The Uninspiring Office and the Bored Room

officeThe idea of architecture as a language – a form of communication that affects us – is in itself not new, but brings to our discussions another context for our cycle of understanding; how we observe, reflect and interpret. Architecture is the integration of form and space and those principles that control their organization and these elements are the basis of the experiential pattern language that envelops us in the workplace.

Architecture results from integrated acts of philosophy, art, engineering, craftsmanship and business and – when perfection is sought – allows no compromise between these disciplines. A good piece of architecture directly supports a specific concept of life and work style and acts as a physical, visual, tactile and symbolic guide for its inhabitants. Conversely, bad architecture can work in direct opposition to those inhabitants’ objectives and culture, as per the title of this post. This idea that a work of architecture can also be a productive or counterproductive tool of human economy is relatively new. What is also novel is the idea that the workplace can be an expression of living art, and that this is not only possible but necessary in today’s world.

If we are to design our workspaces with the intent of using the most effective architectural pattern language, we need to get under the skin of how everything speaks. The language of architecture is largely symbolic; specific shapes, forms and textures invoke particular meanings. Just as the expressionist movement in literature gave birth to analysis by metaphor and symbolism, so too has expressionism had its influence over architecture. The early 1920s bore testimony to this architectural influence where buildings were designed and constructed to express or symbolize their use thus aiming to integrate both form and content into a coherent, more meaningful whole, for example the Volkstheatre Project, 1921 or Einstein Tower Observatory, 1920.

In the book ‘Metaphors We Live by’, Lackoff and Johnson build a theory that we live and express ourselves in terms of metaphor. This notion will be examined in greater detail later when I will talk about what we mean by ‘Possibility’. However architecture provides some firm examples of this theory. The Renaissance movement provided this language, its masters drawing the (organic) parallels of buildings as life forms in themselves. A buiding rises up, or it lies in a particular way. It has a front and a back, a face, a silhouette, a profile. It has a heart, a nerve-centre. It has a top, a crown, related to the sky and a base, a foot, related to the ground. Windows look out. Doors open wide. Perhaps no building is more symbolic that Antoni Gaudi’s ‘Casa Batlló’ with its bone-like structure and death mask balconies symbolic of the human experience in Catalonia’s quest for independence.

The power of the metaphor here is great. As the imposing designs of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque all inspire superlative adjectives, so too are the feelings they stir in the soul. Compare this symbolism with that of most modern corporate architecture and it is little surprise they pale in significance, often inhuman, dead, faceless structures.

Intentionally or otherwise we have in recent times ignored the language of architecture in our workplaces, the timeless way of building as Christopher Alexander calls it, at the expense of functionalism. Our offices are uninspiring. That they are a mish-mash of metaphors at best cannot be denied. That they are malapropisms is probably just as correct.

So, back to the Bored Room, and our quest to bring to a powerful and inspiring voice to workspace architecture. Generally speaking, todays offices are boring places, at least from the point of view of art, design and architecture. Yet, they are precisely the places where many of us spend most of our productive time. How did we get here? Many contemporary ideas about the office date from the times of the industrial revolution, when accountants were gathered into office buildings erected next to the factories. The economic strategies that had modernised the industry were directly transferred into the paperwork. It was a simple, clear and very unambiguous procedure that followed the same assembly line principles governing the action in the factory halls. The office was a master class of simultaneity; the system functioned only when all its parts were in place – from nine a.m. to five p.m.

Alvin Toffler said in 1985 that:

“the corporate environment has changed so swiftly and fundamentally in the past two decades that structures designed for success in an industrial environment are almost by definition inappropriate today.”

Over thirty years on, and whilst those changes have done nothing but accelerate our workspaces have barely evolved at all. The time for us to take back control of our surroundings own us is long overdue.

A rich, varied environment, with ample communication, continuous learning, rapid feedback, knowledge management, and readily available tools are key to eliminating the barriers to human creativity and increasing productivity. Flexible space, open areas, new types of furniture and complex technological systems will increase the amount of informal communication that is necessary to develop communities of practice and build networks. There is inherent value in people from all levels of the organization working in close proximity to each other. In designing this new type of environment, we must go beyond incremental or even major changes to existing workplace designs. We need something unique, innovative, and totally new.

People: Control, Freedom and the performance paradox


Traditional economic theory held that approximately one-third of an organisation’s cost base was in its ‘labour force’, a term which refers us back to an industrial age where labour was just that; labour. In the information age, the capital of many businesses is weighted much more heavily towards human capital, or ‘talent’ – where the main work of employees converting ‘inputs’ to ‘outputs’ in order to generate value is intellectual. These employees (often referred to as knowledge workers) may be scientists, researchers, analysts, traders, engineers, accountants, software developers, designers and architects: anyone who ‘thinks’ for a living.

Maybe that’s you?

This shift away from physical to mental labour is interesting when we think back to the idea from cybernetics that people are a dynamic, purposeful component of the complex system. Perhaps when the majority of workers were concerned with the transformation of physical inputs into a final product, their scope for influence on the system was relatively limited, and the management hierarchy was relatively flat. Now though, we know this is rarely the case. Knowledge workers certainly fit the picture of purposeful components within a purposeful system, operating within a context of responsibility, which may be either management-driven or leadership-driven depending upon the developmental maturity of the organisation.

When we start to investigate the purpose of these ‘components’ in order to understand how they engage with the broader system, it’s useful to explore the different theories of employee motivation.

Douglas McGregor in the 1960s expounded the notion that workers conform to one of two types of categorisation: They are either Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X infers a dislike of work and a need for coercion, direction and control to meet the needs of the organisation: A need to be managed. Theory Y implies the opposite: Work can meet their higher psychological needs but to do so, self-direction and self-control must pervade. This is an interesting proposition. Considering we are all model-making, meaning-seeking beings this model immediately forces us to recognise that we may or may not be operating from one of these points of view. It is a potentially useful model as it allows us to consider where we stand vis-à-vis our colleagues and collaborators.

In the 1980s William Ouchi developed another category: Theory Z. This is an extension of the Y point of view, stating that people in this category actively seek responsibility and in light of this, organisations should empower these employees to participate in decision-making activities. (Interestingly, there had been proponents of this since the 1950s born out of disagreement with Taylor’s doctrine of ‘Scientific Management’). The notion of a ‘Self Managing Work Team’ was given a theory-based grounding and has since come to embody all that leaders desire and yet, simultaneously, fear.

Enterprises as Functions


We are all familiar with the concept of functions – the departments within an enterprise into which work is generally divided. We have a Finance function, a Marketing function, a Human Resources function and so on. But have you ever asked yourself why?

Even for those of us in the habit of asking curious questions, this one may seem to have an obvious answer: Taking a functional view can provide economies of scale due to the encouragement of and access to specialisation. Similarly, the functional view can facilitate increased skill development and is easier to supervise as there are generally clearly defined activities associated with each role – with specialists not having to be responsible for administrative work. A functional approach may also lead to higher morale as it engenders similar norms and values within each department.

You will have heard tell, though – perhaps you even have stories of your own – of times when working in an organisation with functions becomes dysfunctional. When functions become silos, and it is difficult to co-ordinate work across them, for example. At the very least this can result in bottlenecks and the sub-optimal use of resources. It may also lead to an increased need for the co-ordination of activities within the organisation, where manager decisions tend to pile up at the top. In the same way that managers become functionally focused, it has also been argued that this tends to distract from a greater understanding of the business as a whole which can in turn lead to a narrow, short-term focus on functional goals.

So, would you describe you or your organisation as functional or dysfunctional? Is there a middle ground? Functionally dysfunctional (and vice-versa)? What box would we put ourselves in if it was a 2×2 matrix (apologies, I was once a proper Management Consultant) and would we agree which was the best box?

I think where we can agree is that a functional view is going to be useful in understanding how an enterprise…functions. Or doesn’t function. It’s just not the whole picture. As an approach it has its limitations.

Through our bespoke Design & Decide approach, we can help you to bring the best of the functions within your own organization together to tackle the complex issues you face. We can help you look at things in non-functional ways too. By breaking down preconceptions and old habits within the system, functions can behave as fully integrated parts of a team committed to working in the same direction to achieve shared objectives.

Why are we here?

Why_Are_We_Here_imageGood question. Since you find yourself here, it is likely that, like me, you are curious. Curiosity is an interesting characteristic and one most often associated with children. It implies not just a thirst for knowledge, but a seeking out of questions.

Why does curiosity diminish as we get older? Perhaps because we augment it with experience.

We all have experience that guides our intuition about how the world works. How many of your day-to-day decisions are guided by your personal experiences? I know many of mine tend to be. I form opinions based on my most recent experiences working with the many organisations we serve, facing today’s complex challenges. But also from timeless lessons I have learned during my long and on-going apprenticeship in enterprise. I can trace some back as far as my first real venture into earning money and understanding its value: my first paper-round. Some of today’s issues seem modern and unique, but others are timeless. I first learned about customer service, for example, and the importance of face-to-face interactions, when I grew too big for my paper round (marginally, some would argue) and began working in restaurants. The lesson that you should always treat everyone and everything along the way with respect is applicable whether you’re dealing with a half-million-pound consulting contract or a fifty-pound restaurant bill.

We all learn and grow through our experiences. However, as I remind myself every day, this is never enough. Our experience, and that of the experts we turn to in need, is a double-edged sword, showing us the way and yet sometimes blinding us to the obvious. Experience gives us business texts, articles and opinions, but most (if not all) of those I’ve read over the years seek only to peddle solutions, sometimes solutions to a problem that is ill-defined or misunderstood.

It has never been more evident to me that there is no clear recipe for success. Sometimes, even when all the right ingredients appear to be in place, something might fail – or, more puzzling still – when it feels like we’re missing something, astounding results are achieved. Why can’t we predict these unexpected failures and successes? The future is rational only in hindsight (as the axiom goes).

This is why – although now CEO of my own business with my years of studying business and management a long way behind me – I consider myself to be an eternal, curious student. It’s an approach that never ceases to intrigue, surprise, sometimes delight and (often) dumbfound me.

Our constantly changing world means that the experience and knowledge we have gathered along the way has a shelf life, and I believe it is not those with the right answers who will survive, embrace and drive change, but those with the right questions.

That’s where we come in. At Innovation Arts, our commitment is to help you develop your own solutions to the complex challenges you face, but we never start by looking for answers. First, we help you decipher the right questions. While the process is tough, it works. And it delivers outcomes that you may never have expected.