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Flexitime in the office

Wireless computer technologies save space and costs. The next generation of fuel-cell computers will offer greater flexibility

When the six staff members at John Laing Property (JLP) were considering reorganising their offices at Borehamwood, on the outskirts of north London, they unanimously decided that they would prefer to relocate to central London. Given that they are usually out of the office, often in meetings in and around central London, the logic of reducing downtime, travelling to and from the office, was compelling. The only problem was the rental costs.

There was no way that JLP, which provides property management advice to the rest of the Laing group, could justify additional spend at a time when other sectors of the company were downsizing. For its 100m 2office in outer London the rent was £50,000 per year; for an office off Oxford Street, the same money would buy only 46m 2.The challenge, therefore, was to accommodate the staff in an area roughly half of what they had been used to. Not only did there need to be a cost-effective transfer, but the reduced office size had to ensure staff contentment and cater for visitors using the office as a drop-in meeting area. Flexibility was the key. As a trial, which could have implications for the future of office fit-outs generally, JLP has incorporated British Telecom's Futurespace system. Furniture units reflect and take advantage of the adaptability offered by technological advances. Moveable pods - 'personal filing trams' - replace the old-style desk pedestals and are used in conjuction with moveable desking to maximise layout configurations.

The pods are fitted with a flatscreen VDU on a retractable armature, freeing up the desktop surface.

The horizontal roller shutter frontage opens to reveal storage space for personal effects, wireless laptops, keyboard and mouse. Cordless digital telephones are fully networked through the reception desk, allowing direct transfer to colleagues within or outside the office.

ISDN connection to the local area network is by wireless link, creating a neat, clutter-free environment.

The desks can be configured in height and location to suit different ergonomic requirements of the users, as well as combining into meeting-sized tabletops with the pods' flat screens manoeuvred to facilitate group presentations.

Because of the open-plan nature of the office, staff regularly extend the display arms to discuss queries with colleagues on screen.

The tidiness of the office, free from cabling, is striking - staff are rigorously required to clear their desks at the end of the day. The single power cable serving each pod stands out as a strangely anachronistic barrier to total flexibility.

To this end, BT is about to launch the next generation of office technology using fuel-cell battery packs housed in the pod unit. The pods are shunted into a charging area overnight and plugged into a mains socket to charge up sufficient capacity for 15 hours' continuous use.

Anyone forgetting to plug in their pod will receive an audible warning reminder (although they could use the mains system as a fail-safe).

BTis already working on further improvements to the system, including voice-activated and physical recognition devices. BT's head of workplace technology Steve Cherry has suggested linking the workstation with whole building intelligence, allowing, for example, computers to log on automatically when the user arrives at the workstation - or at the front door.

The speed across the JLP system is the same, if not better than before.

The heat generated by the flat screens is approximately 10 per cent of conventional VDUs, and since individual servers have been replaced by a single unit in a ventilated, low-level cupboard to one side of the room, the overall heat gain is nominal.

The system can be used with any type of furniture, although the highquality Futurespace range is specially adapted. The slightly higher equipment costs are more than adequately recouped by the savings in set-up costs. As Susie Gray, associate director for JLP, notes: 'Wireless technology means that you can save on raised floor ducts and ceiling trays.We pay for a BT line and power, but no trunking, wiring or outlets.

Effectively the fit-out is paid for in the equipment, which we can take away with us if we move.'

The only drawback is that, even though 'there are no combative meetings' scheduled to take place in the office, the open-plan proximity of workstations could be slightly disconcerting for those of a more private disposition.

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