Changing places

The shape of the corporate office has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Where has office design come from and where is it going?

Cleaners in an Empire State Building office in December 1946. Designed by the firm of Shreve
Cleaners in an Empire State Building office in December 1946. Designed by the firm of Shreve

The shape of the corporate office has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Where has office design come from and where is it going?

A hundred years ago, the offices of businesses such as banks and major trading houses were very much the product of the rigidly hierarchical social structures of the time.

Their stately wood-panelled corridors and heavy, tightly closed office doors contrasted strongly with the clerks' floors, which featured little perimeter definition between workspaces.


Eighty years later, the concept of the open-plan office had taken off. Although senior management still tended to hide away, the rest of the firm was generally to be found sectionalised into their divisions in desk clusters, separated by half-height screens.

Where privacy was required, small meeting rooms were incorporated into the floor plan, along with the conventional boardroom. From an interior design point of view, the removal of the traditional solid walls posed a number of issues to be resolved.

Many of these had ramifications for the industry's technical suppliers.

New products had to be developed to absorb and dampen noise between the desk clusters or cubicles. Furniture morphed away from discreet pieces, with the development of modular systems that could be quickly and easily reconfigured and added to as the company grew or the work environment changed.

Storage options were revisited to make use of the dividing surfaces and free up the new smaller, contained desk areas. Power supplies came together at multiple smaller points, rather than one major outlet, keeping cable runs shorter as desks were added or moved.

From the 1990s, colour schemes started to change too, along with furniture and artwork selection for lobbies and breakout spaces. Where once designers were making fashionable choices - many of which dated within a few seasons and had to be continually refreshed - branding and brand values became increasingly important instead.

Company colours started to become the anchor-point for interior schemes, which subsequently gained a shelf-life as long as the brand itself.

If you wanted to speak of quality and dependability to clients and employees, leather upholstery and strong forms underscored the message, while squishy sofas in textured fabrics broadcast approachability and a willingness to listen.

Twenty years further down the track, today's corporate office is, in some ways a natural evolution from these early open plan environments. In others, however, it is the start of completely different trend.

Five years ago, at the international Corenet Global conference of corporate real estate professionals, business strategists from many of the world's leading companies were predicting that the office of the future will be small and efficient, housing only critical central facilities for a payroll that will largely work remotely.

And they appear to be on the money. Such alternative workplace strategies (AWS) started to rear their heads at the end of the 1990s and are becoming progressively more widely adopted.

They are the results say Corenet Global and international real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle's research team, of some key drivers.

An overall flattening in corporate structure is one. As managers and directors have been more immediately incorporated into their teams and have built stronger relationships with them, the perceived requirement for a ‘corner office' as a symbol of status has fallen away.

Team respect and effective results have replaced the oak desk as the trappings of advancement.

There have also been changes in business practices. Traditionally, there has been a perception that if managers didn't know when their employees arrived and departed, and couldn't keep an eye on them working through the day, then they simply weren't performing.

This has been steadily replaced by mechanisms such as key performance indicators and delivery deadlines -of far less importance now is how, when or where work occurs, as long as these are met.

Advances in technology have also contributed. Cellphones, laptops, email, home internet, home scanners, video conferencing, and wireless connections offer an alternative to having staff permanently based in costly premises.

AWS currently describes a number of initiatives, all of which are being employed to further break down the open-plan model and are also increasingly encouraging remote employment participation.

However, there's also a strong cost-efficiency element to such design.

Essentially, AWS can deliver organisations new cost savings - presently anywhere between 10% and 15% -more efficient space utilisation, and higher levels of worker productivity, as well as helping to cater for the clearly defined requirements of different generations.

This is why office design is changing. For example, why attribute a salesperson, who might report in to the office in person three times a week, a static workspace?

Hence the introduction of hot-desking and hotelling, in the case of the former, a number of workspaces are left vacant, but fully technologically enabled, to be used by visiting staff on a first come, first served basis.

Hotelling is a more structured approach, whereby mobile staffs are booked into a workspace at certain times on agreed days.

For those working in the office, wireless local area networks invite them to deal with policy at their desks, answer emails in the lunch-room, and brainstorm on the couch in the huddle space.

In fact, in many ways, the corporate office - Vodafone worldwide is a great example - is becoming more like the home at the same time as its promoting off-site operations.

The point is, says international interior designer Victoria Abbot - who has created office spaces for clients in Britain, Europe and South-East Asia - that they are no longer constricted to a 2m-long, 900mm-wide piece of chipboard.

"People work greater hours than they ever have before, and achieve greater returns," she says.

"However, they're on their laptops on the train, sitting in a café or lounging in a bean bag at work. And the interesting thing is, this freedom continually bumps up productivity."

"That's why it will continue to be adopted."

Today, 17% of all US employees work from home once a week or more, according to the Employment Policy Foundation. However, research conducted by CoreNet Global estimates that in two years' time, just 40% of all work will be carried out in corporate facilities.

Another 40% will take place at home, with the remaining 20% occurring outside the office or home.

However, while there's a common understanding that your personal account manager may not be readily available when you tinkle the receptionist's bell, even the most space-efficient corporate space today leaves you in no doubt of the brand you're dealing with, and represents the values upon which you made that decision.

"Colour and perspective of a brand mark have been the main focus of companies forever," says Abbot. "The challenge has been that, as you show a client through the offices, there needs to be continuity, without implying that the business is primitive or old-fashioned."

"In most cases, we will have worked with the client's branding agency to make sure we're consistent with its values, but we get provided with the ‘forest' look. It's up to us to agree with the client what the ‘trees' will look like."

And she finds that, while the result is just the ticket for management, employees are often initially not happy.

"Even at senior levels, individuals need to understand not only what they are giving up, but also what they are gaining."

"A well-conceived AWS programme creates a better work atmosphere, enabling and supporting the end-user to be more productive, not only in the office, but also at home or on the road."

AWS empowers employees to be more productive via technology and support.

"It is often necessary to change the company's culture in order for AWS to succeed."

"To do this, it is critical to establish a well-devised change management plan," says Abbot.

Change management involves training managers to measure employee performance through productivity and output, instead of through punching the clock.

It also may involve training employees on how to work in their new environment and deal with issues that commonly arise.

These may include respecting others' privacy and space within an open-plan office, as well as managing distractions by utilising quiet rooms or phone rooms. Poor change management will yield poor results.

"People are generally resistant to change," she says.

"But if you explain to them why the colours are changing, why the paintings and flowers are being reviewed, and also introduce the fact that the work area is now public and open to clients as they pass through, they generally come around to the idea."

"Making sure they're comfortable with reasons and results are all part of managing the process. They need to understand that it's still their space. Yes, it's different, but that's fine... it's to be enjoyed."

So much for existing employees, but Abbot says a designer and their client must not under-estimate the impact that the look and layout of a workspace has on prospective new staff.

"A modern and well-presented office that meets their needs can make all the difference between securing a top prospect and retaining them," she observes.

While promoting and implementing AWS brings new challenges in the rapidly changing world of the office, it also brings new opportunities.

AWS is about creating a new way of working, supporting business goals and leading an organization through the inevitable evolution of the workplace.

And it's fast becoming essential as technology makes skills more portable, increasing numbers of women in the workforce demand the ability to work from home while raising a family and the importance of work/life balance becomes more internationally recognised and embraced.

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