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Improving workplace quality . . .

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High-quality office environments do not necessarily equal government efficiency - whatever architects may like to think

Earlier this year, the government confirmed that Public Private Partnerships (PPP) would be a 'cornerstone' in its estate modernisation programme.

Current bidding for the Strategic Transfer of the Estate to the Private Sector (STEPS), involving the Inland Revenue and HM Customs and Excise, will be watched by the property and facilities management industries with keen interest.

This confirms the view of the Bates report of 1997, that the government will continue to move away from owning and managing bricks and mortar towards becoming intelligent purchasers of serviced office space.With service delivery to the public a top priority and the introduction of government e-commerce, big changes to the planning, design and management of the government estate may be anticipated.

A more creative approach to staff incentives could mean that more civil servants will get a better quality work environment as part of their package.

Recent research carried out for the National Audit Office suggests that trends in the way government office space is perceived, planned and managed are emerging. Key issues include space quality, space allocation and the management of space over time.

Not so long ago it was thought that departments would continue to trade a reduction in overall floor area for improvements to office quality.

Developments since 1994 have borne this out. Abbey Wood in Bristol - new home of the Ministry of Defence Procurement Executive - is a case in point. It provides high-quality, highly flexible, open-plan, naturally ventilated and naturally lit space that meets the BRE's criteria for excellence in environmental design.

Space quality will be an important issue in assessing how future PPP contracts and departments might review their premises budgets where they see opportunities to link space quality with staff productivity.

It has been documented that if capital building costs are set at unity, then, over the lifetime of a building, occupancy costs will be around five times capital costs.

Staff costs over the same period leapt to approximately 200 times capital costs.

If staff respond positively to capital spent on improving workplace quality, then the leverage in staff satisfaction and productivity could be high.

Egalitarian office space

During the 1990s, departments replaced space standards with space guidelines.

The DTI, Employment Service and the Inland Revenue commissioned new policy guidance, and new task- or functionally-based guidelines were adopted.

The point of a guideline is to loosen the interpretation of how much space a person needs to undertake their work and allows some flexibility for space planning.

A general trend within central government has been to move the space-planning agenda away from allocating office space based on status towards the amount of space needed to do the job.

Examples of task-based space allocation are shown below.

Privacy, entitlement and territory, like space standards, have all been exposed to review and rationalisation.Where privacy and confidentiality had been used to justify the need for a personal office, today these requirements may be provided by having bookable rooms accessed directly from an open-plan or team area.

The move towards open-plan layouts has been pervasive throughout the government estate, where even the idea that every person has a fixed place in which to work, or territory, is now being questioned.

Hot-desking - providing workplaces on a first-come, first-served basis - increasingly will be considered by departments whose staff spend a significant proportion of their working hours out of the office.

Research for the National Audit Office shows key differences between the working patterns of various headquarters buildings - some accommodating routine administrative work and others housing project teams whose personnel spend considerable time out of the office.

Opportunities for flexible working may be the next consideration for such offices. Flexible working can give employees more discretion regarding where and when their work is carried out but requires large investments in IT and telecommunication infrastructure.

Most important, and most challenging, is the fact that flexible working involves re-inventing the space culture within an organisation.

Paul Stansall is a director of Tectus Architecture Additional texts: 'Planning Government Buildings', (AJ 18.5.94) National Audit Office, Ministry of Defence: Management of Office Space, The Stationery Office, 1999

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