Desks and the 'place' in workplace

Following the interviews with our project participants, we have seen several themes begin to emerge.

We set out to explore digital tools to support collaboration at a distance. Through a process of co-design, prototyping and documentation of our work we have identified 'place' as a description for the properties of traditional physical workplaces that support informal communication and collaboration as a vital addition to the focused worktools of production and presentation.

Workplace is characterised not only by organisation of people, resources and tools, but by the social dynamics of a functioning 'place'. In the 'Where do you go to?' project, we investigated how disparate collaborators might foster a sense of place. We took the role of how desks are used as a form of backchannel communication representing state of mind, attention, work focus, status, and so on, as a key example of an effective component of workplace.

We highlight several properties of workplace within the technical and creative industries exemplified by the BBC Media City which we could call: background, universal, porous and distinct.

Background – attention and work 'status' of others can be read ambiently, without interruption. Glancing at a desk can tell you rich context. Video calls and emails are all foreground digital communication tools, directly addressing someone, and expecting an explicit reply. Background channels of communication allow for subtle mixtures of intentional and unintentional signals.

Universal – within an organisation, workplace represents accessibility to collaborators. Separating out some members of a team acts to limit serendipity. In digital context, this means that workplace tools must be embedded within existing work systems and adopted by all. Perhaps universality is created by organisational level decision to adopt.

Porous – collaboration is often about work and discussion within a small group. However group boundaries are hard to define. They change over time as project goals shift. Porous systems sustain defined groups, but seek to deal with not setting the boundaries of groups too firmly.

Distinct – workplaces have a character separate to the lives of the people working there. As digital tools allow work to be done in homes, public spaces and while travelling digital workplaces should strive to define a distinct character. As private places are overlayed with workplaces, dealing with the intersection of social situations becomes more apparent. Juxtapositions reveal conflicting facets of identity and power relationships become more pronounced.