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Designed for Work

18 March 2011

Today’s ‘office’ is unrecognisable compared to 25 years ago. PFM asked Ann Inman, a close watcher of the evolution of office environments, what a more flexible way of working means for the role of FMs now and in the future.

PFM: "First, tell us a little bit about your background in the FM industry and in the office interiors business. How have things have changed?"
Ann: "I’ve been in the industry since 1989, when the standard office furniture at the time was heavy, panel-based and pretty immovable stuff – when you needed people trained in assembly, with special toolkits, to put them together and take them apart. They were not pieces of furniture you would want to move very often. That’s the big difference really – the fixed natureof office furniture reflected more regimented ways of working which are now much more open and flexible – much more about people and how they work best and less about the rigid control of the working environment. So I’ve seen quite a lot of change in office design, and in the way that companies in the office furniture, design and fit-out business have developed their services and their approaches accordingly. Of course, as the work context changes, managers have also had to learn new ways of working, and FMs are constantly faced with the challenges of managing people and what you might call the ‘effective workplace’, not just the buildings, spaces and facilities. I’m still associated with the industry, on a consultancy basis in Echo Marketing, working with a number of companies in the sector, and with Harrow Green in particular, which is a good example of a company that’s developed its service offer to fit the demands of today’s FM market. "
PFM: "What do you think have been the main drivers for change?"
Ann: "I think there have been three main areas that have accounted for the rapid change we have seen – technology, legislation and people. People don’t work, and won’t work, the way we have done in previous generations. There’s plenty of compelling research around to suggest that productivity is linked to the work environment. People work in less formal ways with more independence and flexibility both about how they work and where they work. On the other hand, they need the support and collaboration of colleagues and managers, and a sense of belonging. So that move away from being tied to your desk, and being seen to be working, to more open and trusted ways of working sets up some tensions, and one of the main challenges for FMs is getting that balance right. "
PFM: "You mentioned technology. Laptops, email and mobile technology have all changed the way we work."
Ann: "Yes. We don’t always need to be in the office. And when we are we spend more of our time on the phone, texting, emailing, even on social networks, making it harder to separate social spaces from workspaces. Everything has speeded up, and though we don’t create quite as much paper as we once did, we certainly send more emails than we ever sent letters. And pretty well everyone takes care of their own correspondence and communications. Not having the central pool of typists and filing clerks that every office once had has also changed the way office spaces are configured. We’re seeing a more networked approach to working in teams, and more mobility."
PFM: "The fact that we’re having this conversation in the local coffee shop with just a laptop between us is indicative of the way we’ve moved on."
Ann: "The effective office has to take account of that, with a lot more movement in and out of a smaller office space. That has environmental advantages in terms of the carbon footprint, but it also has economic benefits by reducing the occupation costs per employee. Mostly now we see open offices, often still with a cell structure, and separate meeting rooms plus informal meeting spaces or breakout areas. Different industries will have different configurations. As you’d expect, creative agencies work in much more interactive and collaborative, looser spaces than, say, the legal professions, who might retain more formality. But the changes run throughout business. Interestingly, while office simpler as a result, office chairs have got more sophisticated as designers respond to new ergonomic research and development."
PFM: "How do you think the changes we’ve seen have affected the role of the FM?"
Ann: "The pace of technological change and its impact on the workplace means that people at work are constantly being asked to adjust to new ways of working and to develop new skills as well. The big word is ‘change’. Managing change and steering people through the transition, whether it’s an office move or a departmental restructure, means that FMs have a greater need to involve people in the change process. They need to learn how to handle staff concerns and fears of change. You have to take people with you on the journey, and you can’t do that without good communications skills, and processes for engaging people with the changes that will affect them. "
PFM: "How has the office interiors industry adapted to changes in the workplace?"
Ann: "A lot of the change we have seen has of course been design led, so innovation in design has helped stimulate that change. But when businesses look for help with a planned change programme, they are often seeking a single solution, someone who can move the office, plan the move programme, design the space, supply the furniture, manage the utilities, fit-out the new office, move or install servers and desktops, even manage the filing systems, and of course work with the staff on the implementation of the changes. Generally speaking, specialists in office design and furniture supply have not found it as easy as the removals industry to evolve their offer to combine all these capabilities.
"It’s been interesting to see how Harrow Green’s business has changed in parallel with the evolution of the workplace. Moving is for those relocating a complete change of environment. So Harrow Green’s hands-on experience of moving people has led them into the development of a wider project management role. They saw the opportunity to design and build the spaces people are moving into, and to source furniture across the whole supply base. If you’re moving the whole office you need the skills to move IT as well, and engineers to rebuild the IT infrastructure. So their technology division grew out of business relocation, and similarly offsite records management grew out of the more traditional warehousing and inventory management services they provided as a major commercial removals company."
PFM: "Where are we heading?"
Ann: "There’s a lot of research and advice on the workplace to draw on, but do we have anyone who stands out from the crowd as Frank Duffy did back in the nineties? Do we lack an office interiors ‘guru’ to predict the future? If we do, maybe that’s because the future is already here. We've gone through the revolution. But I think there is still some way to go before we find the right balance between flexible, mobile working and ‘going to the office’.
"There are still questions, perhaps, about what an office space is ‘for’, and what that means for management style and employer/employee elationships. That’s one of the main questions raised in the recently published report produced by BIFM and Leesman*, about remote working and flexible work patterns will increasingly affect workspace design and management style. Incidentally, the report did also conclude that companies recognise the value of the workplace as an asset, and the contribution professional FMs play in this period of transition, so that’s reassuring news for your readers.
"If anything, the role of the FM will increase in importance as companies seek to attract and retain staff and provide more facilities, like gyms, showers, and recognise the importance of the office environment as a positive contribution not only to productivity but to a balanced and managed lifestyle for all employees.
Ann Inman’s consultancy, Echo Marketing works with Harrow Green, and she has also worked with several workplace design and furniture companies over the years.
Harrow Green began trading in 1983, offering a commercial and domestic moving and storage service. Today, Harrow Green’s services include records management, IT and specialist relocation as well as office interior design and construction. Harrow Green’s commercial relocation business has become a much wider and holistic programme of solutions for the facilities management industry, and for businesses moving, changing and growing.

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