The year Eric Liddell won Olympic gold, Gleneagles Hotel opened, and Linlithgowshire was officially renamed West Lothian, time and motion experts investigated the methods British coal miners used to wield a pick axe.
'The Psychology of Hewing’ study [S Adams and A Stephenson, 1924] paid particular attention to rhythm, noting that the best workers employed a comparatively slow stroke. So, to help others replicate the successful motion, heavier picks were introduced. A needless expenditure of energy was also observed at the apex of the upward lift, as the pick stopped momentarily before the downward stroke. This was swiftly eliminated by training the miners to swing the pick in one continuous path. Finally, every miner studied was asked to adopt the same rhythm as the most productive men. So, following the beat of a metronome, the miners hewed in mechanical unison. Experts were thrilled to report that, even when the metronome was removed, rhythm was maintained and average output over a 10-week period increased 10.4% from 2.46 tons per shift per man to 2.72 tons. Job done!
Fast forward to 2016 and most of us, mercifully, toil only at the coal face of the office. But although we’re safe from firedamp and silicosis, we haven’t escaped those experts’ successors.
Space planners – that’s specialist architects not rocket scientists – have designed the office of tomorrow. It’s more efficient, more productive and more intensive. And, thanks to Scottish Futures Trust – the Scottish Government’s infrastructure investment quango – it’s being rolled out enthusiastically across the nation within our new schools, hospitals and community centres. Guiding principles are handed down in SFT’s 'What can we do with the Office?’ publication. It’s not a new document but, with our cash-starved councils desperate to downsize, it is news. If the office of tomorrow hasn’t reached you today, well, you know when to expect it.
And what does the future look like? It’s bright, airy and pastel-coloured. Open plan, naturally, for the unfettered flow of information by osmosis. Fewer walls, more glass. As we all ought to know by now if we’ve been paying attention, walls encourage a hierarchical, silo mentality which is very last century, while glass represents organisational transparency and facilitates collaborative working. The office of tomorrow boasts break-out settings, long-stay and short-stay meeting areas, tea points and thinking spaces. There are a maximum of eight desks for every 10 employees but, with lockers for personal belongings, permanent 'hot desking' and employees empowered to work flexibly, any time anywhere, this ratio can be improved to five, or even three desks, for every 10 employees. The office of the future looks especially beautiful on architects’ 3D computer models before it is subverted by grubby reality.
Without people, it works perfectly. In practice...pastel colours are for nurseries. They infantilise us. The only information shared in open-plan buildings is who’s flirting with whom, who’s leaving early, and whose birthday it is. And the noise! There’s a cacophony of constant distraction. Walls used to aid concentration quite effectively and accessibility issues were overcome with a low-tech solution: doors. Now we are constantly overlooked. We are constantly overlooking. Glass floors would be a logical next step (though they could not be called glass ceilings). What is a thinking space? Are we not permitted to think elsewhere? And when can we switch off, when we carry the office home in our smart phones?
People like their own desks. They personalise them with pictures of their children or their favourite film stars or football teams. Some are tidy. Some are messy. But at least they're your own crumbs on the keyboard. 'Hot desking’ – which never includes the boss’s desk – makes employees feel undervalued and disposable. How early do you have to arrive at work to secure a desk by the window? Exactly how productive is a daily game of musical chairs? I’m willing to bet my last meal deal office sandwich that every one of the board of directors of Scottish Futures Trust not only has their own desks but very probably their own walled rooms too.
Change is a fact of life. Resistance is futile. To oppose all change is stupid. But then, to enthusiastically embrace all change is stupid too. The 70’s rabbit hutches of corporate America have long since been condemned as dehumanising but it was space planners who introduced them. It’s not unreasonable to imagine in 10 years, a new orthodoxy will recognise people work best in safe and familiar environments within their own bespoke domains. So, it’s not unpatriotic to caution that while Scottish Futures Trust’s office of tomorrow undoubtedly delivers efficiencies on floor space, costs and density, it’s unproven on long-term productivity and wellbeing.
The metronome has disappeared but we’re still being asked to hew like machines.