Designing ‘place’: the role of anthropology in workplace design

From shared desks to vast open spaces, how has the evolution of workplace design impacted employee belonging in the office? This article looks to anthropological research and urban design to understand how designers can make better places to work

Le Corbusier said that ‘to take possession of space is the first gesture of the living, men and beasts, plants and clouds, the fundamental manifestation of equilibrium and permanence. The first proof of existence is to occupy space.’

However, there is no specialised sensory organ for the perception of space, so its internal representation is a complex cognitive operation – it requires the brain to perform large-scale integration of information from different sensory modalities. With these elements, we build an internal map whose nature is mostly shared by all human beings, although with some particularities determined by biographical, personal and psychological factors.

Through our actions, we transform space and leave in it a footprint loaded with symbolism. But, at the same time, we incorporate the environment itself into our cognitive and emotional processes in a two-way process. This implies that space is not neutral, but is perceived in different ways through the personal experiences and cultures of those who inhabit it.

The anthropology of space is the discipline that studies the various ways in which we as humans  understand and make the space we occupy our own.

The art of placemaking

In the office, the way we perceive the environment is shaped by a complex web of moments, interactions and experiences that extends beyond the physical space and working hours. Some studies support the fact that both the workspace and the location are essential for the personal, social and cultural experience of workers within the company. However, for space to take on meaning and become a ‘place’, people need to interact with it and make it their own through experience.

‘Space’ can be defined through a scientific and objective approach, while the ‘place’ – the existential space – is explained by virtue of the personal and cultural meaning of the experiences related to a specific location.

Place is seen as the result of social action: of the practices, relationships, experiences, conversations, memories, feelings, actions and scenes that take place there and that assign particular meanings to it. And, at the same time, the space itself is part of all these instances.

According to Henri Lefebvre, ‘space is never empty: it always embodies a meaning.’ The social construction of space implies its transformation through the experiences and interactions that take place there. Taking possession of space through these connections is what gives rise to ‘places’.

‘Shared desks and open space can alienate employees from the space they work in…’

According to the Marc Augé’s definition, ‘a place is a space within which some elements of individual and collective identities, of the relationships between one and the other and of the history they share can be read.’ But, with the arrival of the Modern Movement, in the middle of the 20th century, the path towards a certain indifference for the contextual and symbolic environment began. And, although initially attached to anthropometry and functionality, the trend gradually gave way to the space of hypermodernity lacking identity and symbolism: Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’; spaces with no anthropological meaning to which one does not feel attached.

This concept is worth considering in workplace design as new trends driving non-territoriality, shared desks, open spaces, excessive transparency and a sense of ‘just passing through’ can depersonalise and alienate employees rather than support collaboration, community, and shared knowledge. Workplace designers must not lose sight that it is people who give meaning to space and create a place and landscape that they feel belongs to them.

The Social Life of Spaces

In line with this anthropological vision, which argues that spaces are transformed into places by virtue of the use we make of them, the American urban planner and sociologist William H. Whyte began, in the mid-1970s, an empirical investigation on the use of public space in New York City (parks, squares and other places of social use) trying to establish why some work well for people and others do not.

The results of this research, which were published several years later, offer a great number of clues as to what are the key factors that make people feel comfortable in a place. It is interesting to note that many of Whyte’s findings for urban spaces also apply to workspace design, even 40 years later. These are some of them:

Behaviour: What attracts people the most, it seems, are other people. In addition, a good space encourages the adoption of new habits (outdoor lunches, walks) and provides new routes and places to take a break.

Places to sit: This is one of the main factors for the success of the space. Seats should be designed so that people feel comfortable, not as architectural objects. If the dimensions are right, people will also sit on steps, ledges, sills, tables, among others. Flat surfaces can have a double function: tables or seats. In addition to being physically comfortable, seating needs to be socially comfortable, which means having a choice: sitting in the front, back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, or alone. The choice must be integrated into the basic design. Whyte advocates the use of movable chairs as they provide more flexible options.

Natural elements: The different amount of sun and shade together with the presence of wind, vegetation and water are important for spaces to succeed, especially if they are outdoors.

Supplementary services: The most successful spaces provide food, coffee and beverages. The basic combination is bars plus chairs and tables. This type of offer represents an important point of attraction due to the movement and flow of people it produces. And the same happens with the presence of public toilets, which must be gender-neutral and of universal access to be available for as many people as possible.

Paths: The paths of a space are greatly improved if there is something going on within them. Since the places people prefer to chat are in the middle of the flow of people, generously sized circulations are recommended.

Visibility: A good space must be visible to be used. Connections should be easy and attractive.

Triangulation: This is an effect that consists of the inclusion within the space of some stimulus capable of giving people an excuse to form a bond. It may be a physical object or sight, but according to Whyte, sculpture works best.

In short, the way people use space is a clear reflection of their expectations. The relationship they build with their environment, the construction of their favourite places and the identification with that context are marked by a process that constantly feeds itself.

This approach can be very useful when it comes to giving meaning and materiality to the needs and expectations of the workforce and it is an outlook that, without a doubt, we must incorporate when designed an effective workplace.

Contract Workplaces is a regular contributor to the Academy, providing a variety of engaging insights and articles written in English and Spanish. Read the latest Spanish articles by Contract Workplaces on the Academy 'Espanol' hub here.
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