Presence design is architecture

It has been argued here that the prevailing spatial strategies in office design favour individual work over collaboration. They are, in fact, remnants of the presence-in-person paradigm. In considering other societal changes, there has been remarkably little development in workplace design in the last century.

In spite of many variants, which have seen light through history, there still appears to be an emphasis on supporting individual work, carried out collectively. Individuals often work side by side and share the space, rather than work together. This is a form of collaboration that relies more on division of labour than on dialogic interaction and collaboration, and which hardly can be said to depend on human presence. Weber’s concept of ‘bureaucracy’ and Taylor’s concept of ‘scientific management’ were represented by an office design of order, hierarchy, supervision and efficiency in the early 1900s, but in many ways still prevails.[32] At the time, the task of office workers was to keep records and manage information, carry out meetings and discussions, make calculations, produce text, make decisions and plans. This mechanistic view of the workplace was visible in the physical planning of the workplace and implemented Taylor’s idea of ‘economy of motion, ‘visual accessibility’ and ‘supervision’.[33] Although contemporary work life may appear radically transformed by collaborative ways of working, we discover that, under the surface, much stays the same.

Note 32: Weber (1947) and Taylor (1911) are the two main contributors to classical organization theory. Taylor’s organisational theory for ‘scientific management’ was presented in 1911 and focused on work performance and efficiency. For Taylor, work needed to be broken down into its smallest elements and using the methods of ‘motion study’, its most efficient procedures were to be identified. Weber’s theory is not directly related to spatial organisation. However, as noted by Sundstrom, an employee’s rank in the organisational hierarchy is represented through the use of signifiers in the workplace design, such as location, size of their workspace or furniture design. Sundstrom (1986) describes the relationship between the worker and workplace as a ‘cog to a machine’ and Donald, similarly, as follows: “Employees were viewed as extrinsically motivated and so intrinsically lazy, working only under supervision and motivated by financial gain alone. It was believed that when given the appropriate conditions, people would work to their optimum efficiency.” (Donald 2001: 285).
Note 33: Sundstrom (1986: 49) describes that around 1900 there was an interest among psychologists on the effect from the work environment on human behaviour. The influence of noise, temperature, ventilation and lighting was measured and related to the performance of workers. Such monitoring often produced negative result and workers’ stress levels increased as a result from hiding their emotions. (Cf. Donald 2001).