The New Office, claimed to synthesise the office design ideas of this century, leaves too much unexplained to be convincing The emperor's new office? BY PAUL STANSALL
Office design and interior planning have been under continuous development for decades. Innovations in methods of space-use analysis, for example by degw 10 years ago helped catalyse changes in working patterns for many professionals, but are standard practice now.
Much of the material in The New Office is not new but is presented here as a grand synthesis of ideas addressing key factors in the development of the twentieth-century office building. Chapter one presents the thesis that different economic and socio-political priorities influenced the location, shape and size of us office buildings than those of northern Europe. Chapter two argues that recent organisation theory has radically influenced the restructuring of corporate business and that it is the main agent of change in office working patterns.
The heart of the book, chapter 4, comprises 20 international examples of the 'new office', from the us, northern Europe, Japan and Australia, by Kenneth Powell. Selected to show the transformation from yesterday's offices (designed along repetitive Tayloristic principles of factory-style office work) to new kinds of office space accommodating new forms of working, they take up half the book and include the highly experimental - such as the ba Compass Centre, the spatially stunning - such as the Imagination building in London, as well as the banal.
To illustrate recent trends, four models of office organisation are used - 'hives', 'cells', 'dens' and 'clubs'. Classified within a two-by-two matrix the axes for these models are 'interaction' and 'autonomy'. Interaction is defined as the degree of face-to-face communication required to carry out office work, formally or informally, on or off the premises. Autonomy relates to the degree of control and discretion employees have over their work. Both these variables, we are told, are strongly correlated with aspects of office design.
Low in both office interaction and organisational autonomy, 'hives' are where routine work is done. 'Cells' accommodate concentrated work with little interaction, by people with a lot of control over how and where they work, which is often away from their desk or outside the office. Highly interactive groups or teams with only limited control over how work is executed exist in 'dens', and for people who exercise a good deal of judgment in the course of their work and combine high levels of interaction with work autonomy, there are 'clubs'. The case studies are chosen to illustrates these four organisational models.
An immediate response is to look for data to enable classification, but measures of interaction and autonomy, we are told, were not possible. Instead 'approximate judgments, based on experience' were made in classifying each of the case studies, but the lack of data makes it impossible for readers to form their own conclusions about the success or otherwise of the ideas. Other data, however, is made available, such as quantitative data on occupancy densities, along with anecdotal evidence within the case studies.
Studying comparative data on densities reveals some surprising results. Of 20 cases the average overall density is 25.7m2/person, with a range between 7.0m2/person in the Netherlands to an astonishing 55.6 m2/person in Japan. By today's uk standards they look space-inefficient, especially after having read in chapter 2 of the 'two fundamental imperatives of office design: to drive down occupancy costs in order to use space as efficiently as possible; and to add value, ie to use space in ways that improve performance.' The data appears to show a surprisingly high degree of profligacy in the use of space but the reader will search in vain for an explanation.
In the anecdotal evidence the reader may find:
'hives' that are not in the least dense (in Japan)
a 'club' that 'had revealed a worrying lack of contact between pilots and cabin crew' (in the uk)
'cells' where 'people wander freely in and out of colleagues' offices' (in Germany)
a 'den' where 'people are given more responsibility, more challenges and more able to exercise judgment and initiative' (in the us).
These 20 'new offices' clearly are more complicated to describe than had been predicted.
So why might this be? 'Hives', 'dens', 'cells' and 'clubs' describe the local level of office space organisation and use. What is harder to predict is the interaction in the spaces linking them together, the often complex pattern of spaces and interconnections with global as well as local spatial characteristics. Their design may be an important influence on human interaction, but are not part of this investigation, nor are the effects of the overall circulation system. Quantitative analysis of the shape, dimensional, topological or syntactic properties of office plans, which would yield the possibility of considering space as an independent variable, isn't entertained.
There is then the nagging question of whether office innovation is really translatable between cultures. Operating at a deep level within built space is the space-use culture of societies and their embedded organisations. An example of domestic space organisation is the use of the front parlour. In traditional pre-1960 working class uk housing the parlour was a best room, hardly ever used except for receiving important visitors and displaying the best furniture and family memorabilia. To a neutral observer the space would appear under-used, yet this type of interior was cut through with social codes for its use and helped to programme how family members and their visitors interfaced.
In similar fashion this has also happened within other building types. Layouts of large, complex buildings such as government offices, schools, hospitals and prisons are programmed to manage the coming and going of officials and public, teachers and pupils, doctors and patients, prison staff and inmates. Commercial office interiors on the other hand have tended to design in less formal interfaces for bringing people into contact with each other.
Even so, open-planning, not actually defined in this book, has resulted in private offices being taken away from powerful individuals, thus depriving them of their personal 'parlours'. But it has been carried out in the name of progress, efficiency and economy. To radically remodel the way interior spaces have traditionally brought people together clearly can be a high-risk venture. Taking away desk 'ownership' may make already disempowered employees feel more and more like visitors to their own organisation, disenfranchised, disowned and disoriented. What may be in the immediate interests of the organisation and what is then experienced by the users can be in direct conflict.
In conclusion, this book is a manifesto for radical change inside organisations and prescribes how it may be carried out through design. It argues that it has to be done by re-programming the interior spaces of office buildings, and illustrates this with a variety of exciting to mundane examples from countries as far apart geographically as the us and Japan. However, the theory and methodology upon which it is predicated is a bricolage of ideas and hypotheses about which the reader may be justified in remaining highly sceptical.
The New Office by Francis Duffy with contributions from Kenneth Powell. Conran Octopus 1997, 250pp, £50 in hardback