On a quiet day in a dusty corner of the BBC (ie the World Service) last week, the old open-plan-versus-private-office wound was re-opened, complete with a full re-run of the history of the office and the obligatory commentary of Frank Duffy, seemingly still the only voice of authority on the matter a couple of decades in. Don’t have the dubious “luxury” of a private office with your name on the door? Apparently it’s all the fault of the Nazis. Right.
The only immediate response I could find was that such an anodyne debate is now irrelevant. I had nothing at all to add. Other than for individual preference, we have learned that in one respect or another, the workplace is a subtle balance between a number of factors.
For the avoidance of any doubt (not that there should be any) I am a practitioner, not an academic. What I am about to propose may have already been published and the royalties already collected from down the back of the sofa, further confirming Jung’s hunch about a collective unconscious. Let’s face it – with only a few exceptions, such as @smartco, most academic books about the workplace are as interesting and pointless as a large bowl of unsweetened muesli with all of the raisins removed. (Incidentally, I once guest-reviewed a book for a journal co-authored by a now-famous academic that suggested that “windows are a great idea”. Really). Workplace is a practical discipline, we learn from taking part not from pontificating from a dingy cell in a former-polytechnic.
So here is the proposition, which should be considered with the table below. We have a workplace, existing or proposed, in question. Set against a number of criteria – I have suggested eleven, there may be more, or less, but by now I have lost interest – it is possible to assign a value along a continuum from one extreme (probably zero) to another (probably ten). There is no “hard data” in play (sorry @oseland), the assignment in each case is a value judgment. I have set out what the extremes might be. Those to the left are the more random and organic, those to the right more traditional and structured. Having marked the point on the continuum for each criteria, we then drawing a line vertically, connecting those points. One can therefore see a pattern reflecting the choices made. It provides us with an opportunity to understand the balance in play, and make comparisons between workplaces. Good grief that almost sounds like benchmarking – if you hear a clap of thunder, that’s me done for.
We might call it the Libra Scale, for the hell of naming things.
A straight line down the left would be something akin to Perry Timms’ #punkworkplace (we discussed it this month over a Virtual Cuppa in OnOffice) whereas a line predominantly navigating values to the right might be a tightly-specified client-facing corporate office.
|None: design determined by local needs at appropriate time||
|Comprehensive: fully proscriptive solution|
|None: allow space to develop, future/opportunity focussed||
|Comprehensive: evidence-based design, present/reality focussed|
|Local: reflects needs and culture of location and business||
|Corporate: space reflects brand/image required|
|Interaction-oriented: fully open, accessible space||
|Focus-oriented: primarily enclosed or bookable space|
|Casual: reflective of itself rather than norms||
|Formal: reflecting norms of business etiquette|
|Internal space: design focus and investment on occupied areas||
|External-facing space: design focus and investment on front-of-house|
|Unpredictable: varied, chaotic, clashing||
|Predictable: vanilla, minimal, crisp, co-ordinated|
|Fluid: space can be altered and purpose changed at any time||
|Fixed: space and usage fixed|
|Free: all space held in common, without defined purpose||
|Stipulated: all space designated re user or purpose|
|Self-service: unstructured, based on response to changing needs||
|Structured: full pre-designed and procured programme|
|Complete: workplace absorbs continual change||
|None: change to workplace requires full re-design|
Developed as an idea before the BBC article, the model barely references “open plan” and “private office” other than in ORIENTATION where it poles interaction versus focus. That’s because it no longer matters.
None of the points on the scale against any of the criteria is right or wrong, there is no preferential pattern. It is about the fundamentals of human beings and their individual and collective needs in a physical space, contracted to (in whatever form) the host organisation, with its own aggregated or determined needs – with all of the variables that these facets present. It’s the way it has always been since Aristotle perched on an 1800×800 desk with a return, and irrespective of advances in technology, or the pronouncements of frazzled CEO’s, it always will be.
Open plan or private offices? We don’t think in those terms any more. It’s over. Let it heal.