In the late 1950s, the German consultancy Quickborner came up with the concept of Bürolandschaft - in English, office landscape. It was a concept based on more than simply the design of offices. It reflected a movement to a more egalitarian approach to management culture and a dispensing of the one-time scientific management philosophy which, while it had some merits, was predicated on hierarchical systems and the extraction of productivity at the expense of the human element. The typing pool, it might be said, was one of its worst manifestations. The human resource was a resource with barely any consideration given to the human. Scientific management, as it applied to the office, was akin to Fordism, Henry Ford's factory mass production.
In 1966, the company that I was to later work for published a book entitled "Office Landscaping: A New Approach to Office Planning". The author was a then young and innovative architect - Francis Duffy, now a CBE, the founder of the DEGW international architectural and design practice, and one-time president of RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects. His work was to have a great influence in the UK and elsewhere in the same way that Quickborner had influenced the reorganisation of office space in Germany.
It is simplistic to say that office landscaping was only to do with open-plan offices, but this form of layout was at its heart. Management styles were adapting to societal and cultural trends and were therefore in keeping with office planning that had begun to do away with closed offices and their symbolism of hierarchy and of us and them. Curiously though, open plan wasn't confined to northern European democracies. In Palma we have an example, if we could actually see it, of early 1960s open-plan layout - the Gesa building. Josep Ferragut's creation drew on the Quickborner principles, but whether the management style did would be another matter. One somewhat doubts that it did.
Still, open plan was to catch on in Majorca and Spain as it did everywhere. Over the decades it has been modified according to changing needs, but in essence - even in instances where semi-partitioning has been introduced in order to give an element of privacy - the concept is the same, and it is one of shared space.
The International Facility Management Association is located in Houston, Texas. It produced a report a few years ago which found that 70% of offices were open plan. So it is a layout which is pervasive, but is it always the right layout? There are certain drawbacks. Noise, distractions, no control over personal space; these are three to which can be added the increased risk of infection. This latter drawback is obviously being highlighted right now, and it is worth mentioning in this regard a study that was carried out in Denmark (this was in 2011) which found that if there are more than six people in an open-plan office, they take as much as 62% more time off sick than people working in closed offices. Moreover, open plan can increase stress and it can lower productivity. Yet for all this, it is pretty much standard.
The Bank of Spain has this week presented a report into homeworking, something else which is attracting a great deal of attention just at the moment. The bank concluded that there is "a wide margin for improvement" in this type of working. In general terms, some 30% of jobs could be done from home compared with the eight per cent that the bank's study found to be the case; this study having pre-dated the virus.
With homeworking having increased significantly over the past few weeks, it is quite possible that the bank's calculation of 30% of jobs could be revised upwards. But virus or no virus, there is potential for more homeworking and with this potential comes a solution to the drawbacks encountered in conventional office working, especially if it is open plan.
Twitter have announced that employees can opt for homeworking "forever", if they so wish. For Twitter employees, homeworking is no doubt feasible in most if not all cases. It does clearly depend on the nature of tasks and the availability of technologies, but where these allow, I personally believe that homeworking is pretty much ideal. I concede that it isn't for everyone, that personalities differ, and that the circumstances in the home differ. It isn't therefore a panacea, but no arrangement ever is.
With what I do, I don't have two hours a day travelling (with the attendant stress), I don't have the cost of travel and parking. I work from home and have done so for years; the state of alarm has made absolutely no difference. And I also have a space where, in particular, one can think, and thinking time is one of those facets of work that are little or ever discussed.
Bürolandschaft or Zuhauselandschaft?
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