A long time ago, I started my working life as an architectural critic. I’ve moved on, but the built environment and how it affects us is something in which I retain a deep interest.
So the opening of the refurbished Treasury here in London yesterday caught my eye. Sir Alan Budd, a former chief economic adviser, described the grubbiness of the previous offices to the Financial Times: “I took this as a sign to discourage anybody from asking for money. The building set the tone of the Treasury’s official austerity.”
That kind of tone is widely applauded in many business circles. When I moved from writing about architecture to writing about business, I would frequently encounter companies that were proud of their bare-bones offices (in fact, I worked for two such companies). There’s nothing great about extravagance, of course, and analysts are probably right that a lavish new headquarters is generally a sell signal. But I think there is everything right when an organisation tries to create a decent, enjoyable working environment for the place where people spend one-third of their life.
At the renovated Treasury, open plan offices and glass partitions have taken the place of dark, grubby corridors. Various experts in the FT opine that staff will have a difficult time adjusting to an open environment.
That might be true, but I equally believe that people generally work better in an open environment, so long as there is somewhere they can retreat to when they need quiet. The most inspiring office I ever visited was Centraal Beheer in Apeldoorn by Hermann Hertzberger. I can’t say there was anything beautiful about the architecture, but the offices felt like a lively, main street in an Italian hill town. The informal conversation and meetings that make for organisational dynamism were integral to the design.
I don’t think the Treasury is going to be Centraal Beheer, but it should be a more pleasant place to work.