Work is the road to the unification of the self. So wrote Richard Sennett, one of the world’s leading sociologists.
It sounds glib, but the sentiment is near universal. Whether you are a call-centre worker, corner shop owner, graphic designer or plumber, we are all deeply affected by the things we make and the places in which we work (though we may not always be conscious of this). It is through work that we have the opportunity to realise our talents, express ourselves, connect with friends and partners, grow as individuals and find some kind of meaning in a world that is often devoid of it. Needless to say, it is also where we can earn enough to support a decent livelihood.
Yet in spite of its significance, good work is still a distant prospect for many. Survey after survey shows that barely a third of employees feel engaged in what they do, with many ‘checking out’ mentally before they arrive at work. Last year the anthropologist David Graeber went so far as to write an essay about the proliferation of ‘bullshit jobs’ – forms of employment that he argues exist for no ostensible reason. Even those in more meaningful positions have come under strain, with real wages falling and pensions being squeezed. Add to this the impact of new technologies – which can disrupt work as much as enhance it – and the picture you get is of a workforce that is far from realising its potential.
All of which brings me to the RSA Student Design Awards, which this year included a brief to develop a vision for the future workplace (with an emphasis on generating a positive social impact). Entries ranged from a new digital careers app, which would enable young people to collate and create their own careers advice content on a Tumblr-like platform, to a digital health device in hospitals, which would replace bleepers with a sleeker communication gadget, to a ‘Sensepod’ for mobile workers, that would see them intermittently self-report their own levels of productivity and stress with the aim of finding better work spots over time (in the style of the Mappiness app).
The picture below is of the winning entry – The Hatchery – submitted by a team of two students, James Donnellan and Kevin Glynn, from the National College of Art and Design in Ireland. What set their submission apart from many of the others is the way in which it took the design of the workplace back to first principles, reimagining it as a whole rather than selecting a discreet aspect to remodel. In doing so they drew upon – and sought to stimulate through their designs – a variety of concepts in the world of work. This includes Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of ‘flow’, where people are completely absorbed in the task at hand, as well as a Japanese theorist’s research on the optimum level of sound for work. The end result was a design that seamlessly wedded form and function.
No doubt there are limits to designs of this kind. Some would say that attempts to reengineer the physical workplace or develop new productivity apps will only achieve so much when the meaty problems of low wages and precarious employment persist. Better, therefore, to focus on the big issues than to fiddle with the small ones. While there is some truth in this, we should not forget that it is the day to day, seemingly trivial aspects of work that profoundly shape the experience of millions of people across the country. The technology we use, the people we encounter, the physical environment we are situated in – all these determine whether or not we flourish at work. As the author Annie Dillard put it, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’.
Yet the real strength of each of these designs – and of the RSA Student Design Award entries more broadly – is that they are fuelled by a distinct sense of optimism that things can be different and better. Not all change is good, of course, but too often we stick with the status quo for no better reason than that we cannot picture a viable alternative. Whether it is reimagining the workplace, improving hygiene or enhancing everyday wellbeing, the work of the RSA Student Design Awards show the value in not taking anything as a given.