Reframing the workplace: a case of back to the future?

Many contemporary workplace design trends do not stand up to critical scrutiny, according to organisational behaviour academic and expert André Spicer, interviewed for a new book by Studio Banana called Work Out of The Box

Work Out of The Box is a self-published book about workplace innovation from designers Studio Banana, in which experts in the field are interviewed on a range of different subjects. In this exclusive extract from the book, which is termed a workplace design manifesto, Studio Banana’s Ali Ganjavian is in conversation with André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, University of London.

Studio Banana: In your writings and oral presentations, you critically investigate and re-contextualise some widespread assumptions about the contemporary work environment. In the following conversation, we would like to briefly discuss some of the points you make in order to concisely summarise the ideas you develop more thoroughly in your publications. One of the commonly held concerns you address is the blurring of the boundary between work and life. Is this phenomenon really a contemporary development?

André Spicer: The phenomenon you mention, of the disappearing boundary between work life and private life, is indeed much discussed. It is also frequently referred to as the ‘24/7 work week’, a term that if interpreted in its most literal sense, would be making the absurd suggestion that we work 24 hours per day, seven days per week non-stop. However, as an expression that signals the perception that the separation between work and private life is being eroded and that this entails less and less room for non-work-related dimensions of life, it is something that warrants analysis.

Spicer Book

To put this ‘disappearing boundary’ into a broader context, I find it helpful to consider what took place in the past, for instance in the case of the craftsman in the 19th century, or the monk in the medieval monastery. A craftsman often lived right next to his workshop, or it was even directly within his domestic space. So, the physical boundary between his work and his life was very thin, or non-existent. And if you consider the work week in a monastery, the credo of ora et labora suggests that the members of the monastic community were spending each day either praying or working. Granted, these are two glimpses into the past, but they contribute to our understanding that the phenomenon described is not so new.

‘Get rid of the aspects of the design that are superficial, which are those that do not serve the real needs of the company…’

AS: From a social science perspective, the advice I would give to architects boils down to: get rid of the aspects of the design that are superficial, which are those that do not serve the real needs of the company. In other words, focus less on aesthetically appealing, yet impractical spatial organisations The much discussed open-plan is one of these layout types. Although it seems highly aesthetic in an architectural model, people do not feel at ease in these monotonous, continuous spaces.

Another phenomenon I often observe in recent projects is the aim of a ‘top-down’ personalisation of the workspace, meaning short quotes, handwritten information or photographs put up on the walls. With these features, some planners try to transfer a more relaxed, personalised image to the office. However, such personalising touches have to be incorporated by the users themselves. These have to actually reflect their goals, thoughts and dreams. In short, I encourage the personalisation of the workspace, yet it has to be carefully led and realised.

SB: Your thoughts inspire me to share an idea that is at the core of our practice: the co-design method we apply to develop workplaces in exchange with our clients. At Studio Banana, we strongly believe in co-creation processes that take place through face-to-face meetings, workshops and employees’ surveys. This method allows us to respond to the specific needs of each company and its collaborators, and thus to develop a bespoke design solution for the workplace. Hand in hand with this specification, if you will, goes a certain humanisation of the workplace.

AS: Talking about the humanising of the workplace, I think there is an important aspect implicit to your approach, which I would call ‘physicality’. In this general trend to digitise the work environment and to make interpersonal contact increasingly more virtual, your approach emphasises the ‘physical’ aspect and, in doing so, you respond to what seems to be one of the major contemporary design challenges.

Work Out of The Box is available from Studio Banana here.

Andre Spicer

André Spicer is Professor of Organisational Behaviour and the founding director of ETHOS: The Centre for Responsible Enterprise at Cass Business School, University of London. He has a long-standing interest in the impact of space on organisations and workers. He has authored many scientific papers as well as ten books, the most recent of which are Business Bullshit, The Stupidity Paradox and Desperately Seeking Self Improvement. André Spicer was a keynote speaker at WORKTECH London in 2017.