Interview with Jan Teunen:
The office is the place where people, at least in the industrialised world, spend most of their time besides their home. It therefore makes sense to pay more attention to the comfort of this place than we usually do. As far as the conception and design of offices is concerned, there is still plenty of room for improvement. This is the topic of a new publication: “Officina Humana” published by AV Edition. We talked to Jan Teunen, one of the three authors of “Officina Humana”.
In your book, you explore the history, typology, essence, and future of the office intensively and comprehensively. Can you give us some background to this?
I developed the contents of the book “Officina Humana” together with the innovation specialist Andreas Kulick and the philosopher Christoph Quarch.
Our starting point was the fact that working in an office has in fact become a social activity in the modern developed world. We see the office as a tool of control that has a big impact on changes in the world. Offices are an economic master tool, yet this master tool is, in most cases, criminally neglected. Most offices are dominated by economic rationality. Spatial cultures characterised in this way are part of corporate cultures that don’t allow the emotions of the people working in them to stabilise.
People fall ill in such environments because the cultural environment doesn’t speak to them. They fall back on emotions such as fear, anger, and grief. This is drama. The office was explicitly invented to protect what is precious. With our book we want to encourage a return to this original intention, some thing we feel is really necessary in offices in this post-digital age. Many routine tasks have been taken over by intelligent machines and what is left for people to do is a much-sought after co-creativity, which needs a special environment to flourish. Offices must become greenhouses of creativity and we need to flood them with beauty. The three authors of this book are trying to convey how to make this happen.
What sets your book apart from office creation atlases and planning aids?
These kinds of books are usually about the quality that enables a functional relationship to space. Our book, on the other hand, is about the quality of a poetic relationship. We created our book in dialogue with executives of the Arbeiter Samariter Bund Hessen (ASB). This charitable organisation has a wonderful mission: “We provide help quickly and straightforwardly to anyone who needs our support.” The ASB has recognised a problem that exists in many offices. The problem can only be resolved by transforming informed ignorance about the quality of workspaces into knowledge and awareness.
The ASB has decided to advise small to medium businesses on how to turn bare offices into spaces of creative potential. Company executives seeking this advice should be prepared to meet an Officina Humana consultant on an equal footing.
For this reason, we decided to prepare and share our knowledge of space through our book “Officina Humana”. We wanted to create an awareness of spatial quality in our readers, to enable them to discriminate better and create a hierarchy of distinguishing criteria about space. This is a good basis for togetherness.
Who is your book targeted at? Practitioners such as planners, architects, and consultants or simply those interested in cultural studies?
The most important target group for us are business leaders in small and medium businesses. They have to create the right conditions to enable their employees to motivate themselves and develop their potential. Of course, we also want to inspire other people interested in or working with the topic of workspaces.
Offices are stuck in a dilemma: it is no longer possible to just carry on as before and there is also no way back. The only way out of the dilemma is to change. People need to come up with fresh ideas, and whoever wants to make a success of things needs to have a long memory. And it’s this memory that we want to refresh with our book, without being overly prescriptive. I found this quote from David Couzens Hoy to be very inspiring: “In order to understand the whole, it is necessary to understand the parts, while to understand the parts it is necessary to have some comprehension of the whole.”
The importance of the home office has been an issue for quite some time. You also look at this type of office space in your book, but it doesn’t occupy a prominent position. What’s the reason for that?
There is a lot to say and write about home offices, but this isn’t where the problem lies. Most people feel secure in their own homes and have created contexts that suit their individual needs. They usually feel connected in their homes and feel free. This is why we have focused on workspaces in company offices, and in my view, it makes sense to do so.
Do you see an opportunity in the private furnishing of office space, for example in order to increase a sense of well-being, or are there too many disadvantages, such as an ignorance of ergonomic issues, for example?
People have bodies, and when workplaces are ergonomically designed, it does their bodies good. People have minds and need beauty, in other words: good materials, pleasant proportions, textures, colours and much more. People have souls and this non-organic organ, has the task of maintaining a connection with a higher plane, and it needs nourishment. This nourishment is spirit and tends to be concentrated in religion and art. That’s why it’s important to have art in an office space, it’s a bit like having a petrol station for the soul.
Ideally, we should pay attention to all three things in any office, regardless of whether it’s a garage, studio, private room or any other room. Remedial action should be taken wherever there are shortcomings.
What was the motivation behind the elaborate presentation and design of the book?
The fact that quality motivates. My friend, the philosopher Hajo Eickhoff, once put it in a much better way, and it also fits the name of your magazine: “Quality and good form should be a great obligation for everyone; they have a strong influence on the development and well-being of human beings. Through our sensory organs, good quality has a positive effect on our minds and is responsible for what we call the meaning of life, that which inspires us in life.”
Gallup studies tell us that offices aren’t set up in the best way to motivate and incentivise employees. Seventy per cent of all employees who depend on employment, work to rule, while 15 per cent have already quit mentally, this highlights how increasing the quality of work environments will increase employee motivation.
Your book is named after one of your methods of consultation: Officina Humana. What can you tell us about this method?
Our method includes thinking before, after and through an idea. The book is part of the method. Offices are a cultural phenomenon and understanding cultural phenomena requires information.
To go back to the method, the Officina Humana method follows five steps:
Step one is the anamnesis, a dialogue with the client about the actual situation, its background and causes. The focus is on a conversation about the philosophy, values, and the attitude of a company, but also about the ambience in which work is carried out and about the company’s future vision.
The second step is a diagnosis that analyses two things. First, the quality of the environment and second, the quality of interactions.
Then there’s the third step – the medicine. We develop the ideas needed to optimise the design of the working environment and to improve interactions in the work place. These include sets of rules that aren’t there to create an obsessive and neurotic order, but which have only one goal: the success of the working group.
The fourth step is an offer of therapy. These include workshops and lectures on corporate culture.
The fifth step includes check-ups – we keep monitoring. Nature has self-healing powers. Culture doesn’t. That’s why we have to renew it on a daily basis and Officina Humana is there to supports its clients.
The ASB Hessen commissioned and published your book. From your point of view, can expensive and relevant publications like yours only be created with the support of industry? Although the ASB is an association, it is also an economic enterprise.
Of course you need money to publish sophisticated books. The money needed for good books can always be found if there is an awareness that money isn’t a means, but an energy that can be used to prepare the world for a new creation. It isn’t just business enterprises that can fund such projects, but private individuals and foundations as well. I am particularly pleased that the welfare association ASB Hessen is spending money on a book that is intended as a tool to help shape society. A book that fits the ASB mission to help, serve, create meaning, and make a difference.
If that’s the case how do you preserve your independence as an author?
It’s extremely rare for a client to not bring me to life or for me to feel like an alien in a client’s company. This has happened only twice in the last 20 years. The first was with an entrepreneur who makes senseless things in the middle of a forest, and the other was with an entrepreneur who has precarious employment relationships and wanted me to plan a conference on ethics. I say goodbye to such clients. Such instances are inevitably followed by a fear of loss, but then the following wise saying of the Dalai Lama comforts me: “Sometimes, not getting what you want is a great gift.” You usually get the gift soon after.