Office Design

By Penny Bonda, FASID

Office design, by its very nature, cannot be neatly categorized or defined, for just as there are an almost endless number of workplace types, so must their design reflect this variety. People's offices can be found in traditional office buildings, in their homes, at a hospital nurses' station or even an airplane cockpit.

The first task of the office designer, however, is always the same: to determine the user's specific needs and requirements. This exercise, called programming, can be as simple as personal interviews with the people involved or a highly sophisticated and comprehensive study of every aspect of the business. Data is gathered and work processes are studied through surveys, questionnaires and direct observation. During this process the designer will ask the client to define his or her business objectives and goals for the project, and then will integrate this information with the programming data to begin the schematic design.

Many important decisions are based on the results of the programming. Adjacencies are established, space standards are set, and the very nature of the work is determined. How much space is needed may well be the first decision to be made. Will the office be designed with a mix of private offices and open stations, or not? How many conference and meeting rooms are needed, and will they be conventional or scattered informally for impromptu communication? What amenities will be provided, for the individuals within their workspaces and for the group? Will existing furnishings be reused? How will future growth be accommodated?

The office designer will use tools such as blocking, stacking and bubble diagrams to begin to define the space, or in some cases to determine if the space is even feasible. At this point in the process the designer is often working in concert with real estate representatives to assess different properties the client is considering. It is clear that the accuracy of the programming data is critical to making an informed decision. Once a property is selected, the floor plan is finalized and planning begins for finishes and furnishings. Many factors will influence these choices including functional needs, aesthetics, budget considerations, ergonomics and environmental options. Numerous studies have shown that office workers are bothered most often by noise, inferior lighting, lack of control over air temperature and poor indoor air quality. These factors contribute to diminished worker productivity that, in turn, will lower profits. Conversely, there is empirical evidence of gains of more than 15 percent in worker productivity when building occupants are provided with acoustical and temperature control, appropriate task and ambient lighting, and healthy air. It is, therefore, extremely important that the decisions made at this juncture elevate the quality of life for the office occupants. The current tight labor market further reinforces the importance of a nurturing environment. Surveys show that potential employees highly value workplaces that demonstrate a firm's commitment to a well cared-for workforce.

A broad variety of workspace options have emerged in recent years that have moved away from the concept of the private office and have re-engineered the workplace. Whether or not these alternative strategies are utilized will often depend on the corporate culture, the diversity of the workforce and their need for mobility. The most commonly used include:

  • Non-Dedicated Workspaces: Space is allocated on an as-needed basis or to support a specific or temporary function.
    • Hoteling: Workspace is reserved in advance for a specified length of time.
    • Free Address (or Just-In-Time): Unassigned workspaces are used on a first-come, first-served basis.
    • Group Address: Space is dedicated to a team or group for the duration of a specific project or task.
    • Shared Workspace: Two or more shifts of workers share one workstation.
  • Interactive Workspaces: Work areas are designed to be flexible and to support teams as they shrink or expand.
    • Caves and Commons: A dedicated open group space is surrounded by individual offices or workstations.
    • Activity Centers: The setting is designed to support specific group activities.
    • Team Suites: Project teams are co-located for a specific period of time or until the completion of the task.
  • Autonomous Workspaces: Workplace alternatives independent from the traditional office setting.
    • Telecommuting: The ability to work at home, full or part time, and be technologically connected to the office.
    • Satellite Office: A fully supported facility provided to groups of workers closer to their homes.
    • Virtual Office: The ability to work anytime, anywhere, i.e., from a hotel room, on an airplane, in a car.
The success of the office project is dependent not only on the designer's proper response to the client's current needs but also on the ability of the workspace to change as business changes. Even the most traditional organizations are reconfiguring due to the rapid rise of new computer and communication technologies. Employee expectations are high, and many have come to expect amenities such as natural light, operable windows, impromptu activity settings, and break rooms that offer more than the usual coffee machine. Professional facility design is a proven strategic device for attracting and retaining a topnotch workforce, leading to better work, higher sales, increased customer satisfaction and, eventually, to improved financial success.

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