Monday, July 13, 2009

Dead Space - the worst of 2 office designs

You know, over the bit over a decade than constitutes my working life, I've had some pretty terrible workspaces. When I worked in a call centre contracted to Treasury in Canberra, I eventually shared my desk designed for 1 with 3 other people, which was pretty cramped. At FaHCSIA, I had to work in a windowless area, with a "desk" that was 2 planks of wood nailed one over the other to form an L, and had to share that space with a public photocopier (photocopying (and ocassional shelving) was my job, at the time for 2 four hour shifts a week). At GIO, my desk was reclaimed from - and still used as - the storage space for obsolute servers - one of which was reclaimed as my desktop, and was actually pretty sweet (try using a purpose built server configuration for desktop work - they go like greased lightning).

But honestly, none of them come close to the craphole of a workspace that greeted me this morning.

The NSW Government Chief Information Office, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the floorspace needed to be used more efficiently to double the capacity of the floor. The result of their redesign can be seen above and below. If your having trouble with the perspective, I'll give you some rough measures. Each desk is approximately 2.1m wide, by 1m deep. Roughly 1.1m of that width is taken up by the full-tower desktop PC, the remaining 1.1m is given to shelving and the phone. I'm guessing this is theoretically your "work" area for going over documents, writing things down, having phone conversations, etc. Except of course, there's no partitioning between the desks, so in order to use that space, you're going to have to invade your neighbour's space. I have the dubious advantage of a window seat, which gives me the privelege of having the morning sun unblockably directed into my eye as I type this.

Now, I am very much in favour of open plan designs, and have seen them and worked in them quite effectively. Deloitte had a not bad design. The Institute of Chartered Accountants had a great open plan which applied to everyone from the CEO down. Of course, they almost immediately (within 6 months, IIRC) began coming up with ways to bugger it up and converting meeting rooms to cubicles, but the original design was good (and to be fair, they were re-thinking the idea pretty quick after the staff revolted - I actually listed the suggestion to do it as cause for my resigning). But to be effective, open planning needs to be a little creative with the space.

Effective use of natural light, foliage, breakout spaces, quiet areas and social areas are necessary though to build the kind of collaborative workspaces that modern organisations require. The open plan is far superior to the sea of cublicles design that typifies the workspaces where you just want to maximise the use of space.

This design, however, seems to actually be done with the intent of combining the 2 worst elements of these 2 approaches - the lack of privacy of open plan, with the bleak uniformity of the
sea of cubicles - I hear that this means the air conditioning works better in this design, though. Result? Just about the most uncreative, uncollaborative work design you can get. You create an environment where people are driven to horde privacy and avoid collaboration at all costs. All discussions are done in meeting rooms, because there are no breakout areas. People will only talk to each other when they absolutely have to, because you have no choice but to hear everyone else's conversation's all the time, which results in everyone doing their best to NOT listen to anyone else.

The worst thing is that this kind of design can work, in certain spaces. Generally, its in small areas where space is tight, and you have single team hot-housed (bull-pen style). You can artificially create the effect by introducing large partitions, plants, breakout areas and such, and packing tiny cubicle sets in between them. But you need to think about how you want people to work, and then come up with a design that promotes this effectively. If you don't then you see even simple things go wrong, such as having desk surfaces that are too reflective for a basic optical mouse to function correctly (guess what I've just discovered while writing this).

I honestly thought these type of workspaces finally died out in the early nineties, when organisations began thinking about their people as more than just another resource to be managed, but a source of innovation and value generation. Not coincidentally, this is about the same time knowledge management was "born", co-developing with the intellectual capital movement in valuing people differently to money and furniture. Apparently, I was wrong.

But, it seems that the NSW Government (or at least the Department of Commerce) is bravely - some (such as me) may say stupidly and with great contempt for their people - re-introducing the concept. So, hats off to them. They obviously feel that they can get by with fewer staff and less creativity. Maybe that's why everyone is fleeing the state.

The gap near that white box is less than 1m - fire hazard?

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