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How intelligent office design and fit-out can help to foster and facilitate change

Posted on November 30, 2016 by Charles Marks

The central challenge for the owners, occupiers, managers and designers of any office building in a fast moving world is how best to use office design and fit-out to help them create a working environment that meets their needs today, while anticipating those of tomorrow. The conundrum they must resolve is how to square the constantly changing needs of their business with a 10 year building lease which, if you take average figures, will need to accommodate fifteen generations of technology, at least two changes of senior management, a similar number of restructures and culture changes as well as dozens of pieces of legislation during its lifetime.

The answer of course is to build flexibility into the building at every level, including with their office design and fit-out. At the property level, this obviously means a change in contractual terms, notably in the length of leases and the provision of lease breaks. Varying levels of flexibility must also be apparent through the rest of the building in terms of its design and management and it is here – at the level of organisational culture, the individual and technology, that we have seen the most innovation. And it is at this level that change can best be accommodated and anticipated.

For example mobile technology and new working practices mean that people are far more likely to be away from the office for at least some part of the working week. Recent UK Government statistics showed that nearly 5 million people now routinely work away from their main place of work  As firms become more aware of those sorts of issues, and as they adopt more collaborative and flexible forms of working, the more likely they are to make more use of office design that incorporates new working practices, teamworking spaces, desk sharing, drop in zones, break out space and so on. Individual workspace is on the decrease but that is being replaced to a large extent by other types of space, quiet rooms, multi-functional rooms and so on.

If we take an idealised view of the office as a mix of permanent space and a sort of flexible, drop-in centre for a peripatetic, democratised and technologically literate workforce of self-motivated, knowledge workers, it becomes possible to create a flexible workspace even though the building’s lease may be relatively fixed and long term.

Flexibility must be hardwired into the building. Not only must floorplates be capable of accepting a wide range of work styles and planning modules, servicing must be appropriate and anticipate change. That doesn’t mean just in terms of technology and telecoms but also in terms of office design and how it meets basic human needs such as having enough public spaces, including access points and toilets to deal with changing occupational densities. It also means having a HVAC specification that can deal with the changing needs associated with different numbers of people and different types of equipment.

At an interior design level, most talk of flexibility in the past has centred on the need to reconfigure office furniture. The past few years have seen office furniture systems respond by becoming either lighter and more mobile or, paradoxically, more rigid, notably in the form of bench systems which are almost architectural in their scale but which are often shared.

Other elements of the interior office design that were once considered static or semi-static are also having to offer far larger degrees of flexibility. These include lighting, storage and partitioning products as well as carpet tiles and so on.

This is the level of flexibility now demanded by facilities managers, occupiers and owners who have the task of dealing with a level of complexity that was completely unheard of only a few years ago. The need to respond to and anticipate change will continue to be a defining feature of the way we use commercial property for many years and it’s essential that this process begins at the design and fit-out stage.