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Rank and job title no longer equals square footage

Technology creating an evolution in office design

The office of the future has no walls. And it’s getting smaller, too.

Not to fret. The new standard is applying across the board, with rank and job title no longer fitting a model or tiered design. In many instances, the team leader works next to team members and across the room from a manager and a manager’s manager.

It’s not quite one big happy family yet, but architects and designers and decision-makers in the $9.5-billion office furniture industry are hustling to deliver the right products to today’s new workplaces.

For instance, taking the water cooler concept, which folks huddled around to churn the rumor mill, company execs are asking for plenty of meeting spaces with access to televisions, fax machines, newspapers, moveable work stations, even kitchenettes, in new office facilities.

The office buildings of the 1960s, when cubicles began to rule the roost, are getting a makeover, too, as companies downsize, reengineer, change hierarchical structures and shift to a teamwork approach. Offices are being reconfigured to accommodate smaller workspaces, multiple team rooms and team areas and to accommodate technological requirements for the latest gadgetry.

“Individual work desks are getting smaller while the technology that supports them is getting bigger, and we’re seeing much more attention to common space,” said Richard McNeel, AIA, head of Mississippi-based JBHM’s design division. “In addition, collaborative efforts are extremely important, as there’s a trend toward more teams in the workplace as opposed to an employer’s reliance on individual work.”

Workspaces are shrinking for a variety of reasons, primarily because of the shift toward paperless offices. In short, there’s less stuff to store. Palm Pilots alone have reduced daily planning notebooks to, well, a box slightly larger than a palm.

To make up for the lack of space, architects and designers are actually generating “white noise” to drown out distracting background noise, such as nearby phone conversations, chit chat around the corner or outbursts from team meeting spaces.

“Most office sounds travel through light fixtures and acoustic ceiling tiles,” McNeel said. “We were adding insulation and taking walls up, but that costs money. The traditional way of dealing with acoustics, or white noise, has been through the installation of carpet, fabric, step ceilings or lots of baffles, and they will continue to be used, but we’re also finding that it’s less expensive to, say, add a sound generator in the ceiling.”

More good news for employees: task lighting is replacing florescent and incandescent overhead lighting, thereby reducing computer screen glare and ergonomic chairs are replacing those that pivot under “behinds,” which have been responsible for many back-related discomforts.

“Technology-wise, a lot of experimentation is going on in furniture design, such as incorporating keyboards in the arms of chairs and visors that drop down over your head with digital displays,” McNeel said. “A lot of these are good for graphic designers to utilize space. I don’t think we’d see those solutions necessarily in an insurance company office.”

The new buzzwords of office design options in today’s techno-savvy workplace sound odd: Cave and Commons. Hot Desking. Hoteling.

The “cave and commons” design accommodates the need for individual concentration in small, enclosed and assigned workspaces, with the flexibility to adapt for team communication. This concept, which groups private workspaces around larger communal team areas, works well in settings like ad agencies.

“About six years ago, a new workstation was designed for the ‘new team environment,’ called a ‘round cubicle’ or ‘personal harbor,’ that is technically a three-sided box with an edge on the front,” McNeel said. “The doors slides for privacy, but it only takes up 45 square feet. It has adjustable lighting, a stereo and a table that can be rolled out on casters and rolled to a team space. For example, if we’re working on a project, I could roll everything on my desk to a conference table, collaborate with a team, then roll it back into my own individual work sphere. The dead, or negative, space is used for storage and cabling.”

John Turner, manager of real estate operations for Entergy, said the Entergy Powerhouse on Echelon Parkway in Jackson, an executive conference center, is set up with “personal harbors.”

“We get comments from employees and visitors that it’s a very functional environment in which to work,” Turner said. “They can come in and shut the door and feel like they have privacy for personal work during conference breaks and similar occasions. I have received a lot of favorable comments on the functionality and convenience.”

“Hot desking” sounds sexy, but it’s not. It’s an office design option that represents movable and quickly assembled individual workspaces. This set-up is common for temporary employees, or when telecommuters come into an office for a brief spell.

The “hoteling” approach works well for companies with employees such as sales reps, consultants, auditors and telecommuters, that are outfitted with cell phones, laptops and other technical tools on a daily basis. It’s a temporary office for the traveling employee who comes into the office on a limited basis. Like a hotel room, but without the bed. Companies like AT&T, IBM and major accounting firms have embraced this system.

“The hoteling concept has been around for a couple of years,” McNeel said. “For instance, insurance people in the field don’t need a full office. With this concept, they come in, grab a rolling file cabinet stored on a wall, roll it to an empty cubicle and set up an office for the day. They work out of it, manage their accounts, have team meetings, lock it up, put it back it on the wall and go out in the field for two weeks. They don’t need a permanent office, but they do need personal space when it’s time to be there for a day or two.”

Here’s a look at other new office design terms and definitions:

• Non-territorial workspaces: assigned to the worker who gets there first.

• Huddle spaces: informal meeting areas.

• Learning spaces: areas for interactive learning.

• Team spaces: large, unobstructed group workstations.

• Home office: employee workspace at home.

• Virtual office: employee workspace wherever he is.

• Telecenters: branch offices in the field.

“Every business model is a little different,” McNeel said. “By analyzing the company’s needs and functional issues, a design is created that makes the company more profitable, and that’s the bottom line for companies, as they adapt to technology in shaping office space.”

To tie it all together nicely, convergence will bring convenience in office technology and will mesh well with the new office options.

“One of the biggest trends in office technology is voice over IP where you’re actually getting the convergence of voice, data and video on one line,” said Mike McDade, sales manager at Business Communications Inc. (BCI) in Ridgeland. “E-mail, voice mail, phone messages and faxes, plus being able to conduct video conferencing from the pipes that are already coming into one desktop — that is real close.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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