One size definitely doesn’t fit all – but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

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To those who have read my previous articles it will come as no surprise to discover that I certainly don’t think the workplace development process has been one long seamless journey of continuous improvement.

Instead of being seen as a golden opportunity to create better corporate workplaces, the wholly unfettered freedom of location provided by IT advances has instead been used an excuse to shrink individual workspaces; both in terms of the number provided and in terms of the variety and facility they offer.

Individual desks and tables have been replaced by vast expanses of benching. Evolving as they did from banking sector dealer desks – necessitated by the sheer scale of housed IT equipment and cabling – in transitioning to a mainstream office application their development became instead a competition between manufacturers, to see who could trim the most material and discrete componentry from their construction. A thoroughly unnecessary and reductive race to the bottom.
Trumpeted as being occupancy-flexible, their shortcomings have been sorely exposed in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis; which is why we’re seeing an explosion of acrylic “fish tank” screen accessories on offer as the return to work gathers pace. Sticking-plaster solutions at best.

Illogically, at the same time as the general workstation footprint was merging and shrinking and noise generation was as a consequence being concentrated, the fashion for “industrial style” interiors meant that sound-absorbing surfaces were being stripped away, with carpets being replaced by hard flooring and ceilings being opened up to expose HVAC and lighting.

Further submitting staff to being victims of a slavish adherence to fashion.

The current out of hand dismissal in the media of “open-plan” offices is in my view entirely based on experience of poor execution, rather than on the potential of the concept to fully deliver. All parties in the supply and purchase chain are in my opinion equally culpable, and improvements will only come if we collectively acknowledge that fact.

It’s not that the products are bad; we’ve just been guilty in many instances of making poor decisions about choice and combination. As I have commented in a previous article, task seating has over recent times been an absolute beacon of shining light in product development terms. If sufficient care is taken in the selection process, no other office product has the potential to deliver staff satisfaction and health benefits to the same degree. I would encourage purchasers to select the best they can afford and to test several examples from their short list on a wide selection of their staff.

Although paper storage has declined significantly, an increasingly peripatetic workforce tends to lug far more corporate and personal stuff about with them. Their satisfaction, health and efficiency are all positively impacted by ease of access to this once they are settled in for the day. The provision of high quality, multi-functional and easily accessible locker storage and at-hand storage is therefore a crucial element in good workplace design. It therefore needs to be carefully considered and incorporated at the initial specification and planning stage and not added as an afterthought.

In overall terms I would contend that there is absolutely no shame (nor lack of original thought) in looking back and plundering the past for its best ideas.

Finally I would encourage workspace designers and their clients to be way more adventurous when it comes to the selection of finishes and colours. There has never been greater available choice nor pre-commitment visualisation tools to assist with exploring its potential – and yet to my eye the office landscape has never looked more uniform and boring. We’re going to need all the cheering up we can get when the current crisis is over.


About John Fogarty

John Fogarty is a recently retired Design Director in the Office Furniture sector. In a 45-year career he worked in and ran in-house design departments for a total of 6 manufacturers; the last 26 years with global storage solutions leader Bisley. As such he has been responsible for steering the design direction of furniture sold in over 50 countries worldwide. He is thus almost uniquely placed to comment on the long-term past, present and future developments of product in this sector.
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