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Work & Money – Work outside the home

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Economic power has shifted from the deployment of manual labour to the management of knowledge in recent decades. So design attention has increasingly been placed on the white-collar office workplace, which has been extensively remodelled to recruit and retain the right staff to meet business objectives. Now design is also focusing the needs of an ageing workforce as extended working lives force a rethink.


User participation in office design has grown in parallel with a shift to knowledge-based working. Office workers, for example, are increasingly consulted on space planning and furniture schemes, and given the opportunity to comment on built projects via post-occupancy studies.

Nevertheless the workplace has not been a focus for inclusive design in the same way that the home or public space has been. Technological change – in the shape of slimmer computers or wireless networks – has tended to drive advances in office design rather than social and demographic change.

Older and disabled people have been largely defined as having consumer or civil rights rather than workers’ rights. They have not hitherto been seen as active economic contributors to society for whom independent living starts with the economic independence of having paid work.

Changing workplace demographics

However this position is changing fast because of a number of factors. First, the workforce in the UK and elsewhere is ageing rapidly.

Second, a shortfall in pension funds following the global economic crisis means that many people cannot afford to retire and must remain the workplace.

Third, there is a growing management emphasis on retaining knowledge and experience within the organization and not allowing it to drain away.

Fourth, new age and disability discrimination legislation is offering more protection to older and disabled workers.

What do older workers want?

Here is a top ten of needs and desires, based on research:

1. More choice and control over how, when and where they work

2. Opportunities for learning as the desire to develop new skills does not diminish with age

3. Spaces for contemplation and reflection so that older workers can recuperate, relax and rewind during the working day

4. Access to nature in terms of closeness to green, gardens and water as many older workers find the modern office an artificial and sterile environment

5. Technology made easy, with human help on hand to explain new software programmes rather than an online guide

6. Narrative and memory aids to act as triggers in the work environment, addressing the cognitive effects of ageing on the senses

7. Connection to colleagues of all ages so that older people are not ghettoised within the workplace and can take on key mentoring roles across the generations

8. Design features that support health and wellbeing by encouraging exercise or healthier work habits

9. Dedicated concentration spaces so that older workers can work on solo tasks without noise and distraction

10. An inclusive approach so that special needs design – and the stigma that goes with it – is avoided.

Physical requirements in the workplace

For an ageing workforce, there are a number of physical requirements that form a baseline for thinking about a more inclusively designed workplace.

Vision: Adult vision declines with age in a number of ways. The eye of a 20 year old can admit up to three times more light than someone of 65. Changes occur in visual acuity, depth perception and peripheral vision. As a result many older workers may find glare from windows or a computer terminal affecting their sight. Research also suggests that older workers often cannot read as well as well as they once did from certain distances and with lower levels of illumination. Personal preferences regarding lighting conditions become more important with age and people adapt less well to poor lighting. However where good quality lighting is provided, vision changes generally have little impact on most older knowledge workers.

Hearing: Hearing generally begins to decline from the mid-40s onwards. Older people may struggle to hear well at higher frequencies, for example being unable to listen to a specific voice or sound in a noisy environment. Workers may find it increasingly difficult to filter a particular voice from background noise. The means to address hearing difficulties will vary depending on the particular office setting, but consideration should always be given to how sound transmission can be controlled.

Ergonomics: Signs of ageing and the beginning of loss of functional ability emerge between 40 and 50. This includes a loss of muscular strength, which on average is reduced by 15-20 per cent between the ages of 20 to 60. Ageing causes some loss of range of joint movement and flexibility. Highly repetitive motions can cause physical problems at any age, but as we age we are likely to become more vulnerable to physical wear and tear. In general, ageing may make it harder to maintain good posture and balance and therefore increase the risk of accidents due to loss of balance.

Cognition: Changes in mental capacity occur with age. Vocabulary and verbal ability remain constant or improve, but some mental processes decline. Speed of thinking, selective attention and information processing tend to be reduced. In addition, spatial skills generally decline. Research has demonstrated that older people are less efficient at navigating 3D environments and need more time and guidance in finding their way. However cognitive problems appear to have a much lower impact on older workers in knowledge-based roles, who will tend to compensate for any reduction in cognitive functions by drawing on their experience. Similarly, people who have had a lot of education or training over their lifetime are generally able to learn new skills with relative ease.

Health and wellbeing: This encompasses not only the physical dimension of the workplace but also the social aspects of health. In relation to this, dignity and respect are often as important to wellbeing and productivity as physical ergonomics. This effectively means that all facilities within the workplace should be designed with older workers in mind, irrespective of who uses them. The drive for greater levels of physical and mental wellbeing is one of the most persuasive factors in promoting an inclusive design approach. Better office design that meets the needs of older workers is very often better design that meets the needs of everyone.




‘That’s the problem in open plan offices, it’s an average environment for average people, in terms of light, heat, everything.’

‘I find it hard to concentrate. My team can all be talking on the phone and I have to concentrate on a financial report. That was a challenge, and continues to be.’

‘We are not as fast in terms of adopting some of the technology because you have to unlearn what you have learnt before. That is the bit that baby boomers are not very good at’

‘I speak to older colleagues and they agree we are no longer on the fast track to anywhere. It doesn’t surprise me’

‘I hate having to lug my work around so much; it’s just so heavy’

‘It was three months before we realised we could move the lights to a better position’

‘I work in open plan office and loathe it; just doesn’t suit my way of working. I work visually. They think everything is on the little screen. So when I used my manager’s office my productivity went up, now it’s gone down again.’

‘Hot-desking areas are often tucked away, leftover spaces. You don’t exactly feel special using them’

‘You don’t normally think about your health at work, you just get on with it. It’s more when you get home you realise how bad you’ve been feeling’

‘Can’t see the outside form my desk, can’t see the sky, watch the weather or sense the time of day. In winter it can make you quite depressed’

‘Got the usual aches and pains, depends on length of time in chair; an ache in the hips; if I notice it, I get up, you mustn’t be sedentary for too long’

‘There’s nowhere you can be away to think and away from everyone. We have the glass meeting rooms but you’re exposed. It would be nice to be somewhere where you’re not exposed. Just for five  minutes…’

‘If you don’t understand something and ask a younger member of staff, they sometimes teach you… I try to take in new things like they are games’

‘You are expected to learn all the new software pretty much yourself. I’m old-fashioned, it’s nice to get taught. The young are ahead of us to be fair, they’ve grown up with it’

‘I might be an old dog but I still like learning new tricks’

Case studies

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Flexible workers/Fluid Workscape

This study followed 25 professional knowledge workers as they worked flexibly across a continuum of space and time.

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Research and development of a ‘mini-series’ of furniture pieces to support the sedentary office worker in eating, working, relaxing and exercising at the desk.

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A proposal for a flexible, community-based work hub offering information, training and social interaction, and run by disabled people.

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Conversation Pieces

Research and development of new furniture concepts that enhance social interaction in the office and provoke new ways of conducting meetings.

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Capture It

This architectural study looked at ways in which older people could pass on their knowledge and experience through interaction with others in the future workplace of 2020. 

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Work Well

A design project to make office furniture more inclusive of the needs of older workers.

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Welcoming Workplace

A major two-year study rethinking office design to enable growing numbers of older people to participate in the 21st century knowledge economy. 

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Inside it’s raining

This project addressed the use of natural interventions to address the sterility of office environment, as part of the larger Welcoming Workplace study.

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Seamless mobility

This design study with the maker of the BlackBerry® presents seven new service applications that blend rather than balance work and life.

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Living Library

This study uses current developments in the academic library as the starting point to explore settings for the future knowledge workplace.

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Space for Thought

This study adopted a novel research technique to develop four typologies of knowledge worker, based on their relationship with the office building.

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