Workers are being weaned away from the territorial need to have a desk of their own. But are they as happy as their managers are with the economies made through hot-desking, hotelling and open plan?
Novelist Philip Kerr's new book Gridiron gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'intelligent office'. Kerr's state-of-the-art Los Angeles office, the eponymous Gridiron building, is so intelligent (or rather the computer that controls it is) that it does what any self-respecting intelligent building would do if irritated by mere humans: it kills them.
Architects Joanna Eley and Alexi Marmot, co-authors of Understanding Offices, published by Penguin, take a less pathological view of the office but, like the author of Gridiron, think we ought to pay it more attention than we do. They think the contribution that the office makes to business is underestimated. Management books tell you how to lead, how to take decisions, how to reorganise your organisation, even how to thrive on chaos, but what they don't do, say Eley and Marmot, is discuss where all this is taking place - and the where is the important factor.
Of course, a particular style or design of office won't of itself improve an organisation's efficiency but it can facilitate (or impede) business in general and change in particular.
The trend in many companies today is to flatten the hierarchical pyramid, filleting out as many layers of middle management as possible, but trying to do that in an office that itself embodies hierarchical notions through, for example, cellular offices, will be an uphill task. If the office space itself is malleable, easy to change, then the reorganisation of the organisation will be easier.
'If you've got a building that can easily be subdivided in many different ways, you can pursue rapid change,' Eley believes. 'If you have a very rigid building, full of lots of fixtures, rapid change is much more difficult.' The 'where' is important also because of the cost. An office can cost between 10 and 20% of a company's annual revenue to acquire, operate and repair and buildings are the second largest corporate cost after people. Yet very few senior managers know anything about the building they do business in.
'They're responsible for the business's mission statement,' says Eley, 'but too often they're not really close to the people whose job it is to see that the building and its equipment and furnishings properly support the business in achieving that mission.' So what exactly is an office and how does it affect the business? What it's not - and never has been - is just four walls and some floorspace subdivided into working areas. It is that plus the equipment in it - telephones, word processors, copiers - and the people who use the equipment. Seen that way it is more than space, more even than a machine for working in. It is an organism - and it is dynamic.
The equipment actually plays a much more fundamental role in making the office what it is than many people realise. One way of looking at the development of the office over the years is to ask what role things such as the typewriter and telephone have played in the past - and what role they play now.
In the past they acted like a sort of 'glue', says Marmot, 'because people came together in a single location to exploit them and get the most out of them'.
Now, paradoxically, the latest versions of that self-same equipment (the mobile phone, the portable PC, the pocket fax) are acting as a powerful 'solvent', so people have much less need to be together in a central location.
Extrapolate that process and you ultimately reach (indeed, some people already operate rudimentary forms of) the 'virtual office' - not a place as such but a situation, one in which technology can route and re-route communications so effectively that the person being called can be reached wherever they are, without them having to be in any given physical location.
As far as the caller is concerned the person he is calling is, or so his number seems to suggest, in, say, central London, but in fact the call could be being re-routed to, for the sake of argument, a Las Vegas casino where the executive is using one hand to hold his mobile phone and the other one to feed the slot machines.
The 'virtual office' is spookily reminiscent of the test of machine intelligence devised by the great computer scientist, Alan Turing - if a human being putting questions to and receiving answers from a computer behind a screen cannot tell whether the answers are coming from a human or a computer, then the computer can be said to be intelligent.
The virtual office is the ultimate minimalist office of the future, but other radical approaches to office organisation, such as 'hot-desking' and 'hotelling', are already with us. The essence of these systems is weaning workers off what zoologists refer to as the territorial imperative - the almost instinctive need of animals (including humans) to have and to hold a piece of space that is their own.
The theory of hot-desking and hotelling is that staff who are not permanently based in the office cease to own their own desk as such, but, through effective planning ahead, can commandeer a desk whenever they need to spend time in the workplace.
The static notion of office space is replaced by a more dynamic concept which one specialist, Andrew Chadwick of the London-based Chadwick group, refers to as 'space/time'. Analysing the actual use of space over time lets one see the rhythms of the office, the way in which populations of workers actually use the space available.
If that is understood then often the use of space can be altered so that its use over time is optimised. Such systems can work particularly well in companies which have a large number of employees like sales executives or consultants who spend more time in other people's offices than in their own.
'Hotelling or hot-desking is simply a question of taking away the automatic right to a name plate on a door or a desk,' says Chadwick, who has already applied these ideas to organisations like Coopers and Lybrand, Touche Ross and Reuters.
The days when an employee occupied a seat in an office eight hours a day, five days a week are now disappearing, he says. 'Companies still holding onto notions of this kind of culture may find it is costing them dear. Typically, an office building is closed for 15 hours out of the 24 and only full for a fraction of the eight or nine hours it is open. Usage is further diminished by the impact of sickness and holidays. A company may employ consultants who come into the office occasionally, but who take up desk space all of the time, or support staff who are not in all of the time. The only reason why other people can't use these people's desks when they are away is because all their personal bits and pieces are on it. Hotelling is really a question of de-personalising the workstation.' Hot-desking and hotelling mean that a smaller space produces the same or a better output than what preceded it. Another way of making office space more productive, says Alexi Marmot, would be to introduce the idea of shift-working to offices.
'Offices have become much more expensive both to build and to run so you've got to think much harder about how much capital investment you are making for each person in a building. The logical extension of this in a factory setting would be that two or even three shifts should be introduced. There is no reason at all why that could not or should not happen in the case of an office.' Except, of course, convention, and in this case the convention is very strong. 'By and large the social convention of something approaching a nine-to-five day, where the employees travel to the office, is still the norm,' says Eley.
Chadwick thinks the future lies with the space/time approach. Eley and Marmot find the ideas fascinating but are cautious about the extent to which they might be adopted. The office is more than a job, they argue, the desk more than a tool for the task, and people can feel deeply threatened by their loss.
So new ways of planning for people who are often out of the office need to be well prepared, implemented only for those to whom they are really suited, and taken seriously by managers. There must be real advantages to the individuals involved as well as for the organisation, say Eley and Marmot.
'If undertaken merely as a space-saving exercise hot-desking is not likely to be a success.' The feeling of threat is eloquently expressed in the words of staff, quoted in Understanding Offices, who changed to desk-pooling when they moved to a new office.
'We was robbed' says one. 'Why are we the only ones lumbered with this poor system? It wastes time, decreases personal involvement (I'm just a cog, I fit in anywhere), reduces feelings of team involvement.' Another thought it necessary for staff to have somewhere to call their own: 'Work is an important part of most people's lives. It is their status, it is their source of livelihood, aspirations and fulfilment. It is a very insecure world subject to many changes. I think that having one's own little reasonably secure space that can be personalised to a degree is psychologically very important to most people.' Jeremy Myerson, author of The Work Aesthetic and professor of contemporary design at De Montfort University, believes this sort of feeling is widespread. 'People look on desks as an inalienable right. They don't regard it as a privilege but as a basic necessity, so to take away the desk leaves them feeling disenfranchised, disenchanted, displaced.' The new ways of organising space are very attractive to management because they utilise space in a much more effective way and save the company lots of money.
Discovering things like hot-desking is a bit like discovering double-entry book-keeping, says Myerson; you never want to return to the old ways. But the employees aren't so keen.
'From an employee's point of view it's very disorienting because notions of stability and security in jobs are to do with geographical territory. That is what it has been like for hundreds of years. You were given your space in the office and traditionally corporate status was linked to furnishings and space.
'If you were a big cheese in an organisation you got a nice office, a private office with your name on the door, and if you were a really big cheese you had a view ofthe City or Manhattan and a key to the executive washroom. It was all to do with geographical territory. This removes it. Management has removed all the old symbols and barometers of corporate status without providing new ones.' The psychological aspects of change are important even, perhaps particularly, in the most commonly experienced form of change in the office environment - the move from cellular offices to open plan ones.
When mobile phone company Cellnet moved to a new headquarters in Slough earlier this year, managing director Howard Ford decided that everybody, including himself and the other directors, should go open-plan. The office accommodates 600 people but there are no enclosed offices, only meeting rooms which are available to all staff.
'The decision to create an open-plan environment was based on Cellnet's culture of openness, to break down barriers and improve communications,' says Ford. 'It's very difficult to be open with people and communicate efficiently when you sit in an office with a closed door.' The only concession to top management is that Ford and some of the other directors have more space allocated to them, but that is to accommodate items such as meeting tables. A staff survey showed that Cellnet employees believed that communications had improved in the past 12 months.
Open-plan offices, besides being cheaper than a building of enclosed offices, have lots of other advantages, say Eley and Marmot. They facilitate change and improve communications. But they are not universally popular. Indeed, in a peculiar way they can sometimes act as a focus for what people hate about an organisation.
'Buildings are an extremely useful focus for discontent,' says Joanna Eley. 'It is actually much less contentious to say, "I loathe working in the building and the open plan drives me mad", than it is to say "My boss is an absolute bastard who's trying to screw me." Buildings are very useful defusers of angst.' So a great deal more research is needed to improve our understanding of how well (or badly) open plan offices work.
In some countries - such as Sweden - office designers, concerned to get the balance right between the perceived need for privacy and the benefits that flow from a more open-plan arrangement, such as improved communications, have devised a sort of half-way house, the 'combi' office, which tries to have the best of both worlds. It demands a lot of space: each person has a private office for concentrated work and there are small group spaces for teamwork, but absolutely critical to the concept are large, elegant common areas which give people the chance to interact.
Which works best - cellular, open-plan, the combi? There is no objective evidence yet, at least none sufficient to bring about anything approaching a paradigm change in office use - and anyway sometimes the answer is bound be that it's horses for courses.
The best one can hope for - certainly what Eley and Marmot would like to see - is that thinking about issues like these will make people more aware of the possibilities and more aware of the importance their buildings have (or should have) to their businesses.