IDR Sustainable Workplace

Psychologically, commercially and environmentally viable organizations

The Secret Life of Buildings - rejoinder

Several people have asked for my response to the second part of the Channel 4 series The Secret Life of Buildings which featured some of the work we do here at Prism at the University of Exeter.  It seems better to collate the concepts here for a more complete answer.


First, if you missed the programme or want to see it again you will find it here The Secret Life of Buildings 8th August 


Second it was a pleasure to work with Tom Dyckhoff, Mike Christie, Louise Wardle and everybody else connected with the programme.  Their friendly professional approach to film made the programme making experience almost pain free and always interesting.


Third, do I agree with the programme’s overall message?  The closest one word answer here would be ‘no’.  And yet I feel unfair in saying this as there was so much that was useful in a eye-catching hour.  Certainly any company following its advice and developing an entertaining workspace is more likely to do good than harm.


It is important to recognize that the programme was never designed to reflect our research into the psychology of office space nor its findings.  Our work was fitted into a framework to suit the narrative of the programme.  Despite this, the order of space presented by Tom Dyckhoff – and the emphasis he gave to the space – mirrored the letter of the scientific evidence well.  It was the spirit of the science that was missing.


The programme began with Norman Foster’s barn like offices in The Willis Building in Ipswich.  Despite the programme’s contentions, the Willis building was most certainly not the catalyst for open-plan offices.  Open plan has been in operation since the turn of the last century.  Foster did, however, help to promote the concept.


The Secret Life of Buildings, along with many commentators, was disparaging of open plan spaces.  It should be said now that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an office.  Open plan areas can be sociable, collegiate and effective working environments; just as cellular space can be dismal, isolating and dull.  The issue is that open-plan areas lend themselves more easily to poor management practice such as the ‘lean’ office and its central tenet of the clean desk.   And it is the controlling management practice of ‘lean’ that is abysmal not the office in which the practice takes place.


Prism’s research reflects that of Kimberley Elsbach, Chris Baldry and others.  In seven years of our experiments the lean office has always provided the worst environment in terms of both well-being and productivity.  It is unfair to blame the architect for managerial decisions that have led to a desertification of the environment.   So while Tom Dyckhoff was within his rights to take Norman Foster to task for the disappointing internal structure of Saint Mary’s Axe, it is not Foster’s fault that the top floor restaurant is rather exclusive nor is Foster to blame for management in the building imposing a desultory form of decor and control upon the building’s workers. 


Foster has something of a track record in terms of bold design statements running from Willis to The Gherkin to Wembley Stadium where he concentrates on macro appeal rather than micro detail.  He gave no indication to suggest that he objects to clients being similarly bold with the interior.  Erik Veldhoen, who developed the surreal environment at Interpolis shown in part two of the programme, stamps his flair on corporate interiors.


Veldhoen’s often outrageous space is certainly spectacular and in moving the programme’s story on to The Netherlands, presenter Tom Dyckhoff echoes the Knight and Haslam (2010) research that suggests that enriched space significantly improves well-being and productivity compared to its lean equivalent.  Similarly Zaha Hadid’s BMW Central Building in Leipzig creates in places a visually interesting, occasionally astonishing landscape which will add to the standard working day.  Some photographs of the BMW plant may be found here: BMW


 Tom (Dyckhoff) concluded his tour of architectural space with Herman Hertzberger who was one of the main drivers behind the Dutch structuralist movement in the 1960s.  Not so much ahead of his time as an often ignored voice, Hertzberger developed buildings with deliberate spatial gaps that were to be filled by the workers.  His concept of empowering employees to furnish their own office space is – according to psychological evidence – the best step you can take in terms of employees’ well-being and corporate productivity as it lets them realize their identity in their own space.  They do not have the identity of somebody else imposed upon them.  Yet in spite of this the programme did not linger on people’s individual workplaces.  Instead we saw Hertzberger’s own version of a high design interior with soaring spaces, cosy rooms and criss-crossing escalators. 


This is the crux of why the programme’s message was rather artificial.  Tom said that society needs to change, that without this shift architecture is fiddling on the fringes.  The literature would support this contention.  Yet Tom still returned to the Grand Designs solution where elaborate, managerially commissioned design panders to corporate ego with incidental benefits accruing to workers.  This has been going on for decades.  Here for example is the soaring design of the Johnson Wax building from 1939 Johnson Wax


And so it was that the beauty parade became the leitmotif of the show.  Good design does not have to mean the creation of a latter day Hogwarts.  In developing its own zeitgeist as backdrop The Secret Life of Buildings allowed design hyperbole to trump apparently hum drum solutions.  This would be fine were it not that in general hum drum works better especially when supported by science rather than heuristic.


The point about interior design being geared towards landlords rather than tenants was well made.  As a consequence of landlords’ influence, most buildings lack flair; this is true for those on the continent just as much as those in the City — Europe is not a Shangri-la of beautiful office buildings.  That so many buildings lack design style is a shame, but is it the most important factor for our well-being?  Just about all peer reviewed research suggests that giving employees input into the development of their own space — on a new move or retrospective basis — is better than somebody else creating womb-like offices or funky escalators on their behalf.   


Tom claimed that there was worker empowerment via the design at Interpolis.  Yet there was virtually none.  All the major design decisions at Interpolis were taken by senior management and by the architect.  Now they were pleasant, almost avuncular decisions, but workers were no freer to make their own decisions than the featured mice in the enriched cage.  Given the choice, those mice would almost certainly have preferred to have decamped to a nearby wiring cabinet and chewed on a few cables but this they were not allowed to do.  When Erik Veldhoen was asked at a design conference in 2009 why he hadn’t allowed worker input into the Interpolis design process he said “You can’t just ask people what they want.  You need professionals to lead the way”  


Yet the work Veldhoen had done was roundly praised while what was going on at Deloitte in London was dismissed.  Tom Dyckhoff said that “a pot plant here, a pot plant there isn’t going to make a difference.”  That is misunderstanding a project that has more potential than any amount of funky offices.  Plants can make a huge difference.  Not because of what they are but because of what they can represent, namely voice, the right to have influence over your own workspace.  In a similar way to Hertzberger in the 1960s Deloitte are attempting something radical.  They are giving their employees an element of choice. 


Deloitte and Interpolis have shown a similar approach to design.  They have both spent a considerable amount of money on developing a controlled aesthetic and neither consulted their workforce to any meaningful extent.  The difference is that Deloitte chose a stark, lean model and Interpolis opted for an enriched space.  Just as with the rodents, workers in the enriched space are proving to be much more content than those in the lean space.  But also as of mice so of men -- and women -- insomuch as neither group of senior managers trusted the workers enough to open the cages and let the workers arrange their space as they wanted.


Now, however, Deloitte are empowering their staff.  In a controlled experiment part of a Deloitte building remains stark and lean while another area is enriched, meanwhile a final area allows workers to decorate their own space should this be what they wish.  Plants are the vehicles chosen because they are inexpensive, make a visual impact and are ostensibly unnecessary to the job at hand.  You would expect a larger desk or a more comfortable chair to contribute to better performance at work and to consequently confound an experiment.  But a plant; that’s not going to make any difference is it Mr. Dyckhoff?  But it does.


Studies so far have shown an increase in well-being of up to 34% between lean and enriched spaces and of up to 40% between lean and empowered spaces.  Productivity increased by up to 17% between lean and enriched areas and by up to 32% between lean and empowered spaces.  The Deloitte experiment is work in progress, but there is every indication that the company will follow this pattern.


So we should not underestimate the benefits of working in an enriched space.  Here the programme gains Prism's unequivocal support.  It undoubtedly is better to work in an Interpolis type space than on a standard Deloitte footplate – all other things being equal.  There are more engaging features at every Dutch turn but that does not mean that Interpolis is a better employer.  We do not know, which company offers the best pay, the best holidays, the best childcare etc.  However we do know which company thinks it is at the top of the design game and is happy to allow itself to be an exemplar.  Yet it is Deloitte that is looking to improve its working conditions by consulting its employees and by measuring the effects scientifically and Deloitte that stands to gain the greater insight into the space requirements of its workforce.


If this study works for Deloitte then they can go on to consider what Hertzberger did all those years ago and move to involve employees in many more aspects of their working environment.  The results of these changes may not be as photogenic as BMW's offices or Googleplex or Macquarie Bank in Sydney, but by being tied to the wishes of the workers rather than the opinions of the designer they will almost certainly be better spaces in which to work.  And what’s more, they will owe their origins to science and pot plants. 


Further reading

Baldry, C., & Hallier, J. (2010). Welcome to the House of Fun: Work Space and Social Identity. Economic and Industrial Democracy, 31; 150 – 172.

Elsbach, K.D. (2003). Relating physical environment to self-categorizations: Identity threat and affirmation in a non-territorial office space. Administrative Science Quarterly, 48, 622-654.

Knight, C.P., & Haslam, S.A. (2010). The Relative Merits of Lean, Enriched, and Empowered Offices: An Experimental Examination of the Impact of Workspace Management, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16, 158 – 172.


Post Script:  Thanks again to all at Renegade productions.  Good luck with the series.  Without your programme we wouldn’t have been asked the questions we have.  The Secret Life of Buildings has formed an excellent platform for discussion.




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