By: Michel Mooij
Although it appears contradictory, flexibility in the use of office space can be maximized, while enabling the working environment to become more stable. This cannot be achieved without an innovative vision of the work place and its layout.
The flexibility of the organization increases when fewer things have to be moved around. By connecting the organization loosely with its premises, efficiency is maximized.
The necessity of stabilizing an office environment with increasing demands on flexibility
Most offices approach their office layout, with the idea that ‘made-to-measure’ work places frequently have to be created for specific users. Every time an organization changes, the users move and the office environment is adjusted. This approach becomes more expensive, the more frequently changes occur. In particular, organizations operating in a strongly dynamic environment, are seeking different approaches, to lower the expensive costs of change. There is a new approach emerging, which consists of offering specific work places with a clear function on the best suitable (not necessarily the smallest) place. The user organizes his work and decides when, with whom and on which work place something has to be done. Depending on the nature of the employment and the style of work, the user chooses the best work place, to suit his individual requirements. He can select from a range of differing work places. The range of work place choices caters better to the needs of the individual employee, than the traditional universal work place.
A new vision on housing
The Facility Managers reacted on this by offering innovative office concepts, which minimize space use or decrease moving costs. Unfortunately more is called for than just new office dividing concepts. The present developments require a new vision on interaction between the organization and its environment. This vision incorporates the following concepts:
- choice entails difference
- change requires stable elements
- change also means letting go
Choice entails difference
In modern management visions, an important role is often appointed to the independence of an employee. This becomes evident in offering different work situations, from which an employee may. Though freedom of choice is beneficial, the employee becomes responsible for choosing the optimal place within a certain type of work. From the moment an employee is made independently responsible for the results of his work, he will demand optimal work settings. In short: By offering a choice, the obligation emerges to offer meaningful differences. A work place at least should be good in providing what it is supposed to. The offered work places shouldn’t just be different, but should offer efficiency and quality, which supports the employee appropriately. A silent place should offer peace and quiet, a meeting space should increase the chances of meaningful encounters and a conference hall should have all the facilities to enable a group to function well.
A high level of quality can only be achieved, if from the outset, the design uses the specific possibilities of the premises and its location. A place will have to have ‘residence quality’.
In private life we all know places like this.
For example: someone’s reading corner, a well-lit worktable by the window or a tranquil view.
Change requires stable elements
The office environment more and more has to provide an indispensable resting point. When there are rapid changes in an organization, not everything in the work/living environment should change with it. One should be able to hold on to lasting elements that have a timeless quality, so that change isn’t experienced as threatening, but the willingness to change is encouraged.
For example: it is nicer to move within an environment in which houses stay put, than to stay living in an environment where the houses constantly change and a whole new environment comes into being. This has everything to do with the fact that naturally humans want to take action themselves and don’t want to be surprised by a suddenly changing environment. Anything that changes rapidly is regarded as transitory and unstable. Things from the past that have seen generations come and go, possess a quality to comfort people.
Change also means letting go
An innovative approach towards a more dynamic use of the office layout, allows the user and the office environment to exist independently of each other. While using an environment it should be possible, to make it your own, as an employee. That doesn’t happen by adjusting the office layout all the time, but by changing the use and interpretation of it. The office layout has to encourage this by e.g. offering a limited number of movable elements. If the office layout is made multi-usable, changes can be reacted upon, by using the same environment differently to start with. If such is not the case, one has to use a different environment altogether. The way in which one handles changes in theater is a good example of this. Within one act moving actors and using different lighting and different interpretation of stage pieces achieve the changes of scenes. Between the acts one builds another scene only when there is no choice. In modern theater there are beautiful examples of stages-scenes that are functioning during the entire play only by regrouping and reinterpreting. In the office environment we are not yet as far. The office layout often still lives in the age of the frame theater with the solid stage-scenery that is changed after every act.
Letting go also means that one has enough trust in the availability of facilities, which you don’t have to move everything with you. ‘Don’t move things with you, that are interchangeable’.
As a result of minimization, the border will shift between the things that belong to an office layout and the things that can be carried by people. This has consequences for the way in which activities are tied to certain places. Hybrid solutions, like trolleys, movable desks etc. that are in fashion now, I see as a transitional phase in the development to a new setting of the boundary between mobile and steady elements in an office environment. The division will become sharper in the future. Everything movable will be as mobile as the user. Everything that is part of the office layout, will become more stable and attached to the property, and will be of a more durable quality. Computers, that once were big office machines on a fixed place, are now carried around in hand luggage or even worn as jewelry. We only have to wait for the intelligent tattoo to evolve.
Which things in the modern office are part of the surroundings and which are connected to the employee? Taking into account the unpredictable character of the future, it is probably the most intelligent strategy for a company to confine itself to letting employees carry only the most elementary tools, i.e. tools that give access to all facilities offered by shared infrastructures. Like a modern traveler, who only carries a small suitcase with a clean pair of underwear, a tooth brush and a credit card, that provides him of everything else he needs in hotel and restaurant environments, the modern office worker will only carry a mobile phone and a lap top computer with modem. He will be able to work everywhere within the office, in so called office hotels or even in places not specifically dedicated to office work. He will be able to use all facilities for example the internet. Organizations adapting this posture towards housing will overcome limitations of specific buildings and will use their qualities and the qualities of their locations for set periods in an optimal and flexible way.
A sophisticated stable environment
Not chasing the changing user all the time, but the unique quality of buildings, connected to their location, should be the starting point in creating real estate. A building has to be basic enough in its quality, independence and relation to the user, to become an interesting object for investors. Real estate investors desire stability as a basis for profitability for their investment. Durable quality of the stable part of the office environment suits well the needs of real estate investors. Stability of the environment increases manageability.
The management can now focus itself on maintaining the objects themselves and doesn’t have to anticipate the capricious changes involved. The facility department no longer carries things to the inhabitant, but offers an office environment with sufficient differentiation and enough unique quality to attract inhabitants. Overall this approach offers flexibility to the inhabitants. It also offers stability in facility management and concrete real estate to the facility managers. Costs from moving, rebuilding and maintenance can be lowered. I expect in the future, the facility management department to be better organized in relation to the premises.
First published in 1997 in Facilty Management Magazine and in Het Nieuwe Werken