15. Fun- parks or parkour?: The ambiguities
and paradox of planning pro- creative
Torkild Thanem and Sara Värlander
Over the past century open office design has taken a number of forms,
of which the open- plan office and office landscaping may be the most
well known. The open- plan office, which traditionally was adopted in
work environments housing white- collar workers such as typists and
book- keeping assistants, lines up workstations to expose individuals
to supervision (Hofbauer 2000). Conversely, office landscaping is less
linear, more informal, and organises employees in circles and groups to
facilitate communication and interaction. Nevertheless, it often organises
workstations to make different groups easily recognisable, and employs
principles of distance and visibility to inscribe differentials in status and
authority between employees at different hierarchical levels (ibid.). While
dividing walls and doors and private offices are at odds with any school
of open office design, both the open- plan office and office landscaping are
underpinned by a formal definition of office space, its use and purpose.
But in recent years organisations have started to adopt distinctive forms
of office design that give a new edge to openness in the workplace. By
removing spatial and social structures by design, these approaches are
typically intended to increase performance by fostering openness, sponta-
neous interaction and learning: like a fun- park. And, as such, many have
associated this new way of organising with increased creativity.
Many trace the beginnings of this workplace architectural revolution to
the invention of Apple Computers. Apple made much of not being IBM,
and they did not want any corporate uniforms, strict timetables or rigid job
descriptions. Nor did they want their employees to sit alone in an allocated
office box. New terms such as ‘hot- desking’ and ‘hoteling’ entered the
vocabulary of office design, and an increasing number of workplaces have
come to contain ‘chill- out rooms’ and fitness centres (Bell 2007). By 2001,
a UK government report entitled ‘Tomorrow’s Workplace: Fulfilment or
Stress?’ (Moynaoh and Worsley 2001) used the recent past as a guide to
the future and envisaged the twenty- first- century office as a ‘recreational
centre’ where the toys and tasks differed little from those found at home.
Today, much has been made of Google’s revolutionary and autonomous
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Pro- creative o ce design 299
organisational processes. Many hold it up as a beacon that should be
leading other organisations away from the traditional, closed spaces of
organisational architecture. However, as underlined by the Google CEO
Eric Schmidt, there is only a small part of Google that works like this:
the parts where new ideas and innovations are developed. Most of the
organisation is very ‘tight’ and very conventional. The company could not
function otherwise (Bilton and Cummings 2010).
The substantial increase in open office design has prompted growing
interest amongst researchers into the values it offers organisations and
individuals. However, research within this stream remains divided and con-
tradictory (Maher and von Hippel 2005). Some researchers maintain that
open office design impacts negatively on employee satisfaction, leading to
loss of privacy, job dissatisfaction, impaired performance (Sundstrom et
al. 1980, Block and Stokes 1989, Hofbauer 2000, Maher and von Hippel
2005, Oommen et al. 2009), and increased labour control (Hofbauer 2000).
Conversely, Kornberger and Clegg (2004) have argued that negative
control can be turned into a positive power through ‘the generative build-
ing’ which houses a number of open spaces and meeting places. In their
view, the generative building stimulates open- ended use and spontaneous
encounters between people from different organisational levels and depart-
ments. Similarly, others have contended that open office design constitutes
a flexible space which allows for reduced set- up and renovation times,
accommodates greater numbers of employees in smaller volumes of space
(Brennan et al. 2002), and facilitates social interaction and communication
(Zahn 1991). On the whole, this has been seen to improve job satisfaction,
staff morale, information exchange and productivity (Brennan et al. 2002).
In summary, some of the more recent accounts have tended to highlight
the power of open office design to shape, control or otherwise facilitate
particular forms of employee behaviour and unleash their creativity, while
others have warned against a one- dimensional view on open office design
as enabling creativity and efficiency. Although previous research has
argued against spatial determinism and acknowledged that open spaces
may be enacted by employees in a variety of ways (e.g. Sundstrom et al.
1980, Hatch 1987, Elsbach 2003), this remains an under- researched topic.
In particular, little attention has been given to the ‘new spirit’ of open
office design that is explicitly geared towards boosting fun and creativity
and to the ways in which the intentions of this ‘pro- creative’ office design
may be subverted and resisted.
In this chapter, we investigate how pro- creative forms of open office
design may afford a broader range of behaviour than originally intended.
More specifically, we argue that it may undermine the kind of spontane-
ous interaction and creativity that it is intended to foster, and instead
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300 Handbook of management and creativity
lead to subversive practices through which its incumbents express alterna-
tive forms of creativity. More specifically, we argue that greater spatial
openness may inhibit difference and originality and thwart ‘liberation’
from conventions and habits as employees re- invoke spatial and social
structures and boundaries.
To do this we introduce three perspectives that help us investigate
the unintended consequences of this ‘new spirit’ of open office design:
Gibson’s theory of affordances to study the connection between office
design and behaviour without invoking spatial determinism; Foucault’s
notion of panoptic surveillance in combination with Gabriel’s notion of
the glass cage to examine the disciplinary politics of office design; and
de Certeau’s notion of tactics to highlight the ambivalent ways in which
people may challenge and subvert the intentions of office design. We then
investigate two examples that problematise the positive values currently
prescribed to open office design and its promotion of spontaneous interac-
tion, creativity and learning. The first example draws on our study of open
office design and work practices at a Swedish occupation pensions spe-
cialist. The second example draws on our study of open office design and
work practices at a new model call centre in another European country.
Finally, we conclude that a more fruitful approach, if organising for crea-
tivity really is the aim, is an organic mix of open and closed, new and old,
private and public spaces and the concept of parkour, or transgressive free
running within, between and across these spaces.
UNDERSTANDING THE AMBIGUITY OF PRO-
CREATIVE OFFICE DESIGN
Gibson’s (1979) concept of affordances provides a way to avoid spatial
determinism without ignoring the power of space and spatial design. In
other words, it provides a way to understand how spatial design features
affect people without determining social behaviour, interaction and prac-
tice. The concept of affordances concerns what the environment offers
its inhabitants – what it provides, furnishes or affords. In other words,
it suggests that the environment affords, suggests and makes itself avail-
able to certain uses while constraining others. For example, a stairway
affords walking more than it does sleeping, a bench with a backrest affords
comfortable sitting more than a bench without a backrest, and, as in the
example from Japan in Figure 15.1, we can see how this ‘anti- homeless’
bench affords sitting but not lying down.
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Pro- creative o ce design 301
In this sense, affordances are functional and objective aspects of the envi-
ronment (Hutchby 2001: 448). But affordances are also relational and
subjective aspects of the environment: what an environment affords is
different for different users. What is afforded depends both on the envi-
ronment and the user (Gibson 1979: 129). For example, perceived and
attained boundaries in bipedal stair- climbing are affected by body size
and body proportions as well as by hip- joint flexibility and relative leg-
strength (Meeuwsen 1991). Moreover, affordances are a result of people’s
past knowledge and experiences (Lakoff 1987, Norman 1988, Jordan et
al. 1998), and the use afforded by certain environments and artefacts are
governed by social or technical rules that must be learned by its users
(Hutchby 2001). For example, for fellow employees to stop and talk to
each other in the photocopier room or by the water- cooler they must feel
that this is socially acceptable (Fayard and Weeks 2007).
The importance of learning and knowledge is further emphasised
through the concept of dynamic affordances. In management and organi-
sation theory, this concept has been introduced to understand how learn-
ing, knowing and knowledge emerge through dynamic interaction with the
world or with an artefact, a technology or a discourse in the world (Cook
and Brown 1999, McNulty 2002). However, this can be further applied to
Figure 15.1 An ‘anti- homeless’ bench in Japan
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302 Handbook of management and creativity
understand the affordances of an environment. As dynamic affordances
‘emerge as part of the (dynamic) interaction with the world’ (Cook and
Brown 1999: 390), learning, knowing and knowledge do not merely result
from learning rules or from past experience and knowledge. People learn,
know and develop new knowledge about an artefact or environment and
how to use it by interacting with it – and what is afforded changes with
the interaction. Changes or developments in dynamic affordances create
facilities or frustrations. The theory is that facilities result when more is
afforded and frustrations result when less is afforded. Hence, we might
think that greater open space would afford more creativity. A room
without chairs, for example, offers many possibilities.
While the concept of affordances makes it possible to analyse how par-
ticular features of open- space office design are materially constituted and
how an open- space office is spatially organised to afford certain uses and
users more than others, most affordance research presumes a simplified
and depoliticised understanding of the human subject and social rela-
tions among humans. This may be the case because affordance research
has primarily concerned itself with relations between humans and the
natural or technical environment, ignoring how affordances may affect
social relations between humans. Arguing that the alteration of the natural
environment by humans has made life easier for humans and acknowl-
edging that humans thereby have ‘made life harder for most of the other
animals’, Gibson (1979: 130) does not recognise that these alterations may
profoundly alter relations between humans, frustrate rather than facilitate
human relations, and make life harder for some humans. This is a problem
of power relations which remains largely neglected in recent organisational
research on ‘social affordances’ (see Fayard and Weeks 2007). Although
the notion of social affordances recognises how spatial and social features
of a setting combine to promote or hamper social interaction, a more polit-
ically conscious re- articulation of affordances is needed to understand how
open office designs are embedded in the spatial politics of organisations
– that is, how open office designs are infused with power in ways that
f a c i l i t a t e c e r t a i n u s e s , u s e r s a n d s o c i a l r e l a t i o n s b u t f r u s t r a t e o t h e r s .
Since the 1980s Foucault’s (1977) studies of panoptic surveillance have
had a significant impact on the understanding of power and control
mechanisms in contemporary organisations. Panoptic forms of surveil-
lance have been found in a number of management technologies, from
accounting, to information technology, to human resource management
and teams (see e.g. Miller and O’Leary 1987, Zuboff 1988, Townley 1994,
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Pro- creative o ce design 303
Sewell 1998). While it may seem obvious that the lack of dividing walls
and doors in open office design makes its inhabitants visible to colleagues
and managers, the notion of panoptic surveillance remains a powerful tool
in helping us shed light on the politics of affordances and understand the
visual logic and power relations of open office design (e.g. Visker 1995).
Gabriel’s (2005) notion of the glass cage extends Foucault’s understand-
ing of panoptic surveillance and further problematises the visualisation of
contemporary society and organisations. ‘Like the panopticon, the glass
cage acts as a metaphor for the formidable machinery of contemporary
surveillance’ (ibid.: 18), which exposes employees to the gaze of colleagues
and managers through a range of electronic, spatial, psychological and
cultural technologies. As such, the glass cage is an entrapment, but it is
more fragile and ‘affords greater ambiguity and irony’ than the panopti-
con (ibid.). The glass cage ‘seeks to hide the reality of entrapment rather
than display it’ (ibid.: 20), and constitutes a display case, container or
glass palace which highlights ‘the uniqueness of what it contains rather
than constraining or oppressing it’ (ibid.). At the same time, Gabriel, like
Foucault, acknowledges that power is not without resistance. However,
the glass cage provokes ‘more subtle and nuanced acts of disobedience
and defiance’ as employees seek to ‘create spaces that are sheltered from
continuous exposure or, at least, are only semi- visible from the vantage of
power’ (ibid.: 18).
Tactics of Subversion
Several studies have shown that the spatial layout of organisations is
central to understanding power relations within the workplace and
that managers perceive space as a tool to control employees through
various forms of visualisation techniques such as self- surveillance or peer-
surveillance (Perin 1991, Collinson and Collinson 1997, Ezzamel et al.
2001). At the same time, it has been shown that attempts to implement
organisational change through office re- design often provoke resistance
as employees feel their identity (Elsbach 2003) or status (Baldry 1999) is
under threat. Thus, management control over spatial settings of work is
limited (Fleming and Sewell 2002).
However, the particular ways in which employees resist and subvert
open office design remains under- theorised. In this chapter, de Certeau’s
(1984) notion of tactics enables elaboration on how people may resist and
subvert open office design.
A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it
over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance [. . .] A tactic is a
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304 Handbook of management and creativity
calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus. No delimitation
of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy.
The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus, it must play on and with a
terrain imposed on it and organised by the law of a foreign power. (De Certeau
1984: xix, 37)
Tactics, then, are ways of operating that seize the opportunity and
‘make do’ (or create) by combining the heterogeneous materials at hand.
More specifically, this may include ‘victories of the “weak” over the
“strong”’, ‘knowing how to get away with things’, clever tricks, manoeu-
vres, and joyful discoveries. Furthermore, the quote above underlines the
close connection between tactics and ‘imposed space’, and shows how this
enables, encourages and stimulates the use of tactics among the inhabit-
ants of space. Within imposed places, tactics create space, and while stra-
tegic place can be described as disciplining and normalising (e.g. Hjorth
2004), tactics are forms of resistance towards such places.
Underlining the emergence and unpredictability of tactics, De Certeau
(1984: 37) stated that ‘it must vigilantly make use of the cracks that par-
ticular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers.
It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least
expected. It is guileful ruse.’ Tactics, then, are a different form of power
from the strategies of the dominant: ‘occupying the gaps or interstices
of the strategic grid, tactics produce a difference or unpredictable event
which can corrupt or pervert the strategy’s system’ (Colebrook 1997:
125). Thus, tactics give rise to emergent and unexpected outcomes, which
makes it suitable for understanding how office design that is imposed
on employees may also encourage employees to use tactics creatively, as
creative resistance, rather than unequivocally produce intended creative
Research in organisation studies has actualised the use of tactics in
organisational life by focusing on how employees may resist dominant
notions of subjectivity. Kondo (1990) has investigated how female part-
time workers in a Japanese factory resist corporate culture by retaining it
on the surface yet using humour and irony when talking about it amongst
themselves. Similarly, Collinson (1992) has shown how shop- floor workers
at a UK heavy vehicles manufacturer expressed resistance by cynically dis-
tancing themselves from managers, management and management values
and culture in order to retain an autonomous sense of masculine, working-
class identity. Further, Fleming and Spicer (2003: 166) have argued that
workers may submit to job requirements and overtly endorse organisa-
tional roles, norms and values, but cynically reject or distance themselves
from the ascribed corporate culture through clandestine countercultural
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Pro- creative o ce design 305
While these studies highlight the mobilisation of tactics in the pursuit of
alternative subjectivities, tactics can revolve around spatial dimensions of
organisational life. For instance, in the case of ‘physical distancing’, male
shop- floor workers worked ‘flat out’ in the mornings to maximise their
bonus but withdrew to the toilets in the afternoons to play cards and read
pornographic magazines out of sight from management (Collinson 1992).
In a somewhat different vein, it has been argued that entrepreneurial prac-
tices may tactically play in and with the spatial settings of organisations
(Hjorth 2004). In this chapter, we show how employees mobilise spatial
tactics as a response to open office design in ways that rearticulate and
modify the social and spatial dimensions of work organisations.
In summary, our theoretical framework enables us to avoid spatial
determinism in design–behaviour relations and highlight the unintended
consequences of pro- creative forms of open office design. While Gibson’s
concept of affordances enables us to investigate what uses, behaviours
and interactions pro- creative forms of open office design might afford, a
combination of Foucault’s, Gabriel’s and De Certeau’s work enables us
to elaborate the control mechanisms of open office design and how they
may be subverted. This is not to suggest a dichotomy between the power
of open office design to control behaviour and the power of employees to
resist open office design. Rather, this enables us to highlight the ambigu-
ous ways in which open office design – and spatial design more broadly – is
mobilised and re- mobilised to create multiple and contradictory effects.
INVESTIGATING THE LIVED EXPERIENCE OF PRO-
CREATIVE OFFICE DESIGN
Our aim in this research is to study a contemporary phenomenon in an
area where there are some largely unquestioned assumptions in play: par-
ticularly the idea that the freedom provided by open spaces and an empha-
sis on fun promotes creativity. Our empirical investigation seeks to use the
theoretical lenses described above to explore the relationship between the
practice of opening space in organisations and organisational creativity.
To study the case of pro- creative office design we therefore employed
the principle of purposeful sampling (see e.g. Strauss and Corbin 1990,
Bickman and Rog 1998) to select two organisations that had worked
systematically to promote fun and creativity through the implementation
of open office design. One is a Swedish occupational pensions specialist
and the other is a UK call centre (oth er aspects of their identity have been
disguised). More detail on the method of these investigations is provided
in Appendix 15.1).
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306 Handbook of management and creativity
Example 1: Office Re- design at OPS
OPS manages the pension savings of 1.6 million individuals. There are 600
employees working at the head office and in 2004 the company undertook
a complete re- design of these facilities – out with the many small rooms,
dusty drawers and old- fashioned fixtures which were associated with a
rigid, bureaucratic organisation as opposed to a modern, transparent and
creative organisation. The aim of the re- design was not only to become
more ‘space efficient’ but also to facilitate spontaneous interaction, crea-
tivity and learning. Almost all employees now sit in open office landscapes,
the only exception being staff doing calculation work as this is considered
to require quietude. One manager underlined his conviction that the new
design would produce favourable learning outcomes: ‘when employees sit
together in a shared space they are in the middle of the information flows.
They are constantly exposed to what is going on, and they can speak more
freely with each other.’
Prior to the re- design, employees worked in isolation in separate offices.
With the open office design, workspace is allocated on the principle of
‘hot- desking’. Hot- desking enables employees to easily change workspace
when moving between projects or when taking on new tasks or positions
within the company. In general, employees change workspace a couple of
times a year.
Whereas the old design only housed one canteen, each floor of the head-
quarters building now houses a large flashy kitchen where employees can
meet and gather for a fast bite to eat or a cup of tea or coffee. Comfortable
sofas and chairs have also been put in to encourage employees to spend
more time talking and interacting. Adjoining this informal meeting area is
a number of isolated meeting rooms for formal meetings.
Even the CEO and the managing director have left their top floor
private offices and now sit in one of the open office areas. Before the re-
design, many employees were hesitant to approach and talk to senior man-
agement unless they had a clear purpose for doing so. Now the new office
design makes it difficult to avoid bumping into them or spontaneously
exchanging ideas. Most of the managers work in the open office environ-
ment, and we were told that the few who do not create much frustration
because they are not seen to ‘practise what they preach’. That managers
sit in the open space office environment was regarded positive because
it reflected a sense of equal treatment. However, as emphasised by one
employee: ‘naturally, when you have your desk beside your manager, you
cannot avoid feeling that they have their eyes on you.’
Have spontaneous interaction, creativity and learning between employ-
ees been enhanced, then, with the office re- design? Well, some findings
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Pro- creative o ce design 307
could support this argument, but there are also contradictory findings
that seem to suggest that this may just as well be hampered by open office
design. Arguably, our interviews suggested that the feeling of being a team
had been strengthened since the employees within a project or a depart-
ment see each other frequently and are therefore forced to conform to
certain social codes of conduct, such as greeting each other with a hello or
However, sharing the same space also created problems within the team
which may not have occurred in a traditional office design. Our respond-
ents claimed they had difficulties ignoring what their colleagues did in the
open office area. As one respondent said: ‘In the beginning it was almost
unbearable; I spent so much time and energy looking at what my col-
leagues were doing. Now after a year it is easier, but I still get annoyed
several times a day.’
There was also much irritation between employees as not everybody
conformed to the behavioural rules which had been developed step- by-
step by the employees to cope with the increased noise levels and distur-
bances resulting from the new office design. These rules were written down
and distributed to all employees. Eating and drinking was prohibited in
the open area. And to avoid co- workers being disturbed by loud con-
versations, telephone use and interaction was restricted. It was also not
allowed to bring additional chairs to individual desks, even when two or
more people were working together on the same task or when experienced
staff were involved in the training of new staff members. Instead, meetings
and training sessions were supposed to be conducted inside the formal
meeting rooms. Indeed, when people violated these rules – by making
private phone calls, talking loudly or gobbling and slurping at their desk
– arguments frequently broke out as co- workers were quick to remark on
and rectify such behaviour.
Furthermore, quarrels were triggered by certain employees seeking to
monitor the work schedules of their colleagues – counting the actual time
spent working and commenting on arrival and departure times as well as
on the number and duration of coffee breaks and cigarette breaks. Thus,
teamwork was not always facilitated by the open office design. But at
the same time, the number of sick days among employees had decreased
significantly after the re- design. Two competing interpretations may be
given to this phenomenon: Firstly, it may be that employees were more
satisfied with the new setting, feeling more involved, empowered and
motivated to work; but secondly (and this is gloomier), it may be that the
increased visibility brought about by the new design had amplified the
panoptic eye. This panopticism does not emanate from an epicentre of
management control. Rather, it is a decentralised form of panoptic control
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308 Handbook of management and creativity
where everybody controls everybody through the internalisation of peer
surveillance as ‘auto- surveillance’. In a place where employees are defined
in terms of seeing and being seen, not being seen is more conspicuously
noticeable than in a setting where employees typically work in separate
Our interviews and observations at OPS suggest that spontaneous
interaction, creativity and learning were not an automatic effect of the
new open design. On the one hand, the open design was apt at promot-
ing frequent spontaneous meetings between employees – it made it easy
for employees to spot one another from afar and pop by for a chat. The
kitchen areas and the adjacent seating areas situated on each floor also
made it easier for employees to engage in spontaneous conversations over
a cup of coffee. On the other hand, employees engaged in loud discussions
risked disturbing their colleagues. So even though the landscape poten-
tially affords spontaneous interaction, this was considered so disturbing
that employees were requested to relocate to continue their ‘spontaneous’
interaction inside the meeting rooms. Consequently, the meeting rooms
tended to be overbooked. At the same time, the new kitchen areas on
each floor made employees interact less with other departments, creat-
Figure 15.2 The open social area adjoining the kitchen at a Swedish
occupational pensions specialist
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Pro- creative o ce design 309
ing a stronger feeling of group belonging and ‘us- and- them’ mentality.
In order to counter this sense of group segregation, employees actually
started to make personal visits to sort out queries with colleagues in other
departments instead of using email and the telephone.
Furthermore, the surveillance afforded by the open design made some
employees adopt a more strictly professional identity at work, feeling that
it left less room for their private selves. As one employee stated: ‘You feel
that you have to play your professional role for the whole day, at least
this is the case for me, as I don’t want to become too private with my col-
leagues. This can be really exhausting sometimes, to always keep up the
façade. I often feel that I would like to have a small private space where I
could think clearly and silently without thinking about how I behave, just
to be myself for a short while.’
Such sentiments led employees to tactically manipulate the flexi- time
arrangement at OPS, working more from home than before the re- design.
In summary, then, our findings from OPS suggest that their open office
design hindered rather than encouraged spontaneous interaction and
Example 2: Office Design at CC
Whereas OPS had re- designed their existing headquarters, CC had gath-
ered their call centre operations in a new state- of- the- art open- space facil-
ity known as ‘the dome’. The dome combined the pursuit of feel- good,
fun, vibrancy and creativity with open- space office design. In a recruit-
ment ad CC portrayed itself as ‘a fun place to work, with a fantastic
team atmosphere – we all work hard, play harder and take great pride in
celebrating our successes’. While we did not directly discuss the notion
of creativity with staff, CC viewed the open design itself and its indoor
facilities as a creative approach to recruit and retain creative and highly
motivated employees capable of improving sales and customer satisfac-
tion. Spatial boundaries and clear- cut structures were avoided. Rooms
were large and open, encouraging employees to move between and inter-
act with colleagues in different workspaces. Like OPS, CC applied the
principle of hot- desking. Moreover, CC’s dome contained open, flexible
and undefined spaces located between work areas. For example, drink
machines and kitchenettes were strategically located on busy passages,
near elevators and bathrooms, to help generate spontaneous interactions
between employees and create, and set in place, positive relational pat-
terns. There were also a number of activity rooms with different themes,
including a sports- themed room with table soccer, pinball and ‘Nerf’ balls
and a Mediterranean café.
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310 Handbook of management and creativity
The architects that built the centre described it on their website as follows
under the title ‘Creating an environment that helps to attract and retain
[The company’s] vision for their operation was to create a vibrant and fun call
centre that would accommodate 1000 people. Their goal was to attract and
retain the highest quality personnel. . .. The scope of [our] work was wide.
Before designing the environment, we determined the ideal configuration of
teams to gain maximum efficiency. The teams are mostly made up of staff aged
18–23 so we developed a concept that appeals to them.
So, was this workspace fun? It certainly appeared that many employ-
ees were enjoying themselves. There were regular competitions to meet
performance targets and announcements made to declare winners. There
was certainly a lot of noise or ‘buzz’. Most of the teams seemed very tight-
knit, engaging in much gossiping and socialising. The teams would gen-
erally hang out together. As noted above, hot- desking was promoted in
Source: Architen Landrell Associates Limited
Figure 15.3 Inside ‘the dome’, an open design call centre in the UK
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Pro- creative o ce design 311
principle, but in practice most groups – particularly those who were most
competitive and those who had been in place for a while – would estab-
lish a spatial and social position in these principally non- territorial office
arrangements, marking out their spatial territory with posters, slogans
and personal artefacts and moving furniture around to create their own
personalised space. We saw nobody seeking to move into the personalised
space generated by other teams. Teams would use the ‘fun rooms’, but
much the same way as any group would use a more conventional cafete-
ria: at regular times in accordance with the desires of the most established
groups. Moreover, employees tended to stick to their own teams, interact-
ing very little with other teams. And they reinforced team boundaries and
identity and enacted and created spatial structures by putting up posters
and slogans and relocating furniture.
Was this workspace creative, then? It was certainly competitive, and
this led to some interesting team tactics being used to inspire victories over
other teams, such as holding back on calling ‘good targets’ if a ‘game’ was
tight and the end of a competitive period (which was determined from
above) was near. Indeed, any competition requires the rules and criteria
for performance to be established in advance and generally from above:
target numbers such as going after particular demographic or geographi-
cal segments or cross- selling. We did not observe any questioning or think-
ing differently about performance targets at the operative level and the
workers that we spoke to claimed to have not thought to question or adapt
Further, cultural and sub- cultural norms were strong, with teams devel-
oping a shared identity which often meant socialising with members of
their group during breaks and after hours, and gossiping about members
of other groups. It seemed very difficult to step outside of these norms and
‘cross- fertilise’ or socialise with other teams and team members – partly,
it seemed, because the boundaries between social groups and work groups
had become blurred as these groups had built their own structure around
themselves to create efficiency and order within the space provided by the
Certainly, while the open space had enabled different groups to gener-
ate their own structures and flows, these were quickly synchronised with
the flows of others. For instance, groups did not all arrive in the same
‘fun spaces’ at the same times. There were definitely flows that appeared
to have originated from employee behaviours rather than decreed by
management. But, because of this, people seemed to be more wary and
shy about going against ‘the flow’ than they may have been in a more con-
ventional structure imposed from the top–down, as their actions would be
more obvious to their norm- setting co- workers.
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312 Handbook of management and creativity
At the same time, many claimed that the bright, open environment was
wearing. Unusually perhaps for such a large building, there was little per-
sonal space. Indeed, the open- space office design here seemed to deprive
employees of any homely space or individual haven and social interac-
tion was imposed on the employees. An interesting issue that surfaced at
CC was the problem caused by the sharp light created by the initial open
design. On the one hand, the carefully designed glass ceilings brightened
the whole building and visualised the space by letting in solar lighting. But
on the other, it led to complaints from staff who found it too bright and
somewhat overpowering. After some time, managers had to take employ-
ees’ concerns into consideration, despite their persuasion that the light-
ness was beneficial for efficiency. The employees did not share the same
perspective, and claimed that the brightness in the building was repressive
on sunny days. The architects that won the contract to fix the problem
explain their task on their website as follows: ‘In a call centre for a major
[. . .] company, staff were complaining that the solar glare was hindering
their work. [We were] approached to install some skylight diffusers to
control the glare and blend into the industrial style of the open plan office.’
In summary, the open- space office design adopted in this call centre did
not necessarily afford a more creative workspace than other more normal
spaces that we have visited. To some extent, the fun rooms afforded
employees to engage in games and play and have fun at work. And the
Mediterranean style café, for example, afforded what many agreed was
a ‘feel- good atmosphere’. The sports room was claimed to be ‘good for
bonding’. But, the open- space design itself may be seen to have afforded
surveillance, control and normalisation, but this was initiated by the
employees themselves more than their managers. Moreover, it appeared
difficult for an individual or group of employees to resist these tactics, and
instead of increased socialisation, which was supposed to foster a creative
and dynamic organisation with high team spirit, some employees claimed
that the organisation was more fragmented and inter- group boundaries
and differences even more visible than at other organisations they had
While the design afforded employees unobstructed movement between
different areas of the call centre building, it also made employees highly
visible to each other. Indeed, the open design made performance, success
and failure visible. Thus, employees were able to monitor their own
behaviours, movements and performances as well as those of their col-
leagues and other teams. This seemed to play an important role in shaping
employee behaviour, movements and performance. Employees used fun
rooms and recreational spaces according to fairly structured schemes that
largely complied with what had been established as mainstream expecta-
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Pro- creative o ce design 313
tions of work breaks, work behaviour and performance, and they typically
strived to copy the ‘best practices’ of other groups they observed or heard
This suggests that the visualisation afforded by the open- space design
enabled employees and teams to exercise self- control in pursuit of a
normalised form of work performance and best practice and divide and
separate themselves from others. While this took place in a competitive
environment, the lack of interaction also helped teams avoid conflict.
Hence, these are not just social affordances affecting social interaction
within teams and between teams. They are micro- political affordances
too, affording power, surveillance and control to be exercised. The impor-
tance of the team structure suggests that the surveillance and control
afforded was more a matter of neo- liberal self- surveillance and self-
control than management surveillance and control. It further suggests that
the use afforded by the open- space office design in this case was not static
but dynamic. Inhabiting this workspace afforded employees to change
the space and change and adjust their behaviour. As employees working
in the dome experienced sunlight as a problem, the sun screens that were
installed to deal with this changed the spatial design of the dome. And as
employees watched other teams and top performers in their own teams,
they changed and adjusted their own behaviour to copy and maximise
their own performance rather than create anew. Inhabiting the workspace
therefore afforded creativity, learning and changes in behaviour, but not
necessarily in the ways that were initially intended.
Rather than providing universally generalisable findings, our cases help
us rather explore and question the ambivalent affordances and politics
of pro- creative office design. Despite their architectural and organisa-
tional differences, our two cases of pro- creative open office design show a
number of similarities in how they were enacted by employees, fostering
other outcomes and different kinds of creativity than what was originally
intended by the organisations. Almost 50 years ago, Koestler (1964) stated
that: ‘It is obvious that innovation or discovery takes place by combin-
ing ideas. The Latin verb cogito for “to think” etymologically means “to
shake together”.’ This casts doubt on the assumption that openness facili-
tates creativity, suggesting instead that ongoing creativity requires a com-
bination of light and dark, openness and secrets, an operation across and
shaking together of mainstream worlds and marginal otherworlds. We
should therefore carefully think through the unintended, and sometimes
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314 Handbook of management and creativity
counterproductive, consequences of exposing everything in an organisa-
tion out in the open, even (or perhaps especially) when it is done in the
name of creativity.
Affordances are typically evaluated in terms of how they facilitate
certain behaviours while frustrating others (see e.g. Gibson 1979). The
pro- creative open office design implemented at OPS and CC did not
unequivocally afford and facilitate creativity through an increase in
spontaneous interaction, a fun atmosphere, and exciting learning proc-
esses. Indeed, our findings suggest that they set in motion differential and
dynamic affordances that facilitated a range of different responses which
also changed over time as employees interacted with and within these
office environments. In part, we found that the pro- creative open office
designs at OPS and CC afforded surveillance and control of employees by
colleagues and managers – and ultimately an auto- surveillance whereby
employees disciplined themselves – in ways that frustrated rather than
facilitated spontaneous interaction, fun and learning.
Previous research has highlighted that post- bureaucratic organisation
may produce post- bureaucratic forms of ‘concertive control’ (Barker
1993). But whereas the shop- floor workers at the medium- sized US manu-
facturing company in Barker’s study ‘concertively’ developed written
rules to enhance peer surveillance and team performance, the written rules
developed by employees at OPS were rather a direct response to cope with
the strains of the pro- creative open office design. Furthermore, Barker
(1993) and others (see e.g. Sewell 1998) suggest that peer surveillance may
be more repressive (from an employee perspective) and more effective
(from a management perspective) than management surveillance. Indeed,
at OPS the open design did make employees tone down the personal and
instead adopt a more professional identity which they thought would be
more in line with management expectations. And at CC, the open design
did seem to facilitate a competitive and performance- oriented team
However, and more intriguingly, employees at both OPS and CC crea-
tively and tactically responded to and subverted the frustrations created
by the panoptic ‘glass cage’ architecture of the pro- creative open office
design. Rather than simply accepting the enhanced surveillance afforded
by the open design, employees managed to avoid or at least reduce sur-
veillance from co- workers and managers by introducing and imposing
spatial and social structures and boundaries that streamlined, normalised
and formalised social interaction. Similar to Collinson’s (1992) notion of
‘physical distancing’, at OPS more employees started to work from home
after the re- design or they gathered in the enclosed meeting rooms and
at CC different teams regularly withdrew to the play rooms and cafés,
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Pro- creative o ce design 315
thereby avoiding not only interaction with co- workers and other teams
but also avoiding management surveillance.
This is also in contrast with former studies that highlight how employ-
ees modify the physical aspects of open office design by using personal
artefacts such as personal photos and calendars or gym wear to affirm
a personal or team identity and to claim or mark out a distinct personal
space in open and non- territorial office arrangements of hot- desking and
hoteling (see e.g. Elsbach 2003, Edenius and Yakhlef 2007). Sure, employ-
ees at OPS and CC would sometimes claim a spatial or social position in
the open office environment to avoid surveillance or affirm team identity.
But they did not merely subvert the open office design by making physical
modifications to the space. The structured ways in which CC teams used
common areas, the increase in OPS employees working from home, and
the frequent booking of meeting rooms also suggests that the open office
designs were subverted by employees mobilising and imposing social
Rather than leading to more social interaction and to the disruption
of norms of behaviour, interaction and performance, as might have
been an expected effect of the pro- creative open office designs, employ-
ees therefore responded to the open office spaces with tactics to avoid
and regulate socialisation. These socio- spatial tactics are therefore also
somewhat different from the tactics described by De Certeau (1984) and
by later applications of his work in organisation studies (see e.g. Hjorth
2004). Tactics are typically seen to involve people playing with, subvert-
ing and moving in and out of strategically organised places in unstruc-
tured, dynamic and unpredictable ways. Although the particular ways in
which OPS and CC employees enacted the new office designs might not
have been predictable from the perspective of top managers and archi-
tects, they engaged with these designs through creative and subversive
tactics that eventually turned out to be rather structured and predict-
able. Indeed, employees moved in and out of the strategically organised
open office areas and they moved between these areas and their adjacent
enclosed rooms according to formal booking schemes (OPS) or at regular
times and intervals (CC).
This further complicates conflicting arguments about fun, play and
creativity pursued in previous organisational research. On the one hand,
Hjorth (2004) has argued that play may be tactically staged in heteroto-
pian spaces of organisation which blur the boundaries between art and
work so as to facilitate creativity and entrepreneurship. On the other hand,
Fleming (2005) has problematised the power of organisations to stage fun
and play through blurring the boundaries between work and non- work,
even when physically heterotopian elements such as kindergarten- style
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316 Handbook of management and creativity
colour schemes and fluffy mascots are introduced into the office environ-
ment. Rather, Fleming argues, this creates widespread employee cynicism.
In contrast to Hjorth’s argument, our findings suggest that employees
at OPS and CC undermined the fun, play and creativity which manage-
ment and architects intended to facilitate through pro- creative open office
design, but not quite in the ways argued by Fleming. Rather than playfully
enacting the space or cynically dis- identifying from the ascribed corporate
culture, they creatively and tactically restructured social interaction within
Now, is it possible to argue that employees at OPS and CC tactically
restructured rather than playfully enacted social interaction within
these spaces because they were not heterotopian spaces but homoge-
neously open spaces and therefore strategically organised places? In
other words, that had they been heterotopian spaces then employees
would have inhabited them in more playful ways? No, we don’t think
so. Although our findings argue against overestimating the ability of
organisations to create and stage heterotopia, the open office designs at
OPS and CC and, more importantly, how they were enacted by employ-
ees, did actually incorporate certain heterotopian elements. Firstly,
the enclosed meeting rooms and common areas adjoining the open
office areas indicate that neither the OPS head office nor the CC dome
were unequivocally open- space environments. Secondly, the attempt at
staging fun and creativity in a work environment indicates that neither
OPS nor CC were unequivocally designed as work environments. But
thirdly, we would argue that employees at OPS and CC added heteroto-
pian dimensions to the pro- creative office designs by tactically and crea-
tively imposing socio- spatial structures. And in the case of certain OPS
employees starting to work more frequently from home, this expanded
the heterotopia to include the space of the home as well as the space of
the OPS head office.
The organisation studies literature on resistance tends to associate
resistance with opposition to and subversion of organisational goals (see
e.g. Collinson 1992, Fleming and Spicer 2007). Our findings do not echo
this. While the tactics mobilised by OPS and CC employees subverted the
intentions of the new designs, they did not seem to subvert the overarch-
ing organisational goals of OPS or CC. Rather, their allegedly subversive
introduction of socio- spatial structures actually seemed to facilitate the
achievement of overarching organisational goals, improving efficiency,
productivity and performance. Interestingly, these structures seemed to
harden into established norms that it was difficult to challenge and shift
because they were enacted by the very same employees who produced
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Pro- creative o ce design 317
The new lenses that we have employed in this study – the dynamic of
affordances, the effects of disciplinary ‘glass cage’ visibility, and the serious
tactics which impose rather than disrupt structures –have highlighted
both the limited power of organisations to stage and promote certain
ideas, values and behaviours in the workplace and the limited politics of
employee tactics in so- called ‘pro- creative’ workplaces. Previous studies
have already warned against the difficulties in crafting politically effective
resistance tactics when organisations transform initially non- work things
such as fun, playfulness and creativity into organisational variables to be
exploited in the interest of work and organisational performance (see e.g.
Fleming 2005). In a sense, the picture indicated by our findings is even
gloomier. Employees do not necessarily dis- identify with the ascribed
corporate culture of fun, playfulness and creativity, but they do impose
structures that help them both avoid surveillance and the intensification
of work performance.
The question, then, is not so much whether or not employees can still
have fun at work, but to what ends employees put these tactically created
structures. In our two examples, the planned and intentional nature of
these structures (for organised fun) made them, paradoxically, effect anti-
social, mean- spirited and even un- human behaviours. And even though
these structures may be futile in terms of the resistance they afforded, they
draw attention to the creative and tactical use of space as a potentially
important aspect of resistance. Indeed, the fact that the structures imposed
in response by employees at OPS and CC helped them avoid surveillance
from peers and managers suggests that employees may learn to mobilise
such structures in the pursuit of alternative ends. In a nutshell, if we see
creativity as new, unforeseen or unpredicted developments of lasting
value, the investment in shiny new fun and open workspaces may not
make employees more creative for an organisation. Paradoxically, such
investment may even reduce the likelihood of such an outcome.
Our response to this finding, and an alternative suggestion to those
organisations interested in creativity (rather than predictable intended
outcomes), resonates with Daskalaki et al.’s (2008: 51) notion of parkour,
or ‘free running’. They use this notion as a metaphor to discuss the need
for spatial structures in the workplace that are not planned, regimented
and limiting, but instead exist to encourage the kinds of chance, interac-
tion, imagination and change that can lead to creativity. Indeed, free-
runners, or ‘traceurs’ (a derivation of the verb ‘tracer’, or to trace, in
French) can be at their most creative in the most mundane environments,
with the focus on what an individual can do within the limitations of an
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318 Handbook of management and creativity
environment rather than what the environment does to, or makes, him
(or her). It is about people overcoming and adapting to mental obstacles
as well as physical barriers rather than these obstacles and barriers being
removed by an overseer (see Foucan 2008, Belle 2009).
Indeed, the parkour metaphor reminds us of some of the diagrams used
by Arthur Koestler to describe the creative process in the 1960s, such as
Figure 15.4, which describes Archimedes moving around on a single plane
(what was known about the science of volume) until the juxtaposition
with a second plane of thought/experience (taking a bath) helped him find
a creative solution to the problem of how to determine the actual volume
of a coin.
Consequently, the best way for organisations to organise for creativ-
ity might be to plan or organise less and just let things happen more.
Indeed, much in the architecture literature encourages mixed space: open
and closed, public and private, urban and rural, new and old, indoor and
outdoor (Bell 2007). Given that getting around barriers, obstacles and
divergences are often key stimulants in the creative process, it may be
that such organic bricolage mixtures can allow employees to do more of
the sorts of things that lead to genuine unpredicted or ‘surprising’ crea-
tivity: to follow or trace a line of thought while transgressing or flowing
across pre- determined boundaries (Csikszentmihalyi 1997). Perhaps ‘free-
running’, then – transgressing between and across different spaces – may
Figure 15.4 Koestler’s diagram (1964) explaining the creative process
related to novel discoveries such as Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’
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Pro- creative o ce design 319
help employees create their own fun and creatively resist existing organi-
sational strategies to create the new. And our findings would therefore
suggest that it would be better to invest in creative people and creative
practices (such as those described in the next two chapters) rather than
completely new architecture to promote the serious play of creativity.
Ironically, less ‘pro’ intentionality may be more in seeking to achieve what
was supposed to be the end of pro- creative office design: more creativity.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What are the challenges with organising for flexibility, i.e. encourag-
ing ‘free- running’? How can organisations use space to achieve this?
2. Provide examples of what an organisational space constituted of
mixed spaces could look like.
3. The current chapter illustrates a view on space as affording rather
than determining organisational members’ behaviour. Discuss how
this view enables us to understand emergent and unexpected out-
comes of spatial design. Drawing on your own experience, provide
examples of emergent uses of spaces.
We would like to thank Stephen Cummings, who worked closely with us
in the preparation of this draft and for furnishing the parkour analogy.
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APPENDIX 15.1: RESEARCH METHODS
Case data was generated through interviews, observations and documents,
and both organisations and respondents have been heavily disguised in
the interests of anonymity. At the occupational pensions specialist (OPS),
one of the authors spent a full day observing the re- designed facilities
and interviewing members of staff. Semi- structured face- to- face inter-
views were conducted with four representatives: the vice CEO and three
employees in various positions. During these interviews we used a general
interview guide designed by the authors. The guide included questions
about the underlying intentions of the office re- design, employee attitudes
towards it, and how employees enacted the new office environment. Each
interview lasted for 20–60 minutes. Further, the semi- structured interviews
fostered a conversational style and elicited open responses in such a way
that the conversation itself rather than the interview guide dictated the
order in which the various issues were discussed. All interviews at OPS
were tape- recorded and transcribed.
At the UK call centre (CC) two academics were invited by company
representatives to spend a day observing operations, and open access was
granted to talk to a range of staff (from senior managers to telephone oper-
ators) about their work and the new open office environment. We asked
a range of questions about the intentions and design of the new facilities
and about work practices at the new facilities. In total we interviewed
five members of staff. We were not given permission to tape- record our
interviews or take photographs at CC, but notes to remember key issues
were taken during and shortly after returning from the visit. According to
Holahan (1978), the impact of design is often subliminal. Furthermore,
Donovan and Rossiter (1982) insist that the effects of design are difficult
to verbalise and to recall. Therefore, we also conducted observations with
the aim to capture aspects of office design which it may be difficult to
articulate, and to gain a self- experienced understanding of how the open
office design affected creativity.
Ten hours spread over two days were spent in the occupational pensions
specialist, and five hours were spent at the call centre. During these obser-
vation sessions, we focused on how the offices were designed and how
employees behaved and interacted in the offices, and both discursive and
visual material was collected in the form of notes and photos. In addition,
we generated data through textual and photographic material made avail-
able by the two organisations, including corporate reports, policy manuals
and company descriptions from their websites. In the case of CC, we also
generated documentary data through job advertisements and through
architectural reviews as their new office facility has been widely discussed
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324 Handbook of management and creativity
in architectural circles. While we are aware that the amount of time spent
in each organisation is too short to get a deeper understanding and record
repeating patterns within the setting (Spradley 1979), the observations and
documents enabled us to complement our understanding of the interview
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