In his paper for The Work Foundation, The State of the Office, Max Nathan claims the average
desk is occupied for only 45 per cent of office hours. And whilst he recognises that high commercial rents mean that businesses necessarily have to be efficient with how they occupy office space, he urges caution with the effect these efficiencies have on staff.
When working with a Scandinavian furniture manufacturer about ten years ago, I took a brief from an insurance company for furniture for their call centre. The facilities manager was quite clear – he wanted workstation clusters that, in plan, formed a donut so that the whole team faced inwards thus reinforcing the team spirit, whilst the hole in the middle accommodated all the cabling.
Stopped at a motorway service station on the way back from the meeting and sitting with the furniture manufacturer’s consultant ergonomist, I said that I felt it was all wrong. By arranging the workstations thus, the worksurface did the opposite of what the body naturally wanted it to do (i.e. wrap around the torso), everyone sat with their backs to circulation routes thus removing any sense of personal space, and the hole in the middle, whilst providing ample volume for cables, was completely inaccessible for maintenance. And so, on the back of a paper napkin, I sketched a solution that at the time I thought was unique (but probably wasn’t!): what is now the ubiquitous 120-degree delta workstation – the staple of most manufacturers’ portfolios.
Throughout the subsequent meetings and detailed planning exercises, it became clear that in the particularly deep space of this client’s building, planned densities could be achieved that touched on the legal minimums. Yet as we walked around the office floors, large open spaces were still left in which soft seating was specified, and staff banter was along the lines of, “You’re not going to do anything with my [new] snowflake” – the name that the groups of six 12-person clusters had been given. Later, watching the CAD plans gradually regenerate on the slow PCs of the time, it became apparent that what we had created was a honeycomb, and it was with no surprise, therefore, that I later read that this natural formation is the most efficient space structure known to man (and bee!).
I was reminded of this as I became aware of the current fashion for beam-style desks – a straightforward rectangle of worksurface where flexibility is created by the removal of any linear delineation of territory. So for facilities managers and HR departments, if a team expands or contracts, people simply ‘budge up’ in one direction or another. Not only does it provide flexible accommodation, it is difficult to imagine a shape that you could cram more of into a traditional rectangular building. Furthermore the efficiency of the structure means the price per person is reduced.
It was Oscar Wilde who said, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Because ergonomically, this is not great: a typical profiled workstation allows the keyboard to be placed in the middle with room for the mouse on either side, drawn forward and allowing the arm to retain its natural position – hanging straight down, with the upper arm vertical in both planes. A straight front edge to the workstation requires either the keyboard to be moved off-centre, or instead the mouse offset requiring the arm to form a reached posture (try it!).
The mechanics of the human shoulder joint, because of the incredibly shallow socket on the ball-and-socket joint (which gives the joint its mobility), requires three tendons to hold the bones together. A workstation that requires you to have your arm away
from its natural resting position for any length of time means that the tendons are expanded or contracted and over prolonged periods they can become inflamed. Specifically since one of them passes through a gap in the shoulder blade, this can cause unbearable pain.
So to create the space efficiencies that businesses require, we need to be more creative, to think more laterally.
Of course the fad of the mid-1990s was hot-desking. Efficiently planned space was not enough; unless, or so it seemed, you were at your desk 24-7, you had no right to claim somewhere as your own – a place to put a photo of the family and a drawer for your mid-morning KitKat! Orgatec 1998 became the wheel and castor salesman’s Mecca as furniture manufacturers raced to make everything mobile, claiming it to be the next thing in non-territorial task-related working environments. And at the same time new phrases found a place in the English language such as ‘hotelling’, ‘rightspace’ and ‘virtual office’. Organisations such as Andersons and AT&T looked at new ways of working, cocksure that the advent of the laptop or notebook computer saw the birth of nomadic work patterns that in turn found professionals sitting at a
park bench writing reports. They were therefore keen to show their shareholders that this innovation in technology spelt increases in dividends by efficiencies in office space brought about by decreases in rents.
But this proposition failed to consider the part that the individual has in the equation. It is a truism that a company’s greatest asset is its staff and a sad reflection that these initiatives forgot that. So as the design community cottoned on to this, decisions were taken as a sop, that, whilst taking with one hand, something (smaller) was given back with the other: “You may have lost your personal space, but you’ve gained this [great] new facility”. Restaurants, gymnasiums and shops started to find their way into offices, whilst the more adventurous arranged these around glazed central streets. British Airways’ Waterside Park includes cafés, its own Waitrose, and even an olive grove where stressed workers can sit to calm down (although, unwilling to admit to such failings, I understand it is seldom used). Anderson’s Strand offices had a Zen Zone, whilst Digital’s Helsinki HQ has a four-person garden swing for small meetings. It could not be said that designers have let their imagination get in the way of redressing the balance.
The boundless imaginations of designers, though, is frequently only surpassed by the singular lack of imagination shown by many employers and employees. Whilst it is the more wayward designs that hit the headlines, the majority of employees are disenfranchised. Probably more employers used task/time audits as sticks, without the prospect of any carrot than do so to genuinely understand the tasks, and their frequencies, that need to be accommodated. And employees, when asked, complain, “I believe this is a waste of time. No one will do anything with the results. If anything is done we are not consulted first. The requirements of the department are overruled by people who do not understand the reasons for the requirement of relevant items”. Facilities managers, who at the best of times have a thankless task, must feel they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
But there are approaches that create efficiencies: the cafés and cappuccino bars that sprung up in offices frequently host informal meetings, relieving pressure on traditional meeting room suites whilst also potentially collecting revenue from food sales. Architects, noticing that toilet facilities at home aren’t segregated by sex, planned unisex facilities (although more conservative commercial tenants find this too much to bear and divide them up, replacing the door signs accordingly).
And managers who, despite a whirlwind romance with open-plan living, on their return to cellular space find the Combi Office, such as that provided by Directive Office’s MT2 system, at half the size of a traditional office, fulfils all but their egos’ requirements. Rotating high-volume storage cabinets that accommodate double the amount of storage in only a little more space are amongst those items that address the issues from a product perspective as does Flipscreen™ integrated IT workstations from Pars. Both products look at the issues surrounding their particular products’ use, and, in the words of the Honda advert, ask “what if?” with surprising results. Komfort claims that the use of storage wall to divide adjacent cellular spaces equates to a saving of 14 per cent by using the same principle (of maximising the use of vertical space) that the third working level (or over-desk!) of desking systems does.
Regrettably there is not the panacea that we would all like, no single product or approach that will single-handedly deliver the efficiencies that living with one of the world’s highest commercial rents requires of us. As a designer, though, the answer is simpler and has never changed: to engage with the client, ask searching questions and not be afraid of coming back with the unexpected.
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