I had a call recently from a concerned member of the public. He'd been reading some of my recent Herald articles (and reader comments) about how people struggle to work well in crowded open plan offices. He wanted me to know that the NZ Government is actively working to reduce floor space per person. (I've not checked, but suspect that New Zealand is not the only government beating this particular drum.)
On the surface saving space sounds like a worthy aim. However, there is a problem. Over recent years I've heard many horror stories from government employees who struggle with squashed and inefficient working conditions, including many in very modern Green Star-rated buildings.
So I went digging. Sure enough, the Property Management Centre of Expertise, a division of the Ministry of Social Development, has been tasked with reducing wasted office space. They're 'working towards an occupancy goal of 12-16 m2 [about 130 - 172 sq. ft] per full-time employee'.
I totally support their aim to 'provide productive, flexible, cost-effective workspaces' and I'd be the first to agree that we want our tax money used wisely. And the various referenced documents, including a Cost Benefit Analysis Tool, do mention consideration of different working styles. However, since government workers in their droves are telling me they're finding it harder and harder to work effectively, I wonder just how much the far bigger ongoing costs of wages, sick leave and lost productivity are really considered.
Problem is, 'productive' means different things to different people. Many people, but especially introverts - and they're close to 50 per cent of the workforce- struggle to function effectively when they're pushed into open-plan spaces. Such layout only works well with very careful design and plenty of alternatives for different purposes and working styles.
Around the same time I heard from the person mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was speaking to a very experienced architect. Apparently many architects are also concerned about these trends.
It's interesting to observe how trends develop. Get enough people in positions of influence or authority singing from the same hymn book and something that starts out just being a good idea in some circumstances becomes a ground swell of common practice. (Malcolm Gladwell talks about the psychology of trends in 'The Tipping Point'.)
So, I've decided it's time to do something to create our own Tipping Point and let's see if we can bring back common-sense office layout so people don't have to come in early or stay late to get the 'real' work done.
To do this effectively and in a thoughtful and well-balanced way, we need your help. We want to gather case studies so we can help architects, office layout designers, CEOs, CFOs, property and business managers - many who have been influenced by these modern practices - to understand the full implications of their office layout decisions.
If you've got a story to tell; before and after examples; data that can quantify lost or improved productivity; you're interested to help spread the word; you're a planner or architect with information I should know; you know of examples of careful and well-considered open plan layout - anything that will help us improve people's productivity and working conditions - please share it. And if you're happy for us to communicate with you direct, please email firstname.lastname@example.org your contact details - this blog environment doesn't give that.
(If you've not seen earlier articles on this topic, plus the comments from readers, here are some relevant links)
Here's to People Power and common sense office layout.