Space and The Modern Office: making change includes choice, creativity and cognitive engagement…

Last night I went to a fascinating talk at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, organised by The British Psychological Society. This talk was part of their ‘Psychology in the Pub’ series and the invited speaker was Dr Craig Knight who presented some of his research on the toxicity of the lean, clean, ‘modern’ office and the negative impact it can have on our well-being.
Not only is this sort of stuff interesting given my own area of research, but this is particularly timely given the spatial changes going on at my own institution – the faculty is getting a new building and we are being asked about what we would like to see in the designs…
I was pleased to hear Knight confirm my own thoughts and research findings regarding the detrimental affect clinical, sparse and supposedly ‘modern’ offices can have on our well-being and happiness at work. Our work spaces should be enriching, designed to engage us and, as Knight argues, this has a direct impact on improving our levels of creativity, productivity and how inspired we feel.

Broadly, we need to move away from the ‘5 S’ methodology and the shiny clear-desk policies that organisations seem so intent on creating – it makes no sense, says Knight (…and so do I!); these are some of the worst places to work. From my own research in office spaces it’s constantly clear that people want to see that humans work there, not robots. Amidst the hot-desking open-plan world, people still want to see a sense of self, the unique, the individual, and the subjective. They want to see, feel and experience the pictures from last year’s summer holiday, the party hat left on the coat-stand, the tin of home-baked biscuits on the side of the desk and the knitted dinosaur on top of the computer monitor. These are the things that enrich space with a sense of identity…and this is key to well-being.

In Knight’s research, he calls this sort of thing ‘identity realization’ (albeit from a psychological perspective…and different to my own more sociological take). Knight, along with his team at the University of Exeter and company ‘Identity Realization Ltd’ have, for 11 years, been scientifically exploring business space management and continually their research shows that cognitively enriching work spaces are good ones to be in!
So, what’s the message for organisations? Workers need to create their OWN spaces and feel empowered to do so. When making changes to work space, building a new building or simply moving the office around, this message is clear: build your own space. By allowing people to develop their own space, have choice, and make the decisions about how it is designed increases their control and therefore their sense of well-being, happiness, brain function and sense of empowerment. Knight suggests that this process often lies in the ‘power of the group’ and that making decisions about work space can be done together. Of course, we might question how this approach might work differently in certain industries, cultures and groups. Is it always easy to gain buy-in to change from all group members? How can organisations be sure of commitment levels within the group? Group dynamics and decision making are fraught with power, politics and the voices of those who often shout the loudest.
Nonetheless, some of this sounds good to me. If we are going to design and build work space that works – and by this I mean build something that people use and enjoy, rather than build something sparkly, flexible and modern that no one uses because everyone’s decided it’s better to work from home – then the design and build should be user-led. Let decisions come from within and take a bottom-up approach.

Overall, it was certainly refreshing to hear a talk on work space from someone like Knight, who clearly has a wealth of clients, where the user was the key focus, not the bottom line, not the organisations mission statement and not driven by “how many desks can we fit into ‘x’ square metres for the least amount of money?”. This talk foregrounded the subjective experiences of space and individual identity…and that I liked.
Details about this talk, and others from the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, can be found here:



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