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Space for Change

14 October 2009

The shape of the office as we know it may continue to change, argues Ann Clarke, but that doesn’t mean its vital role at the heart of the organisation will diminish in difficult economic times when the focus is on short term cost savings.

Cable & Wireless, Bracknell

THE SCANDALISED RESPONSE to the role of the bonuses culture in the recession has followed a familiar trajectory. The initial outrage was focused on the size of the bonuses, the rewards for failure. The biggest problem according to some commentators is the short-termism that the current bonuses culture inculcates.
Short-term thinking is also the response of some other businesses to the recession. Tough decisions have been taken by many companies, not least those that involve letting staff go, but each week the business media has been full of appeal from commentators and business leaders not to lose sight of the longer term picture. Investment in training and research and development has been the focus of many of these appeals but it is equally apposite for investments in facilities.
The recession has focussed more attention on the FM profession, as it invariably does. The economics are clear. After staff, buildings are easily the second highest item of expenditure for the majority of organisations. It’s a fact hardwired into the programming of most FMs but which may be disregarded to some extent at other times by some organisations. That may well be less true right now as moves to reduce costs have highlighted the importance of FM as a driver of efficiencies.
One of the more obvious ways of doing this is to reduce the size of the organisation’s property requirement. Reducing the size of workstations. This has already been going on for some time, driven not by the recession but by new technology. In the latest edition of its Guide to Specification, the BCO reported that the average density of the office workplace had increased by around 40 per cent since 1997. The survey prompted the BCO to up its density standard to 8-13 sq m per person from the previous 12-17 sq m. The new average benchmark for the office environment has been set at 10 sq m.
Even the government has been keeping up. The subject has been debated in Parliament and the Office of Government Commerce has produced a report with DEGW on the subject and another report from IPD Occupiers has advocated new recommendations for workspace efficiency standards in government buildings, ‘Efficiency Standards for Office Space’. According to the IPD report; 'On average government offices are occupied about 25 percent less efficiently with a sixth of them occupied at more than 24 sq m per person. This position needs to change. Departments should aim to provide a maximum of 12sq m per person in all their buildings and across their estates.
All this talk of raising densities in conjunction with the economic downturn appears to have resurrected an old debate, namely whether we need offices at all. A recent report in Human Resources magazine typifies the debate as it made the following report: “HR magazine exclusively polled senior HR professionals on their ideas of what a head office of the future would look like, and found although 67 percent of organisations - and 87 percent of companies with a turnover over £1bn - are cost cutting at head office, 34 percent have no plans for the future shape of their organisation. The research, in association with Egremont, also found that by 2014 23 percent of respondents hope for more decentralised approach to head office power and 14 percent hope for a 'virtual' head office, staffed by flexible workers, homeworkers or global workers. This means the days of the archetypal boss giving orders from his head office, could be numbered.”
We’ve been here before. I recall reading in PFM in the mid 1990s, a feature headlined ‘The Office is Dead, Long Live the Office’. It appeared in the first flurry of interest in what we then referred to as ‘New Ways of Working’ and was typical of current trends towards the adoption of flexible working and desk sharing and concluding that the office as we knew it was a goner.
What we now see with the benefit of hindsight is that while the world we knew was indeed about to disappear, what has replaced it is very different to many of the prognoses. While personal workstations have diminished in size, desk sharing is not as prevalent as we once thought. Similarly, the predicted army of homeworkers has failed to materialise, replaced by an army of always-on-the go peripatetic tech-enabled knowledge workers, working from wherever they happen to find themselves.
The major factor that has diverted workplace culture away from the predictions of the 1990s futurologists has been human nature. People like their own space and firms know that it is no good addressing employees as their major asset, only to see them walk out of the door because they don’t want to sit in a different place in the office whenever they are in. Similarly, homeworking is not for everybody. We are social animals and while some people have no trouble motivating themselves and developing coping mechanisms for isolation, other people struggle.
It is human nature (in conjunction with the response it elicits from the organisation) that forms the prism through which we must view the results of surveys like that from Human Resources magazine. What will the organisation of the future look like if we were to create a ‘virtual head office’ and do away with the clear lines of communication that is inherent in the current structure of the workplace? How will we manage?
What is most likely given our experience so far in addressing these sorts of questions is that while the role and the shape of the office may change, it is likely to be in ways we cannot yet envisage clearly. I would argue that the fundamental functions of the office will not change. It will never be fully ‘virtual’ because that would be to erode its important role as a touchstone of identity for the organisation.
What I can foresee is the continuation of current trends, which is always a good place to start. Offices will continue to get leaner, supporting more people from the same or less space. There will be even greater emphasis on space utilisation at the expense of space density. As a result space will be designed and managed more intelligently, with better, faster and more intuitive technology. There will be even more focus on social spaces, in particular to support the needs of mobile workers and visitors to the building. There will be an ever greater emphasis on identity, both for clients and employees as a way of binding everybody to the organisation. It will still be the glue of the business.
All of this will inevitably demand a response from a wide range of professions, designers, architects, engineers, HR, IT and in many ways at the heart of it all - FM. These are exciting times but the vital role of the office will not dim for some time yet. Certainly we should never ignore that role for the sake of short term cost savings.

Caption: When Cable and Wireless relocated to a new headquarters in Bracknell earlier this year, they seized that opportunity to change the way they used space as part of a wide ranging reassessment of working practices. The move allowed Cable and Wireless the chance to reduce their space requirement from over 100,000 sq ft to around 64,000 sq ft to serve over 600 staff plus ancillary staff.


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