Why is it that just about every article I read talking about the value of workplace design, almost always ignores the broader context of the building and precinct in which the workplace is located? Similarly, almost all conversations extolling the virtues of remote working, love to predict the extinction of the office and diminish its relevance as an important contributor to the operations of a successful business. Personally, I have yet to find an acceptable substitution for face to face communication. It is just not possible for clear, consistent and unmistakeable communication to occur over email, text, phone or skype. The ability to be able to read someone’s body language, grab a pen and paper to draw a diagram, point to an example, empathise sincerely with a colleague, customer or collaborator’s struggles with complex concepts, is just not possible to do quickly, effectively and efficiently without face to face communication.
That doesn’t mean that alternate forms of communication aren’t acceptable for 60-80% of the time, but real success for a business is unlikely to occur within that narrow band.
Notwithstanding my issues with the “death of the office” narrative, I have no problem with discussions that exist around productivity improvements that are available to businesses when they consider the effects of issues such as lighting, colour, furniture and ergonomics, office layout and composition, flexible working environments, Feng Shui, technology and green plants. However, I do get increasingly agitated when I read an article that discusses each of these elements in complete isolation from the very structures which house the workplace in the first instance – commercial office buildings. After all, the functional design and in many instances the location of an office building, fundamentally affects all of these issues in a manner that either makes it more difficult to achieve optimal outcomes or makes them downright impossible.
Once you do consider the effect that the office building and its location has on the productivity of its occupants, you can then add the following items to the above list; – indoor air quality, acoustic comfort, thermal comfort, internal staircases (for fitness activities), active transport enablers (access to transport and cycling facilities), natural lighting and visual comfort (including access to views), proximity to various amenity (both daytime and night time entertainment) and the ability for a building to support current and future technology requirements and digital innovations of the business. All of these issues are dependent on the choice of office building within which a workplace is located and we haven’t even discussed the strategic business issues associated with an office building’s inherent reflection of a business’s brand, the affect location has on supply chain logistics, staff attraction or innovation (agglomeration or clustering affects).
The fact that we can legitimately discuss the importance and impact of a workplace without considering the effect of the host building on the business outcomes we are trying to generate around; – staff attraction and retention, brand reputation; and sales and profitability of a business, would appear nonsensical.
Perhaps my only sane course of action would be to do as suggested by Howard Beale in the movie network, stick my head out the window and shout, “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”. Unfortunately, I am not very confident that will fix the underlying problem. You see, new office designs are interesting, funky, cool and sexy, the building’s that house them are just……there.