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lTheme: Designing the office

Today's office layout must respond to the flexible and collaborative working patterns of the people who work there and has a major part to play in improving efficiency and productivity

Wireless technology is changing the way business is conducted, and offices are now being designed with mobile work patterns in mind. Employees can ring wireless hot spots or enjoy the freedom of IT-enabled alternative areas within the office to work.

The main advantage to employers is that office space is now being used more efficiently. For instance, senior managers spend on average half of their time in meetings or travelling, and 10 per cent of the workforce is generally sick or on leave at any one time. If these people's desks and technology are not being used, the firm becomes inefficient.

The steady shift from individual, private offices to open-plan environments not only offers employees better use of space but also allows colleagues to interact better. At my practice Pringle Brandon, we find these areas succeed if they fulfil a range of requirements, with clearly defined behavioural etiquette and protocols, such as 'mobile-free zones'.

To achieve this, wireless, building-wide locking and access-control systems tend to be more flexible and economical than traditional 'hard-wired' systems. From a design point of view, this drives employers to provide alternative types of workstation: some with docking stations and fixed screens, others with fixed PCs and accessories. This might appear to complicate matters, but it actually simplifies and streamlines management in the long run. Wireless technology is giving designers greater flexibility when planning overall office space, employers more room to house new staff within existing buildings, and workers more freedom to move around the office. It can provide a building-wide computer network without cabling, especially useful for companies renting a building.

The two most common concerns for companies embracing this wireless working model are performance and security.

Despite these challenges, wireless technology is improving and pilot studies, such as one we completed for Morgan Stanley, have changed the workplace for the better by creating flexible, interactive neighbourhoods. Building interconnectivity has been integrated successfully by using direct lineof-sight laser transmission within the city, eliminating the need for cabling or fibreoptic connections to server rooms.

On the move With more staff choosing to work on laptops from home or outside the office, workplace culture has changed. Managers have responded by giving employees the freedom to choose where they work and who they work with. What has followed is a shift in accountability from line managers to individuals. There is less emphasis on presence, more on output, the attitude being that it does not matter where you are so long as the work gets done. In one pilot study, the chief information officer of a banking corporation led by example, holding her meetings in the firm's wireless-enabled breakout areas.

Another shift in the traditional office hierarchy has been toward non-status accommodation, where space is allocated by need. Certain companies have carried out 'culture change' programmes, whereby the type of work being done determines the type and number of desks assigned. The challenge facing this model (apart from ensuring people actually keep their desks clear) is that even home and mobile workers like their own personalised space. On a recent office visit, Pringle Brandon staff watched with amusement as one employee went to his locker space and removed a box, took it to a hot desk and proceeded to unpack a flag of his favourite football team, a potted plant and a photo of his wife.

At this and other offices, we lead detailed briefing sessions to understand the type of work people do and the work setting. We offer experience from other offices as benchmarking, and advise on ratios, numbers and variety of spaces. In addition, we draw on the experience of Pringle Brandon Consulting, which focuses on strategic property and space-planning issues. Culture change management, staff communication programmes and senior staff leading by example are three of the key components of a successful workplace. Providing 'shared' spaces can encourage greater collaboration, knowledge exchange and increased efficiency. Below are examples of some benchmarking data.

Social spaces Social spaces, such as tea points, breakout areas and meeting rooms, can be used to prompt interaction between staff, managers and clients. Once, the assumption was that if employees were in a cafÚ or breakout space they were not working, but employers now value this potential for interaction. Designers need to incorporate a variety of spaces for inspiration, concentration, creative thinking, relaxing, team work and collaboration.

Today, it is important to have an office culture in which staff members know it is all right to be away from their desks and make the best use of alternative workspaces. Many 'conservative' organisations have found this 'permissive' regime difficult to implement.

Ideally, these spaces should be fully equipped to support wireless connectivity.

An early pilot study for a banking organisation gave us the opportunity to monitor each new type of working zone. Wide corridors and tea points next to photocopying areas, with provision for stand-up benches, proved very successful. But we found that the original brief to create quiet spaces for reading and reviewing confidential work, without connectivity, resulted in those spaces being underused.

Home offi ces The workplace has changed to make it more comfortable and accessible to staff. Also, increasing productivity and improving employee morale are counting commuting time into the working day. Transport has become a working environment and is evolving accordingly. Virgin's Pendolino tilting trains offer plug sockets for laptops, mobile phones and other devices, and most airports and railway stations now have internet and ISDN connections.

Working from home might be every employee's dream, but it can complicate health and safety liability, particularly when the home becomes a formal workplace for which the employer becomes responsible.

Many companies are looking for alternatives that allow employees more flexibility. Technology is driving the rise of satellite offices, at which groups of people can share resources and technology in outlying regions. These are becoming more prominent in areas such as Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire, where lots of people work for London-based companies on a hot-desking basis.

Of course, most people still need to travel physically to a place of work to collaborate, to feel part of a team and to have a sense of belonging. Improvements in AV and videoconferencing technologies could provide wider opportunities in future.

Internal spaces Companies increasingly want to use internal space as a marketing tool. A company's headquarters is a vital part of the organisation's image. Buildings are now being used to communicate brand values and corporate identity to clients, staff and the public alike.

This evolves from the briefing stage and can involve developing separate identities for different teams, groups or business units within a unified concept. The reception is the first point of contact with any organisation, and first impressions count. The way an office looks and feels plays a big part in motivating and retaining high calibre staff, as well as in drawing in new and established clients.

To get the image and brand right, the initial design brief is established from the most senior level of the organisation, defining principles and the 'ethos' of the company's target. Public experience, usage and behaviour can all be manipulated with subtle influences of space syntax, colour, material and planning - the conflict of security turnstiles and the welcoming business face being a typical example of issues to be resolved.

A key tool for collecting the design brief is the image work session or 'image and branding' workshop, in which Pringle Brandon asks a small group of major decision makers to identify key words that describe their organisation. We then discuss a series of images and see how closely we can interpret these words and match our design to defined corporate values.

The discussion often morphs from one word to another: traditional, progressive, service-driven, open and collaborative. This gives a good insight into what is important to the client, the philosophy of the company and key project deliverables. An organisation's culture can be communicated through everything from office layout and spatial flow to quality details and finishes. More offices now feature their brand identity throughout back-office areas as a cohesive design element for both clients and staff.

For example, one of our clients' focused on connectivity - so large holes were cut through the office floors, with new staircases introduced to encourage interaction between the different business groups, which rarely communicated previously.

We also designed Mid City Place to reflect the client's status as a European market leader in the trading and marketing of energy products. Its dynamic and professional culture was translated into the design;

key elements included clean lines, a simple palette with lemon and fresh green accents, and predominantly open-plan space with glazed offices to promote a feeling of space.

We designed an interactive LED wall that integrated technology to produce a dynamic piece of artwork representing its business.

Partitions The look of partitioning systems has changed. Bulky, solid barriers have been replaced with lighter systems that are more minimal and versatile. Double-glazed systems have the advantage of acoustic privacy and can incorporate integral blinds for visual privacy and reduced maintenance.

Challenges to the designer have historically been privacy, acoustic design and providing deflection heads to partitions in increasingly 'bendy' long-span buildings.

Clients are accepting that more emphasis should be placed on cross-wall sound attenuation between offices, and less on the front glazed walls, where the activity and 'hubbub' background noise effectively drowns sound leakage from a private office conversation.

The challenge for manufacturers is to produce unique partition systems, which have impacted on production times, installation ease and the cost of future changes.

Incorporating ever more demanding deflection requirements must be balanced against trying to achieve the minimal design concept. Designers are starting to look at how to differentiate partitioning systems.

This includes lighting and colour manifestation, and new products such as digital glass or art glass.

Raised floors Recent market research by companies such as Connaught has concluded that raised floors will remain the best way to service workstations with minimal disruption and effect on the critical path. Even with the introduction of wireless technology, power is still required in individual locations. In areas where wireless technology or fibre optics are used, the depth of raised floors may reduce from 150mm to 100mm, but this can restrict the building's flexibility. Specialised areas such as dealer floors and communication rooms are likely to continue using Ethernet cables, which require a greater floor void.

There have been different discussions on tile sizes: the 750 x 750mm size is more economical and uses fewer pedestals but is less flexible than 600 x 600mm, which is specified more frequently. Consideration is now being given to a 500 x 500mm tile, to see if this could bring any benefits. The key issues that the product should be fit for the purpose and are that the numbering system should be simplified to assist specifiers.

Finishes for raised flooring have tended to be carpet tiles, but other pre-finished composite tiles can provide different looks and textures while maintaining easy access.

Suspended ceilings offer the advantage of longevity, access to ceiling voids and environmental soundness because they are 100 per cent recyclable. They can be cleaned easily and, if this is carried out regularly, can remain looking fresh for many years.

This year's most significant change has been the introduction of antibacterial coatings, specified in environments such as schools and hospitals. Another area that manufacturers are developing is prefabricated products: manufactured off-site and easy to install. These 'integrated service modules' or 'rafts' can include heating, cooling and communications elements such as speakers.

Sound attenuation and acoustics are dealt with by mineral wool and metal, or plasterboard backing plates if high attenuation is required. These prefabricated modules are particularly suitable where installation time is very short, or for public areas such as airports or shopping malls.

Mineral fibre or fibreglass-based products are still specified for some applications and offer a cheaper installed price, but are not so easily recyclable and are less durable.

This is particularly evident if the area needs regular cleaning or more frequent access.

An end to gloom New CIBSE LG3 regulations for the workplace have reinforced what designers have been practising for years: reviewing the overall space and design to create a look that is exciting and not as gloomy as offices of the past. This can mean multi-source light, walls using up/down lights and local task lighting. At an American bank, semirecessed general light fittings wash ceilings and walls with light, as well as illuminating the work place. Consideration is being given to more than the horizontal working plane. In offices where more collaboration and communication is encouraged by openplan work settings, it is important to be able to read vertical planes. This is particularly important for meeting rooms and videoconferencing rooms, where diffused lighting for good facial modelling is essential.

The assumption that light levels should be consistent is now seen as flawed. With the increased amount of PC screen work, people are benefiting from changes in lighting Admittedly, flat matt screens are far easier to view, but most of our work uses close vision and it is important for health that we rest our eyes regularly by focusing on distant objects.

As designers, we look at lighting to provide shade and interest, and in particular to provide alternative and supplementary lighting in breakout and cafÚ areas.

Well-lit photos and graphics can also add interest and colour, and light psychology can be employed to enhance the working environment. In an evolutionary sense, humans are used to light levels changing with different times of day and year. If this is harnessed, lighting design can be effective in helping staff to work longer hours and more efficiently where necessary. A major fit-out at Canary Wharf allowed us to test this theory. A glass backdrop wall between a corridor and a working open-plan office was back-lit with different colour-temperature lamps. The lamps slowly dim and flux, giving a constantly changing light ambience instead of a bland partition.

Gillian Burgis is an associate with Pringle Brandon Architects

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