The Future of Light in the Workplace

September 20 2010 — by Mark Major
Looking at the future of light in the workplace is all about ‘talking’ - not only to other lighting designers but to everyone involved in the problem of how we might improve the lit condition of the places in which we work. This includes not only those that commission buildings, develop and maintain them but also, and most importantly, those that are actually going to use them. In talking about problems we can help move things forward such that solutions naturally evolve.

John Menzies Headquarters. Photograph: Gavin Fraser

So if we were to have a series of discussions about the future of light in the workplace what would the agenda be? Certainly such discussions would require us to look to the past and see what lessons have been learned:

The first is that it is that lighting technology can shape things. For instance large open plan offices would not have existed as a concept at all had it not been for the development of the fluorescent lamp in the mid 1920s: High and mid rise office buildings that were developed in the early years of the last century were often required to have deep floor plates meaning much of the working space was deprived of good daylight. Using gas or incandescent lamps would have been unbearable so the architecture of the office only really moved forward in the way it did as a direct result of developments in the field of both artificial lighting and air-conditioning.

Secondly. we can understand that the way we apply such technology can evolve alongside new methods of working together. By example the gradual evolution of the ‘Burolandschaft’ principle in which all grades of staff may share space and sit in less formal ‘rows of desks’ ultimately gave rise to today’s open plan methods of working. Such flexible, changing arrangements of furniture were often reliant on the ability to create an even, overall lighting effect across an office floor plate. This firstly occurred through ‘illuminated ceilings’ and then through the application of well engineered grids of fluorescent light. Whilst fashions for the distribution of working light have changed over the past 40 years to today’s popular direct/indirect method of lighting, the overall paradigm has changed very little in that period. More a case of ongoing ‘refinement’ than any form of radical re-think.

Finally we have grown to learn, largely through an increased understanding of the ability of light to de-humanise a space, that being able to provide proper control over intensity and direction has major benefits to those that work in office spaces. In the past twenty years techniques ranging from washing walls to help create definition to a space to providing individually controllable task lighting have all successfully improved the working conditions for millions across the world.

Unfortunately, alongside all of the above we have also learned that theory is one thing and practice is quite another. Well meaning techniques can become dogmatic – for instance creating the idea of ‘idealised’ levels of illuminance and uniformity which then become ‘rules’ by which we meet cost and energy targets alone often all short of considering human needs. The unrelenting application of a single lighting technology such as fluorescent across the globe with little consideration or even research being done into the long terms effects on both the physiological and psychological well being of those who work long hours under such light is a testament to this point. The often ill-considered use of automated controls that take away the common sense ability of individuals and groups of people to adjust their light to suit their circumstances thereby reducing them to the level of ‘drones’ means that many end up working under scientifically sanctioned levels of illumination that are at odds with the very essence of their biological make up.

But that is the past and today. What of tomorrow? If we are to truly move the conversation forward and talk about how we illuminate the workplace of the future we need to do several things as lighting designers: First, we must seek not only to understand how methods of working might change but most importantly be a part of such change. Architects, interior designers, engineers and space planners are evolving new ways of designing workspace from ‘flexible cellularisation’ to ‘hot-desking’. This is in response to changes in the way in which people work resulting from a more mobile workforce, ongoing changes to IT and new methodologies including job sharing and home working. In the past discussions about light have not been properly or fully integrated with design decisions about space planning let alone ongoing social, technological and industrial change – rather ideas about lighting have been applied as an afterthought. Questions we should be asking are how do we optimise daylight or allow people that are required to work in deep plan spaces some sense of the diurnal change going on in the world outside? How can we seamlessly add the layer of artificial light into the workspace so that it extends the day without having adverse impacts on people as well as the environment? How do we creatively employ light to not only contribute to ambience but also to visual comfort?

Next we must learn not to grab at new technologies such as solid state lighting and digital controls and simply seek to find ways to adapt and apply them, but instead work alongside manufacturers and suppliers to help them deliver application-led solutions for the workplace that deliver exactly what is needed. Too often in the past those who design and deliver lighting products have evolved the answers without asking the right questions and as a result have allowed ‘sales’ to force through ways of doing things that at times makes no sense at all. For instance direct-indirect lighting has evolved in such a way that what was once a great answer to improving visual comfort has now become a serious challenge to meeting onerous energy targets. In a society that demands more intelligent responses to changing attitudes about protecting the environment we have to do better than that. Also long standing techniques such as wall washing become badged-up with fancy names such as ‘Vertical Planar Illuminance’ merely to help sell large quantities of fixtures rather than solve genuine problems. As a result every wall gets lit thereby reducing environments to flat, formless and less intelligible spaces.

Finally we must understand more about the positive and negative impacts of both natural and artificial light on human health in the workplace and the wider environment. Here we must listen to and collaborate with a wide range of specialists from psychologists to ecologists to help us better understand the implications of what we are doing. The future of lighting in the workplace is as much about understanding the real benefits that light can bring to a changing but growing working population as it is safeguarding against problems such as work related stress. This is particularly important where ‘new environments’ evolve in response to changes in working practices such as the development of twenty-four hour call centres, automated factories or electronic drawing offices. We must also make sure that the wider implications for the environment are also properly considered whether it is the light pollution created by highly glazed office buildings or continuously lighting vast areas of unpopulated floorplates either because everyone is in meetings or even better…they’ve already gone home! We must also educate people to understand that whilst we want to trust them with individual control over their lit environment that this requires them to remember to act as responsibly in their workplace as they would at home in helping to save energy and improve maintenance. Why automate a task lighting when the people that use it have fingers that can easily operate the fixtures? Why ask a man in a van to come and change the bulb if systems can be developed that allow those that use light to also maintain it. To many facilities managers such ideas seem quite crazy but if people are seen as the solution rather than the problem anything is possible. Empowering individuals to think and act for themselves and engage with lighting technology could move the conversation forward. Office lighting should be something that is understood and appreciated rather than feared or even loathed. Finally let’s ensure that what we have learned from the past is combined with the intelligence that evolves from our working together in the future with all the afore-mentioned not just to make better places for us to work in the ‘first world’ but to help emerging economies avoid repeating all of our mistakes. In that way we can hopefully ensure that our past informs their future as well as ours and that the office of the future is a great place to be.

Now we’re really talking!

Mark Major
September 2008