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08 Jun 2015

Robert Propst's 1968 office vision: what's changed?

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Spacelab’s Rosie Haslem wonders what’s changed since Robert Propst proposed a new office in 1968

I recently attended a seminar at Herman Miller that made me wonder how far workplace design has really progressed in the last 50 years.

The seminar focused on the 1968 book The Office: A Facility Based on Change, by then-president of Herman Miller’s Research Corp, Robert Propst. He was drawn to the challenge of rethinking office life, which he saw as sedentary and unproductive, and ultimately unsuited to the diverse needs of workers.

Propst noted that although “office work has undergone a revolution; the physical environment lags behind”, observing that workers had multiple responsibilities, but these were not being supported by multiple work stations.

I began thinking about all the projects I work on at Spacelab. Aren’t I, and the rest of the workplace design community, still trying to achieve the same thing now as Propst was back then? How, almost 50 years later, can the physical environment of so many offices still lag behind? And, even more importantly, what can we do about it?

Propst’s flexible ideal is still high on the workplace design agenda today, yet few offices deliver on it.

Hands up who has collaborative space, quiet space, pin-up space, layout space, storage space and both a sitting and standing desk at their fingertips?

Now, as then, the majority of us are restricted to a single seat for most of our working day, regardless of what is demanded of us.

In the case of one project I am currently working on, for a major City law firm, 72% of staff activities (telephone calls, video conferences, sending emails, reading, writing, talking to others) were found to be carried out at individuals’ fixed desks. And, in order to accommodate the more confidential and focused of these diverse activities at a fixed desk, each individual was statically enclosed within a cellular office.

In this project, as with many others, resistance to more flexible working was understandably rooted in concerns about staff behaviour (people are creatures of habit who are intrinsically territorial, so feel safe in the comfort of always sitting at ‘their’ desk), and cost (space is money, so each individual having their very own range of working environments, as Propst proposed, is a luxury too far). But there is still scope for a contemporary reinterpretation of the idea.

Propst’s 1968 recognition of the “necessity to separate substantial tasks into established work stations” needn’t mean excessive duplication of each type of task-specific space for each worker. Instead, there can be just enough of each, to be shared by all staff and moved between as and when required, as in the increasingly popular activity-based working (ABW) set-up.

Indeed an ABW-style approach was the one taken in redesigning the law firm’s workspace. Gone are the static, isolating cellular offices, to be replaced by a wide range of work point options.

The required quantities and types of each were determined through extensive research into the current and desired future working practices of the staff, ensuring (and demonstrating) that the new way of working was achievable. (This included the finding that the existing cellular offices were occupied on average just 44% of the time, hence settling the territorial ‘need versus want’ argument in favour of ABW.)

Not only is the new set-up arguably even more able to create the “kinetic, active, alert, vigorous environments” of Propst’s visions than his own original propositions – by allowing individuals to move around the office to different types of work point – it also means that huge spatial (and in turn, financial) efficiencies could be made in the process of achieving a physical environment which no longer “lags behind” today’s needs.

Only time will tell whether people successfully adopt ABW to achieve the flexibility that Propst suggested 50 years ago, or whether indeed, in 50 years’ time we will be looking back to the future again.

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