, but which is more loved? Which would you choose to save?