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Calculating for Change

23 June 2008

Academics used to cellular offices for quiet, concentrated work have taken to a more collaborative, open plan layout in NAG’s refurbished offices following careful planning and consultation with, and involvement of, the staff

DURING 2007 THE NUMERICAL ALGORITHMS GROUP (NAG) undertook a major redesign of its corporate headquarters in Oxford, reducing the space it occupied previously through the introduction of open plan offices for all but a few staff.

The notion of working in open plan offices represented a major step change for the staff, many of whom come from academia and expect to work in a cellular office. That this concept has been accepted is evidence of how the company puts into practice its core values of ‘a profound respect for the individual’ and ‘integrity in our dealings with customers, employees, members, partners and others’.

Susan Shayler, Chief Operating Officer at the corporate offices in Oxford, says, “We constantly review our operations to ensure we maintain high quality standards and produce commercially relevant computational software and services for commerce and research. Two years ago, when we reviewed our office accommodation in Oxford, we decided we should rationalise the space we occupied and eventually concluded we needed a major refurbishment and redesign.”

At that time NAG occupied both floors of a 1980s office building, Wilkinson House, in Jordan Hill, Oxford, having previously sublet another adjacent building on the same site. Most of the offices were cellular and some of the space was under-utilised. The company decided that it would sublet the first floor and refurbish the ground floor to provide a high standard of office accommodation for the 54 people it now employed. The offices were to be mainly open plan, and the company made sure all staff were fully consulted on, and involved in, this major change.

Wilkinson House has two floors with a central reception area and main staircase, and wings either side. Working with Insight Workplaces Ltd, one wing was allocated to the software developers, engineers and researchers, the other to the more commercial functions, including the customer support staff. Each wing has its own breakout/quiet room and kitchen. The larger wing includes a training room which also serves as a boardroom, and enclosed meeting room, as well as the secure comms rooms. Each of the three directors has a cellular office. Central services for printing, fax and post are located in the reception area.

During the design and planning stage, staff comment was invited on the workstation desk configurations, the height and shape of screens, the other furniture required as well as the carpeting and air conditioning. Insight produced 3D elevations so that NAG employees could understand more clearly what was being proposed, and also brought a selection of screens into the offices. Susan Shayler and Kartrina Jenkins, Project Co-coordinator, visited the Assmann factory in Germany to see the workstation furniture and decide on the range they wanted, choosing RondASS, with its round, height-adjustable legs, and simple, classic design.

The work to the offices was phased over an eight week period, with Insight completing the ground floor refurbishment, a wing at a time, and finally fitting out the reception. Whilst the work was being carried out, NAG staff were moved around so that Insight could completely gut the building, stripping out the old partitioning and ceilings, and then install air conditioning, electrical and data cabling, new suspended ceilings and lighting, partitioning for breakout areas, kitchens, meeting rooms and the few cellular offices. The offices were redecorated throughout, floors were carpeted in most areas, or had plank flooring in the kitchens and reception. Once the furniture was installed, staff could move in.

NAG is built on collaboration – all staff are part of a team, not only in the central office but with others such as academic partnerships. Teams often overlap to make the best use of expertise. Not surprisingly, there is very little ‘churn’ due to the amount of time required to gain expertise.. Most of the NAG staff are software developers and researchers, many coming from academia, where they were used to working in cellular
offices. Their skills are in pure mathematics, software engineering and packaging. The remainder are involved in the commercial side of the business, providing marketing, finance and office services, as well as a customer support desk.

All the staff work at PCs; about 10 have more than one PC as they like to switch between Windows and Linux. It was particularly crucial that the ‘academic’ staff had a quiet space where they could concentrate that felt like a research area. The company has its own IT department which provides full support to all staff, whilst customers are supported directly by the developers.

Susan Shayler says, “We understood that moving out of a cellular office to an open plan workstation would be an enormous change for many of our highly qualified and gifted technical and academic staff. So we involved them every step of the way.”

A crucial issue was the amount of space each person would have and how effectively screens would be in providing individuals privacy. Each workstation group was marked out on the floor, and a selection of screens was brought to the office. Staff had a say in the shape - straight or curved - as well as the height of the screens. The result is that in one wing, some groups of four workstations do not have separating screens, whilst another section does, as determined by the staff in each section.

Some staff were still unsure as to how they would be able to concentrate once they left the isolation of a cellular office and worked in the open. Susan Shayler arranged for a psychologist to undertake two workshops – the first just before the first phase of offices were ready for occupation in April, the second in August, once everyone had moved in.

“During my research into the effectiveness of open plan offices I heard of Jane Owles, who has experience working with training organisations and solicitors in similar circumstances,” says Susan Shayler. “Although she may not have been able to convince some of our people, at least they were able to voice their objections and reservations. It definitely helped staff to get accustomed to the change and demonstrated again how the company valued their contribution, reinforcing the understanding, tolerance, consensus and profound respect for the individual.”

Insight specified all furniture and furnishings, with the final choice made in collaboration with Susan Shayler and Katrina Jenkins, who also took into account any staff preferences. The company decided to retain its own storage units for certain areas, and also their own seating, although some new seating was supplied direct to NAG by Pledge.

Assmann supplied the workstation furniture, as well as storage wall units and tables for the training room, all in maple laminate finish. Sven Christiansen supplied screens for the open plan areas from their SLS range, and the reception desk from the Fulcrum Professional range, in maple veneer.

Susan Shayler commented, “We are delighted with our new offices and our staff enjoy the open aspect and co-ordinated, well thought-out result. They also appreciate that they were consulted on many aspects of the change. Collaboration and efficiency has been improved and, of course, the occupancy costs have been halved. The one issue that has not been resolved – and probably never will be – is the variance in temperatures that staff prefer. However, I was advised by the psychologist that this would always be a bone of contention!”

“We are now planning to take on 10 more developers in the near future, and have been debating how to accommodate them. As the developers have found that the collaborative nature of the desk configurations allows for discussion and exchange of ideas without overly disrupting surrounding colleagues, we do not want to redesign their wing. Whilst the developers’ breakout room has been a terrific success encouraging lively, informal and informative ideas to be discussed, surprisingly, the quiet rooms have not been used as much as we first thought. The more formal meetings rooms are also in great demand. So we will probably use one of the quiet rooms as a workspace, and also change one of the comms rooms into an office, as the comms equipment can easily fit into just one of the existing rooms. Then, if need be, we will create a satellite office in Manchester.”

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Assmann Büromöbel
Insight Workplaces Ltd

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