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The philosophy of the workplace

We look at the philosophy of great workplace design – and what some of the world’s greatest thinkers have had to say about it.

How and where we work

The idea of designing workplaces to increase the productivity, health and wellbeing of the workforce may seem like a modern innovation, but ever since the enforced end of “sweated” home work by the 1909 Trade Boards Act, at best workplaces have been evolving into shared spaces united by a philosophy of social connection and better working conditions as much as increased output.

However, even before that people have been thinking deeply about the meaning of work; ever since the first caveperson traded a stick for a slightly longer stick.

Although philosophers have grappled with some of the humanity’s most pressing issues, including the possibility that AI will achieve consciousness, and which crisps taste the best, many, such as Alain de Botton, have taken on the world of work; what it means to us and how we build our lives and sense of self around it.

In this blog, we’re taking that one stage further to look at the philosophy of great workplace design – and what some of the world’s greatest thinkers have had to say about it.

The foundations of workspace philosophy

The foundation of western philosophy begins with Ancient Greece. No civilisation has produced more world-class thinkers than this cornerstone of the ancient world. Chief among these Greek thinkers was Aristotle, who had a lot to say about the workplace.

Aristotle made a specific distinction between poiesis and praxis.

Praxis is action that is done for its own sake. Poiesis is work aimed at making something useful, an action with a purpose.

At Interaction we believe people thrive when they they’re in an environment that’s conducive to creating meaningful work, so although we may not have always know the name for it, we’ve been advocates of poiesis from the day of our first project 28 years ago.

In a similar vein, we also like to remind ourselves not to Confuse Motion for Action.

With complex, fast-moving projects, it’s important to keep a holistic overview of all the moving parts and ensure that every action we take has maximum effect, whether on value, completion speed or client satisfaction. We use tools like ProCore and Revit to map and communicate the impact of every tiny change in real time to all stakeholders, ensuring we deliver what we call perfection at pace.

Another ancient Greek, Epicurus, believed the very best way to work was to look for the modest and sustainable pleasure of ataraxia, which is tranquillity and fearlessness, as well as aponia, which means painlessness.

Every workforce has different concepts of tranquillity and pleasure, which is why we adopt a people–centric approach to design. We base our work on the ways that your staff actually use the workplace, as opposed to the ways they ought to use it.

We increase the aponia of the workspace by removing any niggling pains that it might cause. This can include solutions such as a great tech infrastructure or fresh air systems, through to carefully planned areas for every aspect of an organisation’s work.

To improve the ataraxia of your organisation we concentrate on designing destination offices. Workspaces that encourage positivity by making your staff want to come to work every day, even in a high–pressure environment. This helps create a culture that inspires fearlessness through collaboration and creativity. We like to build in ‘deep working spaces’, wellness rooms, and use indoor plants to promote biophilia – the philosophical belief that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. 

Defining the self and building community

It’s not just the ancient Greeks who had strong views on the workplace. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is one of the most influential and fundamental figures in Western philosophy. Hegel argued that status, in modern society, depends on the public recognition of our skills and achievements within the arena of the workplace. Hegel saw human beings as self-creating through work, applying “intelligent effort” to nature to transform it into something that serves them. Alexandre Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel puts it like this:

“The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man.”

The workplace for Hegel was a space where people could come together to forge common goals and develop meaningful relationships based on these.

In the Philosophy of Right he also foresaw the inevitability of modern automation: “The abstraction of one man’s production from another’s makes labour more and more mechanical, until finally man is able to step aside and install machines in his place”.

These issues are still hyper-relevant, especially in today’s changing workplace, where communities of ‘conscious life’ can be created online, and new methods of collaboration are perfected every day. Technology has altered the way we work and made us more mobile. This means workplace design has to evolve with the times and help businesses focus on protecting their culture and community, as many employees are connecting virtually.

Ubuntu, a Zulu term meaning “humanity” provides a useful philosophical framework to approach this problem; it’s often translated as “I am because we are.”

Desmond Tutu described a person with Ubuntu as being “open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are diminished.”

Nelson Mandela gives a further example:

“Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?”

It’s vital that businesses understand the power of their culture and community and provide spaces which enhance and develop these to cement the foundations of growth.

Collaboration leads to success

The French sociologist Emil Durkheim noted that we come to a better appreciation of the need to co-operate with others through our participation in the workplace, while the American philosopher John Dewey observed that co-operative problem solving in the workplace provides vital training for the citizens of a healthy democracy.

What lies at the heart of both of these views is the overwhelming importance of collaboration. Our workspaces are designed specifically for every person who comes together to work in them. We make certain each of our projects is a collaborative process that brings out the very best teamwork in your workforce.

At Interaction, we pride ourselves on bringing the best talent to work on your workplace design. That’s why we take such inspiration from the best minds in history. Though there is a lot to learn from philosophers throughout the ages, at the heart of all our work is one simple philosophy – great workspaces make for great workplaces.

Interested in our workplace philosophy? Get in touch with our workplace research team.

Did you like this? Watch our webinar on ‘Can Creativity Survive Remote Working’

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