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Update on office fit-out Design exerts profound effects on what people think of the offices they work in. But management matters, too

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technical & practice

Office fit-outs are the outward expression of organisational change. Underlying the change process, managements will have given sharp focus to the types of people needed and the training that they must be given. Similarly, the processes of work will have been placed under close scrutiny to ensure that workflow systems are matched by appropriate technology. But will the environments in which people work have been subjected to the same degree of management attention? Clearly, a close link exists between all three aspects of organisational life and, to be fully effective, 'places of work' need to occur as part of a total system of change.

With reference to three specific questions, I am indicating in this review the changes in attitudes and practice that may be required if architects are to play their full part in the processes of office change.

To what extent do the physical settings of work satisfy the needs of fast-changing organisations?

This first question demands that we probe deeply below the surface of organisational life to ascertain the success, or otherwise, of today's office interiors. Post-occupancy evaluations are the key here; they represent the only way of obtaining an accurate and objective view of results.

The authors of Probe (Post-occupancy Review of Buildings and their Engineering) are tempted to focus on design and technical features to explain good occupant satisfaction; but they know that success may be more to do with how design and management come together to create a total system. Buildings which occupants perceive as best tend to have good ratings for perceived quickness of response. This is related to:

usable controls which are easy for occupants to understand

a space plan which accommodates workgroups properly (ie copes with teams as well as individuals)

a good facilities-management team

a management culture which takes staff needs seriously.

The success of work environments, then, is as dependent on the 'software' of effective management as on the 'hardware' supplied by architects and designers. But design does exert a very significant impact on the ergonomics of the workplace and the means by which all members of the organisation are provided with appropriate working 'tools'; it is at this close range that people can test both the responsiveness of their working environment and the extent to which it meets their own individual needs.

Are architects and designers beginning to play a more significant role in organisational change?

The challenge of 'getting closer to their user clients' is being tackled effectively by a few architectural firms - large and small. In preparing this review, I was struck by a recent recruitment advertisement: 'The Future of Work. Can You Make a Difference?'. It was placed by hok International, which is aiming to build up its consulting team in London. Its significance lies in the fact that the people being sought are workplace psychologists, ergonomists, change consultants, designers and real-estate consultants. hok sees the multi-disciplinary skills of its rapidly expanding consulting team being united under the core activity of 'environmental design'.

To preserve a balance between the many complex issues involved in organisational change, architects' attention needs to be directed towards the benefits that change will bring to occupants, and not only to the means (ie the building) by which these are achieved. Sometimes, individual architects, working closely with in-house management teams, can bring valuable knowledge and spatial thinking to the problems involved. For instance, rkw (space management consultants) advised its client, bt Cellnet, on the development and implementation of flexible working concepts. In one six-month trial, a large percentage of employees declared their satisfaction with home working and considered that it had increased their productivity.

Are organisations now attaching more importance to the physical settings in which work takes place?

There still exists a significant divide between management consultancy and design consultancy. It may appear obvious that both disciplines should pool their skills in order that a combined resource of expertise can be offered to clients, but the signs of change in this direction, if they are happening at all, are not portentous. Writers on management principles have tended to ignore the part played by the working environment in generating organisational success.

According to the dti report, a likely future will contain elements of both a 'wired world', where self-employed agents come together on a project- by-project basis, and a 'built to last' series of large companies. Whether or not this is true, it would be a fascinating exercise to examine the impact of the knowledge-driven economy on the location and movement of people and the effect this might have on our cities and the organisational architecture they contain.

An excellent source of knowledge is the Workplace Forum, a user-focused research and learning association, facilitated by degw, the research-based international architectural and consulting firm.

What surprises in this brief survey of office fit-out is just how much remains to be done. To quote hok's Alexander Redgrave: 'We are sitting on a goldmine,' which can be exploited by those with creativity and the skills required to take an all-encompassing view of office change. What is now required is a new synthesis between the disciplines of management consultancy and design. Office fit-out is at the sharp end of a process of spatial thinking which is central to the task of implementing fundamental organisational change. Terry Trickett is an architect and specialises in organisational change and office fit-out

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