As we embark on the twenty-first century, at least in the developed countries, the sweatshop has been replaced for the most part with bright, clean, and comfortable business space.
Rarely do contemporary offices endanger our health on a daily basis. Few of the places where we do office work horrify us, very occasionally they energise us. Typically, they simply just bore us to tears.
As individuals, and organisations, we don't have to make such a stark choice. We don't, because the office as we know it is an invention, and like any other invention, it can be reinvented.
By designing our offices with imagination and grounding the design in an understanding of the ecology of work and workers, we can do better than create places that (as Florence Nightingale advocated for hospitals) do no harm. We need to raise our aspirations.
Minimally, where we work should be part of a healthy ecosystem in which we as individuals, teams, and organisations cannot just survive or be productive but where we flourish. Yet when I ask colleagues and friends about their image of an ideal place to work, it's like opening a garden hose with no pressure: a pitiful dribble of ideas that quickly runs dry.
Ask them about their ideal home, on the other hand, and it's like breaking open a high street water main: complex images and stories gush out in an endless stream of energy and enthusiasm.
Given how much time we spend at work, there's no real rationale for the places where we work to engender such a dearth of inspiration. The answer isn't likely to be found in high-tech gadgetry or information technology.
How many of us are excited by a future that offers sensors that automatically control lighting and temperature, adjust our chairs, and turn on and off green and red lights to let others know when they can approach? Does this kind of nerd-world inspire passion, enthusiasm, or commitment?
The effort millions of employees spend personalising their desk, PC, and surroundings with photographs of children, dogs, holidays, cars and celebrities (heaven forbid) suggests a desire for something more than functionality in the place they work, no matter how fancy or elaborate it may be.
Exploit disequilibrium. We need to understand the context in which our organisations operate, but it isn't necessary to suspend an older and more familiar world, or try to tame the unruly one we live in today. Forces for instability abound - among the foremost is information technology, which continues to transform our everyday lives.
The invention of the telegraph, and then the telephone at the beginning of the last century accelerated enormously our ability to communicate at a distance. Mobile phones, BlackBerry mobile e-mail, and the Internet seemingly eliminate the barriers of time and space. We can work from anywhere and everywhere, easily accessing an astonishing amount of information. But, how we plan, design, and manage the place where we work needs to catch up with how we actually perform our work.
Frank Duffy argues that although there has been a renaissance in organisation theory, "the design of the vast majority of office buildings has stayed physically more or less exactly where office design began 100 plus years ago".
With the possible exception of Northern Europe, Duffy writes, "Facilities managers share with architects and designers a great deal of responsibility for what is, by any standard, an astonishing case of conservativism".