Why do we have offices?
For many centuries the main technology of the office, as a
place for administration of organisations, has been, and largely
remains in many organisations, paper and ink. Paper provides an
information medium that is easy to write to, store on, replicate
and read from.
Paper is used to communicate internally - between colleagues
and departments - and externally - with suppliers, customers,
shareholders and authorities. Traditionally offices are located
in convenient locations for physical communications - paper and
face-to-face meetings. The business areas of cities have
developed around this need.
Today businesses can use many information and communications
technologies that were not available to their predecessors.
Paper, packages and people can be delivered to the other end of
the county, country or even the world easily within a day. Paper
can be faxed instantly. Information can be exchanged immediately
by electronic means. Documents can be copied in seconds. The
telephone has reduced the need for face-to-face contact.
In spite of these developments, the design of offices as
places to concentrate workers is still very much the same as it
was centuries ago, with Florence's Uffizzi municipal
administration building (completed in 1571) bearing a remarkable
similarity to many corporate offices of today! Apart from the
aesthetic quality, that is!
The halfway house:
Since the invention of the telegraph, communications has
included the possibility of the "dematerialisation" of
information for at least part of the process. The process can be
represented like this:
Originally the telegraph, and later telephone and wireless
communications replaced the long distance courier. But at either
end of the process, physical communication on paper remained a
This model of communication still largely persists in the
Information Age. Computers act as terminals for sending
information and receiving it, but at either end they pump out
piles of paper, which is then shared between workers and filed
for storage. The effect of this on office design is crucial. But
it need not be so. Most of the information at either end of the
process need never be printed, but can be shared far more
efficiently and effectively on electronic networks. Once this
principle is accepted and organisations move out of the
communications "halfway house", exciting possibilities
open up for innovative office redesign.
The cost of offices:
There are over 10 million office workers in the UK. They work
in over 200 million square metres of office space representing a
capital investment of more than £120 billion. The basic
occupancy costs of this space is about £10 billion per annum,
with rates, furniture, service charges, security and facilities
management increasing this figure to around £30 billion per
The average occupancy of an office desk is often less than
30% of the working day - and less than 10%, if you take
non-working hours into account. Typically most (and the best)
space is usually allocated to senior staff who are often absent,
while the least (and worst) space is given to junior and support
staff who are always there.
At between £1,500 and £15,000 per annum for each staff
member, premises costs are the largest item in many
organisations' budgets after employment costs.
Today's office environment