Planning for growth

To
go open plan or not to go open plan that is the question? Property strategists
Corpra investigates, and find fitness for purpose outweighs the need for wide
open spaces

The
office design industry praises open-plan offices as the Holy Grail in efficient
use of design and space. But the key to an effective work environment is to
create a workplace tailored to the business needs. Cost is a factor, but
usually the focus is on enhancing communication and collaboration, or
attracting and retaining staff.

It
is in this context that one has to consider the pros and cons of open-plan
design, and examine the options as well. Enclosed team areas, office sharing
and ‘club spaces’ provide just a few alternatives to open-plan and enclosed
work settings.

Some
argue that office size and seniority go hand-in-hand; the more senior the
employee, the larger and more luxurious an office he or she merits. Many
organisations still struggle to crack this mindset, with some taking the
extreme of going completely open-plan before eventually reverting to a more
effective, middle-ground solution.

The
move towards open space typically has three business drivers:

1          The importance of communication within
the company

Many
modern management philosophies underscore the role of communication in
achieving business goals. The workplace reinforces this at many levels. Space
divided into cells inhibits communication, the chief principle in prison design
being riot prevention. Modern research into office space design suggests a
direct correlation between employee seating and inter-office communication. For
every 25 feet between individual employee stations, the level of communication
declines by a factor of 10. Creating a barrier, such as an office partition or
high storage cabinets, accelerates the decline by another factor of 10.

2
         The need for flexibility

Business
is changing rapidly, and the workplace must respond accordingly. The cost of
changes in a traditional, cellularised environment is high, in financial terms,
and more importantly, in time. One IT company woke up to this idea in the
mid-’90s when it was taking up to six months to plan, cost and implement office
moves to set up teams to respond to market opportunities. The market in which
it was competing was designing, developing, marketing, selling and killing off
products within six months – the entire product-life cycle.

3          The breakdown of hierarchy within
organisations

The
workplace is a powerful symbol of organisational design and intent. Open
management styles have been adopted (at an individual level) by many well-known
CEOs to reinforce this culture of accessibility.

These
drivers impact on organisations in different ways, which means the ‘open-plan solution’
may not be appropriate for all. Lawyers, for example, have less need for
communication in their organisations, as most focus on individual casework. The
nature of their work also demands a quiet environment that is conducive to deep
concentration. Some law firms have moved to open-plan solutions, but the
majority have retained a significant level of cellularisation. The work
environment should be tailored to the people and the work they do, not the
other way around.

For
more on office design, read ‘The New Space Age’ on page 18 in this week’s
Personnel Today

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