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This is the fourth of our series of articles aimed at facility managers, architects, designers and others responsible for providing buildings, interiors and other facilities for work.

Here we deal with the practical specification of new corporate office environments.  Subsequent articles cover home and mobile offices.




Specifying the office


In most cases the requirement will be for space that is high quality, well-lit, ventilated and temperature-controlled, flexible, re-configurable, secure and fully wired for IT and telephony.

Whilst each situation is different, and dedicated facilities such as call centres have specialist requirements, most general offices with mixed usage can be configured from a series of building blocks, as outlined below.

Understanding needs:

A key principle for specifying office requirements is that the variety of ways on which different roles and tasks are carried out need to be analysed, with office space designed accordingly.

One analysis of the new approach to office design (see Flexibility review) identifies four space models based on the degree of autonomy and interaction as follows:

Routine process work
e.g. data entry, call centres
Concentrated professional work
e.g. accountants
Busy team work
e.g. media production
Knowledge work
e.g. IT, consultancy

Each of these models implies a different approach to the use of space. The trend in general offices is away from the highly structured hive (production line) and cell (quiet individual units) models towards dens (noisy open space) and clubs (a variety of work settings). In fact whilst dens can provide a lively social environment and high levels of face-to-face interactivity, distraction levels are often excessive and it is the technology-supported club environment that is proving most attractive: traditional "den" activities such as information exchange and trading no longer depend exclusively on face-to-face contact.

The extreme concept of the "club" is that, apart from service staff, everyone is a "visitor", choosing a work setting that is most appropriate for that visit - "hot-desk", study zone, meeting room, café, team area, touchdown station, etc. Whilst this may fit well the requirements of some teams, others may operate best with a less extreme approach.

Another concept sometimes used to good effect is of "pitchers" and "catchers". Pitchers are out of the office much of the time, visiting for specific activities: meetings, briefings, research, handover, etc. Pitchers do not need personal desks, instead using the most appropriate facilities on demand. Catchers on the other hand are mainly office-based staff and would normally work at the same desk every day.

One understandable characteristic of many offices is that there are not many people around because they are out delivering services, working with other organisations or at meetings. However the average proportion of desks occupied usually varies between teams and, to some extent, within teams. By and large the amount of space allocated should reflect the number of people likely to be present at one time rather than the total number of people in the team.

Building blocks:

The extreme opposite of providing everyone with their own work place is a whole building hot-desking arrangement, whereby staff can be allocated a work place anywhere in the building. Such an approach, sometime called "hotelling", is usually intensely disliked and can lead to poor morale and productivity. Most people want to meet and work with their colleagues rather than a bunch of strangers.

What does work well is a combination of centrally shared facilities and "team space":

  • Centrally shared and managed facilities can often extend beyond the usual reception and meeting rooms to include facilities that could not be justified in any one team.

  • Team space provides identity and belonging in an appropriate "club" environment for all that team's staff.

  • Allocation of space to teams, and layout of that space, should be based on usage and business need rather than total numbers and status.

Finally, particular care should be taken to recruit, train and provide good facilities for the permanent support staff, both central and team-based. They will play a vital role in organising and supporting those working more flexibly.

Centrally shared space:

Common space, shared between teams, can include:

  • Staff and visitor reception facilities.

  • Flexible meeting rooms, for example with folding partitions to vary room sizes and numbers.

  • Café facilities with mixed seating (tables and low seating), suitable for informal meetings.

  • Touchdown facilities for internal and external visitors - often integrated with the café facilities.

  • A quiet zone, for uninterrupted study and report-writing.

  • Where paper files are to be retained, secure, high-density paper storage facilities.

  • Facilities for high capacity printing, copying, binding, laminating, faxing, mail receipt, distribution, franking, consumables storage, etc.

Team space:

Team space can be built from the following components:

  • A secretarial unit - this is the operational hub of the team space and can include local printing, copying and other facilities as well as a desk for the team secretary / administrator

  • A manager desk with adjacent small table and chair

  • Desks for staff allocated personal workspace

  • Desks for staff sharing workspace

  • A team resources area (books, magazines, team filing, etc.) with local tea / coffee / water services

  • Soft seating area around low table

  • Retreats - small cellular rooms (6 sq m) with table, two chairs

  • One or more small meeting room (10 sq m) - cellular rooms with table, four chairs

  • A team table and chairs

  • Roll-away pedestals for personal storage.

How much space?

Modern furniture, reduced paper storage demands, smaller PCs (especially flat screens) and flexible buildings together allow higher densities to be achieved without undue overcrowding.

Reducing the number of people allocated personal desks and increasing the proportion of shared space increase the population size that the building can support. Space demands reduce further as staff undertake more of their work away from the office.

Whilst there is no substitute for designing space from first principles, some indicative figures may be helpful. These are taken from an organisation with a mixture of cellular offices and open plan space and the figures apply to middle managers and professional staff:

Space allocated per desk
130 sq ft
90 sq ft
Number of staff supported by each desk
Space allocated per person
130 sq ft
36 sq ft

* a desk to staff ratio of 2.5 is low: ratios up to 10 have been implemented successfully

As a rule of thumb, the most successful implementations have given back half of this saving in improved shared space: cafes, lounges, meeting rooms and social facilities such as gyms.

Challenging assumptions:

In some respects the potential of ICT-based working means that all space is "up for grabs" in terms of reduction or re-purposing. The completely "virtual" company - i.e. one where there are no permanent central shared facilities - is one radical possibility, although not one as yet embraced by any large organisations.

An analysis of work styles should identify why people do what they do and where they do it. It should also identify to what extent people work where they do out of necessity and to what extent it is simply out of personal habit or organisational convention. The alternative scenarios can be assessed. And one has to be ready to challenge easy assumptions.

For example, it is not only field workers (or "pitchers" as referred to above) who can be set up with facilities away from the office to improve efficiency and cut down on wasteful travel. People involved in administrative work, such as intensive data processing, in some cases may best be located remotely. In these circumstances, it may be appropriate to consider quite radical space reduction at central premises, with shared space tailored for client services, team-building or training purposes.

Interior design and furniture:

Building or refurbishment projects will normally leave internally a carpeted, cabled and security-lit shell with a number of cellular spaces and other partitions. The bulk of the customisation will then be carried out through furniture and design.

The latest office furniture is designed to bring even greater flexibility to the working environment:

  • The heights of desks and tables can be adjusted from the sitting to standing position

  • Furniture can be rolled into different positions

  • Lightweight collapsible screens can be used to create instant meeting areas

  • Ergonomics are designed to reduce back strain, RSI, eye fatigue and so on.

Along with furniture, modern design and lighting concepts create a more human working environment, far removed from the prison-cell or rectangular grid models with which we are all familiar. One complaint often levelled at schemes that reduce the amount of private space in favour of shared space is the element of depersonalisation. Making the office more comfortable and attractive - more like home - is a good way to counter this feeling.

Most leading office furniture companies have a good understanding of these points and many can demonstrate a portfolio of suitable case studies.

Next article: The home office

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