Welcoming Workplace: rethinking office design to enable growing numbers of older people to participate in the 21st century knowledge economy.
In the early years of the 21st century, there are growing numbers of older workers who will not retire from the office workplace but will remain at work for longer, many of them on a consultancy, special-project or part-time basis. Several factors are driving this trend: a shortfall in pension funds; a management emphasis on retaining knowledge and experience built up over years; age and disability discrimination legislation offering more protection to older workers; and, above all, the plain demographic facts of population ageing (one in two adults in the European Union will be over 50 by 2020).
At the same time as the age balance of the workforce is changing, the type of work we do in offices in changing too. Today, much of the repetitive process work that once occupied vast numbers of office workers is done by computers. The contemporary workplace is increasingly the setting for a new type of work for which the most common term is knowledge work. This type of work depends not so much on formula and process within a supervised hierarchy but on applying theoretical knowledge and learning as part of a culture of collaboration, sharing and initiative.
Taken together, the ageing of the workforce and emergence of new patterns of knowledge work present a critical challenge to current practice in office design, which has traditionally been geared to younger workforces rather than older ones and simple, linear, process-driven work patterns rather than more complex knowledge-based ones. Technological advance with intelligent building systems and wireless technologies underpin this paradigm shift, supporting working styles that are more mobile and networked and work environments that can be customised to individual needs and abilities.
This project addresses ways in which the office environment can be redesigned to offer greater levels of comfort and flexibility in the new age of the older knowledge worker.
It builds on a strong record of investigation, expertise and publication by the research team at the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre, led by Professor Jeremy Myerson working closely with practising architect Dr John Smith, social anthropologist Jo-Anne Bichard and work psychologist Dr Alma Erlich. See Team
Framework for change
The study set out to examine the interconnected factors that make up the office environment: physical, spatial, technological, economic, social, cultural and philosophical, and develop a theoretical framework within which a programme of user research and design interventions on specific workplace sites could be planned and delivered.
Knowledge workers aged over 50 in three ‘knowledge industries’ (pharmaceuticals, technology and financial services) were interviewed and observed on three different continents The research was undertaken by the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art, London, in partnership with Kyushu University in Japan and the University of Melbourne in Australia.
The purpose of the study was to use a range of design research methods to give a voice to the ‘silent’ group of older knowledge workers, including research chemists, process engineers and financial analysts, within the work environment – a group that deliberately does
not draw attention to itself.
Research was carried out in the offices of major companies in London, Yokohama and Melbourne. Both older workers and the senior managers in facilities, property, occupational health and so on, who are responsible for their welfare and productivity, were interviewed.
Experimental design interventions were then built onsite in rapid response to the findings to further deepen the dialogue around people’s expectations, needs and preferences. More than 80 corporate staff worldwide participated in the study.
Disseminating the outcomes
The results of the entire project are being disseminated to academic, design and office professional audiences through a major book, a travelling exhibition, a series of conference papers and presentations, and a design guidance document endorsed by the British Council for Offices. See Outputs.
Given the growing pensions crisis and anticipated knowledge gap in the UK workforce, this project has real political, economic and social resonance. If we are all going to have extended working lives in the 21st century, the places in which we work will need to flex and adapt to make us want to keep on working. This study, which runs from January 2007 to December 2008, presents ways to achieve this.
Welcoming Workplace is part of the Designing for the 21st Century initiative and is jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).