Contract - Essay from the Past: Changes in Workplaces Reflect Changes in Task Structure (1970)

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Essay from the Past: Changes in Workplaces Reflect Changes in Task Structure (1970)

01 April, 2010



Undoubtedly one of the most thorough and original thinkers about the office and furnishing systems, Robert Propst, president of Herman Miller Research Corp., answers questions relating to desk design put to him by Contract’s editors.

The reader will recognize much of the philosophy and research conducted by Propst in his book The Office: A Facility Based on Change, which delved into man’s relationship with people and furnishings that had never been examined so minutely and incisively before.

Action Office II was the outgrowth of that research. Contract’s editors, while recognizing this irrevocable relationship, have attempted to probe beyond it in this question and answer article.

Editor: You generally avoid the use of the word “desk,” preferring “work station” instead. Is there a difference between the two? How would you define each of them?

Propst: The word “desk” has been used so long that it suffers meaning fatigue. For most people it simply conjures up in their minds a stylized image with little mobility, freshness, or relevance to their actual work life. We are, in fact, not very decisive about using furniture to do work. Using the term station as a place to do office work seems like a useful direction.

Editor: Doesn’t the traditional desk, which can vary in size, material, and shape, help establish rank or status? How important is a “status symbol” desk to the user? To the visitor? What are the exact psychological or behavioral forces at work on both the visitor and user with the traditional desk?

Propst: We are very interested in status and certainly desks have become part of this meaning. The difficulty we see with traditional status symbols is their misdirected emphasis and, in many cases, their obsolete connotation in contemporary organizational management. Certainly, people need strong identification. “What is my authority” is one of the things desks tend to express. However, other critical new statements are emerging with greater consequences. An office should tell us more: who I am; what kind of work I do; what is its variety and diversity. The problem is to retain a tangible grip on a complex world and to make this all eloquently expressive to others. The traditional status symbols are not only simplistic, but also they are a communication hazard in a world requiring clearer, and at the same time, more complex expression.

Editor: You advocate the open plan—a modified office landscape. Yet, most offices are still enclosed cubicles. Can Action Office I function effectively for the user within this framework of four walls, a door, and (hopefully) windows? If so, how?

Propst: Action Office II can function effectively within four walls, a door, and windows. This may, in fact, be what some office users still need. However, this is part of a rapidly declining professional population, who are aside from the exceedingly dynamic world of typical organizational and communication structures. And, unless they can stand excessive delay and cost in expressing office facilities, they are bound to be frustrated with unresponsive facilities. We are a change-oriented society, and we expect our change desires to be accommodated. But I would reemphasize that it is a communication deprivation that is the most compelling reason for leaving overly containerized office concepts.

Editor: The office and methods of working are changing. How does this affect the desk or work station and its configurations?

Propst: Office work has become more complex, tasks overlap each other in time, and we are discovering that “work” in offices has important structural qualities. A traditional desk comes from a departing era of simpler tasks, conducted in sequence and of short time duration. This kind of work is rapidly disappearing into machines, especially the computer. We see that tasks are generated, that they become mental meaning structures that properly should be maintained, sometimes for days or weeks. We see that our complex affairs may require places for numerous simultaneous task structures. We also can see that conversations across our sensitive personal paper work structures are not very satisfactory.

Within this context, I think you can see why we tend to think in terms of multiple surfaces and a very different kind of office geography.

Editor: Based on your research, what types of components should a desk or work station have?

Propst: Surfaces for work generation, open storage for tangible information assembly, roundish clear tales for conversation, perhaps covers for some kinds of work in process, and a minimum of drawer storage. Working with this kind of vocabulary, a tremendous variety of offices can be established. Everyone has different needs and some of us obviously need much more elaborate work areas than others. Equally important, some of us need simpler offices that are good at self-purging.

Editor: Action Office II keeps most papers out in the open where they are always in sight. Why is this more acceptable than the conventional desk drawer, file cabinet, or compartmentalized credenza? Or simply several stacks on a large work surface?

Propst: One of the clearest things that emerges for our research and in the information management research of others is the disastrous consequences of information sent into files and hidden storage. Expensively generated information dies, and then we pay rent to keep the body around. Work in meaningful array, if it has the right supportive tools, has a work aesthetic that can have a beauty of its own. This is the meaning of what I am doing. It is interesting, and I can control it. We have to place this against the vapid blankness of too many offices. We need to recover from the idea that the only good looking office is the one in which all work and individuality are missing.

Editor: The computer and other electronic equipment are fast dominating the office. The computer demands—and gets—a highly controlled environment, or it will simply quit. What has been done for the employee so that he can function as effectively and comfortably as the computer he operates?

Propst: The idea of what will dominate needs to be turned around. The need for high-quality human mental performance is beginning to dominate the office. As your question suggests, we need to apply more attention to our human performers. Unfortunately, not enough has or is being done.

Editor: If you were not bound by the constraints of price, marketing, and development of a specific product line, what would you incorporate in a desk or work station that does not now exist?

Propst: I don’t see pricing, marketing, or development as particular constraints. The real constraint is the still substantial lack of understanding of the office environment. When we really understand the problem dimension, the product programs can be logically implemented. Looking at new concept implementation from another direction, managers are finding that it is the effective support of their human inventory that really counts. In this context, it is becoming exceedingly pound foolish to under facilitate office workers.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean we need costly elaborate furnishings. What all of us are most interested in is maintaining an open option position. In other words, as new demands in performance or new discipline understanding comes along, we want to have the options to pick up the new advantages. This is far more important than over-specialized office design, which can be pretty gruesome to set aside when we want to grow or to change our mind.





Essay from the Past: Changes in Workplaces Reflect Changes in Task Structure (1970)

01 April, 2010


Undoubtedly one of the most thorough and original thinkers about the office and furnishing systems, Robert Propst, president of Herman Miller Research Corp., answers questions relating to desk design put to him by Contract’s editors.

The reader will recognize much of the philosophy and research conducted by Propst in his book The Office: A Facility Based on Change, which delved into man’s relationship with people and furnishings that had never been examined so minutely and incisively before.

Action Office II was the outgrowth of that research. Contract’s editors, while recognizing this irrevocable relationship, have attempted to probe beyond it in this question and answer article.

Editor: You generally avoid the use of the word “desk,” preferring “work station” instead. Is there a difference between the two? How would you define each of them?

Propst: The word “desk” has been used so long that it suffers meaning fatigue. For most people it simply conjures up in their minds a stylized image with little mobility, freshness, or relevance to their actual work life. We are, in fact, not very decisive about using furniture to do work. Using the term station as a place to do office work seems like a useful direction.

Editor: Doesn’t the traditional desk, which can vary in size, material, and shape, help establish rank or status? How important is a “status symbol” desk to the user? To the visitor? What are the exact psychological or behavioral forces at work on both the visitor and user with the traditional desk?

Propst: We are very interested in status and certainly desks have become part of this meaning. The difficulty we see with traditional status symbols is their misdirected emphasis and, in many cases, their obsolete connotation in contemporary organizational management. Certainly, people need strong identification. “What is my authority” is one of the things desks tend to express. However, other critical new statements are emerging with greater consequences. An office should tell us more: who I am; what kind of work I do; what is its variety and diversity. The problem is to retain a tangible grip on a complex world and to make this all eloquently expressive to others. The traditional status symbols are not only simplistic, but also they are a communication hazard in a world requiring clearer, and at the same time, more complex expression.

Editor: You advocate the open plan—a modified office landscape. Yet, most offices are still enclosed cubicles. Can Action Office I function effectively for the user within this framework of four walls, a door, and (hopefully) windows? If so, how?

Propst: Action Office II can function effectively within four walls, a door, and windows. This may, in fact, be what some office users still need. However, this is part of a rapidly declining professional population, who are aside from the exceedingly dynamic world of typical organizational and communication structures. And, unless they can stand excessive delay and cost in expressing office facilities, they are bound to be frustrated with unresponsive facilities. We are a change-oriented society, and we expect our change desires to be accommodated. But I would reemphasize that it is a communication deprivation that is the most compelling reason for leaving overly containerized office concepts.

Editor: The office and methods of working are changing. How does this affect the desk or work station and its configurations?

Propst: Office work has become more complex, tasks overlap each other in time, and we are discovering that “work” in offices has important structural qualities. A traditional desk comes from a departing era of simpler tasks, conducted in sequence and of short time duration. This kind of work is rapidly disappearing into machines, especially the computer. We see that tasks are generated, that they become mental meaning structures that properly should be maintained, sometimes for days or weeks. We see that our complex affairs may require places for numerous simultaneous task structures. We also can see that conversations across our sensitive personal paper work structures are not very satisfactory.

Within this context, I think you can see why we tend to think in terms of multiple surfaces and a very different kind of office geography.

Editor: Based on your research, what types of components should a desk or work station have?

Propst: Surfaces for work generation, open storage for tangible information assembly, roundish clear tales for conversation, perhaps covers for some kinds of work in process, and a minimum of drawer storage. Working with this kind of vocabulary, a tremendous variety of offices can be established. Everyone has different needs and some of us obviously need much more elaborate work areas than others. Equally important, some of us need simpler offices that are good at self-purging.

Editor: Action Office II keeps most papers out in the open where they are always in sight. Why is this more acceptable than the conventional desk drawer, file cabinet, or compartmentalized credenza? Or simply several stacks on a large work surface?

Propst: One of the clearest things that emerges for our research and in the information management research of others is the disastrous consequences of information sent into files and hidden storage. Expensively generated information dies, and then we pay rent to keep the body around. Work in meaningful array, if it has the right supportive tools, has a work aesthetic that can have a beauty of its own. This is the meaning of what I am doing. It is interesting, and I can control it. We have to place this against the vapid blankness of too many offices. We need to recover from the idea that the only good looking office is the one in which all work and individuality are missing.

Editor: The computer and other electronic equipment are fast dominating the office. The computer demands—and gets—a highly controlled environment, or it will simply quit. What has been done for the employee so that he can function as effectively and comfortably as the computer he operates?

Propst: The idea of what will dominate needs to be turned around. The need for high-quality human mental performance is beginning to dominate the office. As your question suggests, we need to apply more attention to our human performers. Unfortunately, not enough has or is being done.

Editor: If you were not bound by the constraints of price, marketing, and development of a specific product line, what would you incorporate in a desk or work station that does not now exist?

Propst: I don’t see pricing, marketing, or development as particular constraints. The real constraint is the still substantial lack of understanding of the office environment. When we really understand the problem dimension, the product programs can be logically implemented. Looking at new concept implementation from another direction, managers are finding that it is the effective support of their human inventory that really counts. In this context, it is becoming exceedingly pound foolish to under facilitate office workers.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean we need costly elaborate furnishings. What all of us are most interested in is maintaining an open option position. In other words, as new demands in performance or new discipline understanding comes along, we want to have the options to pick up the new advantages. This is far more important than over-specialized office design, which can be pretty gruesome to set aside when we want to grow or to change our mind.


 


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