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Beyond the Human Zoo – towards the human-centric office

Book Review: Beyond the Human Zoo, by Nigel Oseland

Flexibility verdict: Highly recommended!

Amidst all the current debate about home versus office, a vital factor – and one too often forgotten – is that if you do have offices then they need to be much of much better quality than the standard offering we’ve become used to over the years.

One of the findings of numerous surveys during the pandemic is that many office workers are finding home provides for the most part a better workplace experience than their office. They get more done there. And it feels great to have more control over one’s work environment.

It’s also a general finding that offices nonetheless can have beneficial uses, in particular in providing a social environment for certain kinds of work and for supporting colleague relationships. Or, they would do if they were better designed.

Nigel Oseland in his book Beyond the Workplace Zoo: Humanising the Office makes the case for “a human-centric and evidence-based approach” to offices. In this, the book does exactly what it sets out to achieve. Oseland marshals the evidence for the impacts of office environment on productivity, performance and comfort, looking at a range of factors such as air quality, acoustics, temperature, biophilia, layout, furniture and more, with the best review I’ve seen of the professional and academic literature.

This is where the book excels, in bringing together the evidence and making it accessible to the practitioner. It will be invaluable for both the professionals in the workplace industries and people in end-user organisations rethinking their office spaces.

Putting some numbers on these measured benefits will also help those who are charged with justifying the expenditure on workplace improvements.

Animal liberation (for we human animals)

Oseland use the metaphor of the zoo to get across the message that we can’t be treated like captives in cages and at the same time be at our best. He compares the old-fashioned zoo with its solitary and distressed animals in cramped cages with modern approaches that provide more space and stimulus, and says we need to adopt a similar model for offices. In the world of animal welfare, this is referred to as “habitat enrichment”. There is an emphasis on supporting the social activity of animals too, to provide a life that is as near to natural as possible.

Basically, the habitat enrichment we should apply to offices consists of a greater variety of settings, higher degrees of choice, a more natural environment with access to natural light, fresh air and other biophilic features.

De-densification

A point Oseland makes strongly is that we’ve gone too far with densification of workplaces. We need, he says, to have more space per person in order to thrive psychologically. This was the case even before the pandemic. Now, of course, though we want to be with our colleagues at least some of the time, we don’t want them up too close and personal!

However, I don’t see any likelihood for a major reversal of the trend to smaller offices. The ability to work remotely is proven, and the cost imperative to reduce real estate overheads will remain a driving imperative. So the challenge is how we can combine an approach of intelligent density to smaller and much more attractive floorplates.

Inclusion, diversity and control

The author has carried out pioneering work in the areas of personality and performance and in psychoacoustics, and this is reflected in some of the most interesting and thought-provoking sections of the book. There are strong arguments and evidence for avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches to office design.

People respond differently to different aspects of office environments. We need a choice of environments, and also the ability to control and sometimes to reconfigure our environments.

The Landscaped Office (revisited)

Oseland reanimates an old term in his quest for the human-centric workplace: the Landscaped Office. This is originally a term from the 1950s, the Burolandschaft, which became a concept adopted in Europe but gradually fell out of fashion. It described open plan spaces that tended to use irregular geometry and aimed to create a more organic, natural and humane environment, with desks in small clusters and separated by various dividers such as curved screens and planting.

A new approach to this is offered in the second half of the book. This rebranding is one area I don’t find so convincing. To me, it seems pretty much to describe good quality Activity-Based Workplace design that has high levels of attention to biophilic features and other elements to enhance comfort. I’m not convinced of the value of trying to resurrect a term from half a century ago to describe it.

The case is rightly made that the office isn’t only for collaboration – people will need to settle at a desk (or other surface) when they are in the office as well. However, my view is that the future will require far fewer desks and tables and a much bigger range of alternative spaces, furnishings and technology-enhanced facilities. This will include many more settings for interacting – both as groups and individuals – with colleagues, customers, suppliers and partners who are working elsewhere. Taking us beyond the workplace zoo also needs to take our thinking beyond the office, if we are fully to address the whole of the extended workplace.

Having said that, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Beyond the Workplace Zoo for its overall vision and analysis of the evidence for creating much more human-centric offices. It should be on the bookshelves of anyone involved in designing smarter environments.