A series of articles in a recent Harvard Business Review discusses the balance between transparency and privacy in offices. This issue is of particular importance to offices in creative industries because the work process can be a lot more fragile and sometimes personal.
Although not about architecture or architectural offices these articles seemed to hit what I believe are some of the most fundamental elements of architecture: place-making and territory.
What I think is a perfect example of how place-making and territory are fundamental to architecture is picking a spot on a beach. You walk around a bit, then you begin to find the characteristics that you are particularly looking for and out of the whole stretch of beach you pick one precise spot and drop your bags, set up your umbrella and spread out your towel. That is to say, you take a spot, make a physical manifestation that speaks to and highlights this spots certain innate characteristics (sun, sand, water line, etc) and this physical manifestation starts to define your territory (My thoughts are influenced by Martin Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking which I suggest a read if you are interested more down these lines)
Turning our attention back to offices, I would summarise the Harvard Business Review articles as “in this age of open-plan and hot-desking, giving people more of their own space is good for work.” “Giving people their own space” partially means allowing people more charge over the physical configuration of their offices.
One of the articles cited a software company that allowed workers to move their desks around and configure the layout depending on whom it was best to sit adjacent to at that particular moment in time. To me, this is a direct parallel to people choosing where to put their umbrellas on a beach. You have a location which highlights the characteristics you think are important to which you bring personal belongings to make it physical and define your territory. This obviously has tremendous impact not only for the well-being of the employees and the efficiency of the office because it creates an environment that is so rich with meaning.
“Giving people their own space” also means giving people privacy. One of the most surprising but instantly believable discoveries of the research was that when people felt watched, they would take measures to conceal their actions even if they weren’t doing anything wrong.
But why? My first instinct is that it is replacing this act of creating a territory which has been disrupted via lack of privacy. That is, actions to conceal their work are a sort of roudabout way of creating a territory. The problem is territories need a message. That is to say, no one establishes a territory only to hide it because, obviously it would be useless as a territory. For this theory to be correct, staff who conceal their actions at work because they feel lack of privacy actually want people to see that they are concealing their actions.
Maybe this is plausible, but seems a little counter-intuitive?
For creative offices (what office isn’t creative in some way?), this privacy is even more important. There can be seen to be 4 significant blocks to creativity:
- Failing to use one’s senses
- Fear of failure,
- Fear of ridicule and,
- Not having the right tools
(see Singer & Adkins, 1984, Managing for creativity in consulting engineering)
Feeling exposed at work is obvious to likely increase fear of failure and ridicule as mentioned above. So, encouraging creativity isn’t a matter of reigning back management. Rather, it is a matter of respecting territories – in the digital space as well as the physical space. It is to allow people to establish their territories in a healthy and managed way. This is a process that certainly requires management input.
(Feature image: “Sicilia Isola Bella-Beach View”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sicilia_Isola_Bella-Beach_View.jpg#/media/File:Sicilia_Isola_Bella-Beach_View.jpg , body image courtesy of WikiCommons user:Johntex)