NOT the Elemental Workplace

At the other end of the spectrum from the previous post are a number of features of modern workplaces that may just not be worth the expense and bother, and actually mitigate against a better workplace for all: either we spend all of the money on the wrong things, or the frightening cost of the stuff we are told we “need” prevents it happening at all. Here are a few offenders:

The double-height reception – a feature that performs no function whatsoever other than making those attending the building feel small – the smaller and less significant the better, like characters in Orson Welles’ “The Trial”. This is usually accentuated by large, wasted open spaces occupied by a designer chair you are made to feel too “small” to sit at. The better option: make the reception part of the living, working space. Perhaps put it somewhere unexpected – let visitors see the workspace first – what you are all about – and then welcome them deeper into the space.

The Boardroom – the most luxuriantly furnished room in the building with a table buffed with hair from a badger’s backside, rectangularly set to articulate traditional power structures, for the occasional attendance of a group who (with one or two exceptions) only work a few days a year for the organisation. The better option: the “Boardroom” can be any room. If the Board use a room that the rest of the employees use, it may also help them understand a little more about the organisation.

Marble – the “flares” of the architectural world, a finish associated with sophistication and taste as recently as classical times, it now just looks ostentatious and ridiculous. It is the ultimate symbol of bad taste and needless expense. Like flares, there are occasionally minor campaigns to reinstate its viability, but fortunately all fail. There really is no justification. At all. The better option: anything cheaper.

Lighting control systems – when you need diagrammatic instructions to turn lights on and off, when you’re presented with a choice of sixteen different scene sets, or when you need to wave your arms around to tell the energy-conserving “brain” that you’re still in the room but not engaged in aerobic exercise, you know you have gone too far. The better option: the humble, simple, binary bliss of a light switch. Maybe a dimmer, if desired. That and a sensible approach to turning stuff on when you need it, and off when you don’t.

Fibre tile ceilings – because who wouldn’t rather look at the gubbings they are they designed to hide, however unkempt, than the thing itself? Decades of ceiling design development have got us nowhere. The better option: nothing. Save us the cost, and the horror.

Sofas – not the informal panacea they are imagined to be – the most expensive, over-specified and under-used of office furniture items. They create too much intimacy for the environment, they are generally more difficult to sit in with a skirt on, and they don’t allow you to spread out your kit and “stuff”. But they’re always there, in the spaces between useful spaces, gathering cushions. The better option: a variety of tables, chairs (yes even comfortable ones), stand-ups.

“Designer” anything – finishes, furniture etc. Nothing quite says “total lack of imagination/let’s chuck some money at the problem” like a Barcelona chair in the lobby. “Designer” means there is already a significant mark-up attached to the reputation and marque that adds no value. The better option: design something and have it made locally, or find young, up-and-coming designers appreciative of the business, and help them grow.

Carpet tiles – protected from the scrapings of the street and any other route to the office by a doormat no bigger than you have at home is the safe harbour for a biological smorgasboard. Occasionally vacuumed properly, “cleaned” less than annually, you would be best advised not to bite it, even in the foulest rage. The better option: there are so many cheaper alternatives you can clean properly, that still look great years later.

Raised floors – probably responsible for most of the carpet tile sales the pinstriped world over, is the mask for the vermicelli of cables beneath the floor – you know, the ones that get yanked up into floorboxes that won’t close, or through grommets that are too small. The better option: decent wifi so you don’t have to flood-wire the Cat 6, and perimeter distributed power.

“Feature” anything – floors, lighting, ceilings, staircases, whatever. Because “feature” means taking out and discarding something that worked and replacing it with something much more expensive that adds no further functionality, and is usually much harder to maintain. Most people ignore it, and take it for granted anyway. The better option: work with what’s there, making small and low-cost modifications. Experiment, and make the ideas changeable – this will have far more long-term benefit.

The christmas socks – the collection of embarrassing attempts to make claims to cultural lightness, like fussball tables, climbing walls, slides, and meeting tables that double as table tennis tables. The modern equivalent of the poster that says “you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps”. The better option: growing up a bit.

Creating a great workplace for all calls for deeper design thinking, not deeper pockets. Its time to explore it.


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