Changing spaces

Combining good office design with practicality when choosing office furniture can be a difficult task for FMs. Far from fading away as many people predicted, the office is becoming an increasingly important business tool. Chris Fountain of CMP looks at the changing face of office design.

Nothing dates more quickly than predictions about the future. Just 10 years ago there was a lot of talk about the death of the office. We were told that new technology and new working practices such as teleworking and hot desking were about to transform the way we worked and the office would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

What has come to pass has been nothing like that. In fact the workplace has become even more important to the way that businesses are run, although its role has changed fundamentally. Survey after survey indicates the vital part that the workplace plays in motivating, retaining and attracting staff, supporting teamwork, introducing new technology, implementing cultural change, conveying brand identity and all those other good things.

In meeting these demands the facilities manager must strike a careful balance between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the people who work for it. That new role is one reason why the strategic focus of the facilities manager is never more apparent than when it comes to implementing an office fit-out.

Increasingly these demands are converging. "The reason for this is very simple,"? says Jorgen Josefsson of RH Chairs. "In the past many firms had their capital tied up in machinery and goods. Now it's just as likely that their capital is intellectual, in the heads of employees. So looking after people is good business if you don't want your assets to literally walk out of the door."

However, for most FMs, an office fit-out is something they implement very rarely, if ever. Little wonder then that according to David Rand of Morris Office, "there is sometimes a tendency to focus on building and property issues rather than on the people aspects of the office. Organisations have personality and that must be expressed through the workplace. What happens in interior design touches all parts of the organisation. It's essential that the right balance is struck."

This has become a red hot topic in the Middle East, as tens of thousands of skilled workers are attracted by the area’s growing reputation as a global melting pot. In Dubai alone, which has been growing at about 5% a year, the population will double to two million by 2010, driven largely by the arrival of new expatriate professionals and workers.

All of these people need somewhere to work of course. Many of the people attracted to work in the Middle East are highly skilled, successful and let's face it, demanding. They have clear expectations not only of what they earn but also about how they want to be treated and the kind of place they want to work.

So bearing this in mind what is the best way for an enlightened firm to approach an office fit-out? Where do you buy all that stuff and how do you go about getting the best out of the firms with which you work?

What are your options?

The first step is to understand the options available to you. Do you want to go direct to a number of manufacturers for products such as furniture, seating, storage, flooring and lighting or to a dealer or a specifier such as an architect or interior designer? Sometimes the decision will be out of your hands, of course, especially if an architect has been employed by the company to develop a large project. A manufacturer can often prove cheaper and may also offer greater financial stability compared to smaller dealers. But working with a number of manufacturers relies on having a reasonably high level of market knowledge so may be best suited for larger jobs. Some would argue that direct sellers are unable to offer the same levels of service as dealers but some office furniture manufacturers that specialise in direct sales have a reputation for offering high levels of service. Many companies now offer a wide range of services including design, project management, technological consultancy, air-conditioning, logistics and archiving. “It is this level of know-how that is the most attractive part of the dealer offer for most customers,” says Rand. “Some end-users have an idea about what they want based on limited market knowledge or rooted in the way they’ve always done things and it is part of our role to challenge that thinking.” So regardless of how often you actually specify an office interior, it is worth keeping an eye on the trade media and attending shows and conferences aimed at this part of the market and learning how to identify new ideas and trends that will help you to make the right decisions when it comes to appointing a supplier.

Changing spaces

Also, anybody who claims that a desk is just a desk hasn't really looked at the evidence. The world of work is evolving at a sometimes bewildering pace and by necessity so is the workplace. Most notable in this regard has been the breakdown in the physical link between people and place driven by technology such as laptops, PDAs, mobile phones, wireless LAN, Bluetooth and so on.

A recent survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit of 600 executives discovered that the average manager spent a third of their time away from their main place of work. Over 80% of managers said that they had a laptop to allow them to work anywhere.

Such changes have radicalised working patterns and allowed employees to empower themselves, but they have also had a profound impact on the workplace itself. The topology of offices has begun to change at a fundamental level in response to the demands of this new and growing army of technologically liberated corridor warriors, carrying around the company's assets in their heads. This change has coincided with the open plan becoming the near ubiquitous norm in office planning models in many countries.

However, the open plan has its disadvantages. By definition it is not very private and for many people, its inherent noisiness can be a problem ' research shows that unwanted noise in the office lowers productivity by up to 20%. For some tasks and some people open plan can be the worst possible solution, especially when they know that with a laptop and mobile they may be better off in Starbucks.

The result is that the offices of many large global businesses are increasingly resembling clubs in which business is done by an army of peripatetic knowledge workers. There is often a strong sense of nurturing domesticity to such interiors coupled with a strong sense of corporate identity to help people feel good about themselves but also feel as if they are part of something bigger. There is no conflict between the demands of the organisation and the demands of its employees because they coincide. Good office design is good business.

"The FM must strike a careful balance between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the people who work for it."
"The strategic focus of the FM is apparent when it comes to implementing an office fit-out."
"Anybody who claims that a desk is just a desk hasn't really looked at the evidence."
Points to ponder

Infrastructure: How does the building address your infrastructure needs, especially for power, data and telecoms? How does that help the people who work for you? Will it still be able to do so in ten years? Is the lighting adequate and how does it relate to the way people work?

Space: It is often possible to accommodate more people in a space with the application of an intelligent space planning review that either changes the organisation's space planning standards, frees up poorly used space or, more frequently, both.

New working models: The past ten years have seen many changes in working methodologies which offer a wide choice of business cultures and space planning models which can be used as a complementary model for the way they work in a particular building.

Image: A growing body of research demonstrates the role a building can have in forming part of the company brand.

Location: This embraces factors such as proximity to customers, suppliers, transport infrastructure, ease of access to the site and so on.

Retaining staff: While new offices may also help to attract and retain staff, a refurbishment in an existing location may help you to retain staff who might otherwise feel uncomfortable with a move or who may be unable to travel to the new location.

Ethical considerations: There may well be environmental considerations as well as a belief that a company needs to stay in a particular location to maintain an association with an area and provide employment.

Legal and health and safety considerations: This is particularly important in terms of issues such as ergonomics and inclusive design. Many companies now go beyond what is required of them under law as they try to maximise the well being and productivity of employees.

CMP Information Ltd is launching a new exhibition for the built environment in December 2007 in Abu Dhabi. Full details will be announced in FM Middle East in January.

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