UK: The technophile office.

UK: The technophile office. - The growth of mobile technologies and the development of flexible working has important implications for the design of the working environment.

by Alicia Clegg.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The growth of mobile technologies and the development of flexible working has important implications for the design of the working environment.

If you are reading this article in an office, stop now and take a look around you. What do you see? Are there rows of heads bent in concentrated endeavour, or do the number of empty seats exceed the number of places that are occupied?

If your response falls into the latter category, your company is with the majority of British businesses.

Surveys conducted by BT and others suggest that at any given point in the working day between 30% and 60% of desks in any office are unoccupied - and the level of utilisation is falling all the time. One major reason for this is the way in which advances in technologies are encouraging firms to become more outward-looking and more mobile.

Information technology has had a profound influence on workstyles for over 20 years. But while the great innovation of the 1980s, which put a PC on every desk, reinforced the convention that wedded individuals to fixed workstations, more recent developments in technology point towards a divorce. By uncoupling the worker from the workstation, mobile technologies are replacing the traditional concept of the office with a new image of flexible working, which says quite simply: 'Your office is where you are.' But how well do the technologies on the market match up to the ideal? Of equal importance, what implications do they hold for the way in which we organise our offices?

Although the recent advances in communications have reduced the difficulty in maintaining contact with staff who are travelling or working away from base, the technology, or rather technologies, still have major shortcomings. A graphic illustration of the problem is the way in which business cards now sport anything up to three telephone numbers - for work, home and the mobile - and as if that were not enough, a fax number and e-mail address as well.

Another uncomfortable feature of the mobile workstyle is the ever-increasing number of essential communications devices that no self-respecting professional would dream of doing without. For some unfortunates, travelling light is a concept that went out of fashion with the invention of the laptop PC. Even the telephone has become a ubiquitous personal accessory with a cordless handset for maintaining contact on site, and a mobile for calls outside company premises.

The key problem, says Peter Osborne, managing consultant at the PA Consulting Group, 'is not the absence of technologies to support flexible working, but rather their lack of coherence'. It is a matter of development not invention. 'The real challenge is to make the systems cheap, fast and simple enough to be worth using,' he adds. That said, there is little doubt that the technologies to support flexible working are improving.

One of the most important trends is the progress that is being made towards integrating different types of communications networks and equipment.

There are many significant developments in IT for use in the way we work.

One-number telephone systems are available today and allow you to receive all your calls on a single number, irrespective of where you are or what phone you are using. Once this is done you can instruct the system to deliver your calls to any telephone line you choose, be that your normal work line, your home line, a mobile phone, a telephone on a client's network or a personal voicemail system. The main advantage over simple call diversion is that you do not have to be at your normal telephone to instruct the system to re-route your calls.

Personal numbering can also apply to faxes, enabling you to nominate the nearest fax machine or fax-compatible PC to receive incoming messages.

Users are alerted to the arrival of a fax by a message which is sent to their mobile phone or pager. They then have the option of collecting the fax, there and then, or instructing the system to store it for retrieval at a more convenient time or place.

Dual-mode handsets are a recent development which should help to reduce the number of communications devices that people have to remember to carry.

Within the firm the handset operates as a normal cordless phone, routing calls over the company's internal network or out onto the public network, at normal fixed-line rates. Outside the company's premises the handset switches over to the cellular GSM network and works as a standard mobile phone.

Most mobile computing is carried out on a laptop PC, linked to a mobile telephone for data transfer. Smaller handheld terminals, dubbed smartphones, which combine the functions of a mobile telephone and PC, are now appearing on the market. The new multi-function devices are reducing the physical difficulties of computing on the move. However, they still suffer from the constraints that limit the speed at which data can travel over mobile phone networks.

While some communications advances are about supporting personal productivity, other developments are focused on enabling firms to capitalise on collective expertise by joining staff from around the world in 'virtual teams'.

Products which have been developed to support this objective include video conferencing. After a slow start, video-conferencing systems are well on their way to becoming a standard feature of the boardroom and are already used by around 85% of the FT Top 500 companies. In addition to using room-based systems, companies now have the option of installing video-conferencing capabilities on desktop PCs.

For example, the international drugs company, Cortecs, uses desktop video-conferencing to hold weekly meetings between senior managers based in London, Singapore, Perth and Sydney. Audio-conferencing products also allow dispersed groups of people to take part in a common telephone conversation, using their ordinary telephone handsets or mobiles. The service is bookable at a few minutes' notice.

Then, of course, there are the web-based technologies. Large organisations are increasingly using web technologies and protocols to build an internal version of the internet, called an intranet. The networks enable dispersed teams to communicate over e-mail and form an electronic store of corporate knowledge which is accessible to anyone in the organisation. Some of the large multinational corporations, including General Electric, have given their suppliers and clients access to selected parts of their networks in order to improve and accelerate purchasing processes.

Despite the many problems that can beset the mobile worker if a piece of technology lets the user down, more and more companies are encouraging, or at least allowing, their staff to adopt flexible working patterns. A recent survey conducted for BT by Prodata indicates that almost three-quarters of organisations which employ over 1,000 people now have some form of flexible working arrangements in place. The oddity is that while workstyles are visibly changing, office layout has remained remarkably static, often reflecting conventions that pre-date the appearance of mainframe computers.

Frank Duffy, a founding partner in DEGW, a London-based practice of architects and consultants, has worked extensively in developing measurements to assess the impact of office design on business performance. The criteria that he has adopted differentiate between what is efficient and what is effective in office design. 'Efficiency means driving down occupancy costs in order to use space as efficiently as possible,' he says. Effectiveness, on the other hand, he sees as something that is more fundamental to the overall performance of the business. 'Put simply, it means using available space in ways that improve the quality of the work being performed in the office - in other words adding value to the business.' In most firms, Duffy concludes, the failure of workplace design to keep pace with developments in IT has become a source of both inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

At an intuitive level, few companies disagree with the logic of rationalising the use of office space to achieve savings in occupancy costs - hence the increased amount of interest in hot-desking and hoteling systems which allocate desk space between individuals on a time-share basis. The only problem is that whatever the logic of the situation, individually we remain territorial at heart, with a stubborn attachment to what we see as our own personal space. A recent survey of employee attitudes in major UK companies, conducted by the PA Consulting Group, suggests that 90% of the workforce actively dislike or even fear the prospect of losing sole ownership of their desks.

PA's Osborne recognises the magnitude of the problem but still expects that the use of time-share systems will grow to reflect the proportion of time that staff actually spend in the office. 'The financial pressure to reduce the costs of occupation will mean that staff will be forced to accept hot-desking.' The real challenge, for employers, he adds, will be to find ways of selling hot-desking to their staff.

The paradox of our attachment to personally owned space is that it often fails to provide for our changed needs. Uniform workstations may have suited a world in which most office work was routine and standardised but they palpably fail to meet the requirements of workforces that are expected to carry out a multiplicity of functions, ranging from jobs that demand an intense amount of concentration through to collaboration with other people.

Richard Saxon, chairman of BDP, a London-based firm of architects and engineers, thinks that the solution to our love-hate relationship with the fixed work-station is to ally the mobility afforded by new communications to a more a varied approach to workplace design. 'Cordless technologies are allowing us to shift the focus of office design from committing floor space to individuals to providing a range of working environments that are equipped to cater for a variety of needs,' he says.

Break the mind-set which puts individually-owned desks at the centre of the office universe, and you have the scope to reduce the costs of occupancy and the freedom to create more effective working environments.

The biggest danger, of course, warns DEGW's Duffy, is that some firms will implement desk-sharing systems merely as a device to reduce occupancy costs. Those that do are almost guaranteed to lose out in the long run, because employees will quite rightly interpret the change as an effective downgrading of their working conditions - with the inevitable consequences for morale and productivity. So how should companies go about redesigning their working environment to achieve an optimal balance between reducing costs and supporting new styles of working?

Obviously there are no hard-and-fast rules. However, the experience of companies which have already been through the process of reorganising their environments and their workstyles suggests that some general themes do tend to recur. One of the most important requirements, according to Mike Brookes, property director at IBM, is to understand the different workstyles that co-exist within the organisation. 'In some departments, such as sales and marketing, over half our staff may not have a dedicated desk. In other departments, where the nature of the work is screen-based, only a small minority could work effectively without a personal workstation.'

It is also important to understand how the patterns of mobile working differ between teams. 'You have to know why mobile workers come into the office and how long they stay. That is fundamental to providing the right mix of support resources, such as team meeting-rooms, video-conferencing facilities or touchdown IT centres equipped with laptop connection points or desktop PCs,' says Brookes.

Another typical observ ation is that firms often underestimate the amount of communal space that is needed to compensate for the loss of dedicated work-stations, and to encourage more informal interaction between staff. Neil Mclocklin, of BT's Workstyle Consultancy Group, observes that the proportion of social space in the organisation's new offices has risen constantly, as the amount of space which is individ-ually owned has fallen.

Mclocklin also discerns a significant change in the way that mobile workers are using the buildings. 'The development of remote access technologies mean that people no longer need to come to the office to pick up their messages, or to make and receive calls.' So why do they come? 'They come to meet other people, to use the project rooms and then they disperse,' he concludes.

A bigger social role for the office carries some significant implications for workplace design. Duffy, for example, advocates including features that will encourage interaction between individuals and departments. One strategy that he recommends is to co-locate public facilities, such as major meeting rooms, restaurants and training areas, to increase the probability of people making chance encounters. Another technique is to replace confined lifts with escalators which allow people to see and be seen more easily.

Both of these tactics were employed by the architects, BDP, in designing a new head-quarters for the Opel car company at Russelsheim in Germany.

BDP's Saxon also foresees a much greater emphasis being placed on the social aspects of work in the future. 'Mobile workstyles can isolate people, so an increasingly important function of the office will be to provide a central gathering point, which will bond the firm together.' In some ways he says: 'It will come to resemble a club.'

So, if you are still troubled by the empty rows of seats in your office, do not despair. Perhaps your colleagues are just outside the door networking in the lobby.

BT works itself free from the constraints of location and time

Replacement of an ageing and outdated property portfolio has gone hand in hand with cultural change at BT. By the early 1990s the drab appearance of its properties had become an unflattering reminder of the telephone company's public sector heritage. The use of advanced communications technology by staff was notable for its absence, and few of the offices had the capabilities to support the new flexible forms of working that BT's management deemed vital to its future.

The ageing building-stock was not only failing to support the company's business aspirations, it had also become a serious drain on resources.

'We calculated that the company was wasting around £100 million per annum on underutilised office space,' says Neil Mclocklin, head of BT's Workstyle Consultancy Group.

To tackle these problems, BT embarked in the mid-1990s on a major project designed to modernise its anachronistic property estate and support the programme of cultural change which was already under way in the organisation. The main objectives of the continuing project, known internally as Workstyle 2000, are modernising the company's office stock to achieve long-term cost savings, and promoting more effective workstyles. An important facet of this is using technology to enable flexible working, which Mclocklin defines as 'working free from the constraints of location and time'.

Some five years into the programme, BT has opened a total of four regional Workstyle centres and claims to be well on the way to reducing the running costs on its leasehold estate from over £400 million to just £160 million by the year 2000. About a quarter of the company's 60,000 office workers are equipped to work flexibly and use the capability to improve their personal productivity, particularly on days spent away from the office.

A small minority of flexible workers, around 2,000 in all, no longer possess a permanent office base and are described as home-based.

As well as providing an office base for a proportion of the workforce, the new centres provide a common resource for all company employees. Each building features a variety of 'touchdown' areas, equipped with desktop PCs or connections for laptops, for use by visiting staff. Other facilities, such as video-conferencing units, audio-conferencing and remote access to the company's large intranet, have been laid on to encourage working in virtual teams.

A very popular technology, says Mclocklin, who regularly works from home, is the virtual number service, which employees can access from anywhere in the country in order to redirect their calls to a convenient phone.

Exploiting its own communications services has also enabled the company to use office space more efficiently. Much of BT's working data is now stored electronically, and that has substantially reduced the amount of space which had been consumed by filing. Other initiatives which have improved the utilisation of floor space include introducing time-shared desk systems and encouraging the use of restaurants and cafes for informal meetings.

Office designers show that they practise what they preach When Frank Duffy qualified as an architect in the 1960s, he made an unusual decision to specialise in office design. His choice was surprising because at that time office projects brought low prestige and offered few opportunities for demonstrating originality. What most clients wanted was something functional and low cost - in Duffy's own words, 'cheap accommodation for cheap clerks'.

More than 30 years on, attitudes are beginning to change. The imperative from the client to reduce occupancy costs is stronger than at any time in the past. But there is also a growing interest in how space should be used both to minimise cost and to enhance the productivity of its occupants.

In 1997, the partners at DEGW, Duffy's company, felt it was time to rethink their own working practices to reflect the company's rapid growth.

To support these changes they embarked on a major redesign of their London headquarters, near King's Cross.

'The project demonstrated that as a company we practise what preach,' says Duffy. The workstyles at DEGW resemble the patterns that are emerging in many advanced organisations, in which work is becoming more technologically reliant and staff more mobile. A particular characteristic of this pattern is the way in which some team members need to collaborate with colleagues but also work independently on tasks that require concentration. 'What we needed was a fluid working environment that would cater for all of our needs,' says Duffy.

At the start of the project, the firm looked at how different groups of workers were making use of space. One conclusion drawn was that the directors and associate directors of the firm, who were typically out of the office for over 40% of the week, had no real requirement for assigned workspaces. In fact, it was concluded that they would be better served by a system in which individuals were free to occupy space on an 'as needed basis'.

A great deal of thought was given to integrating cordless and mobile technologies to support the various workstyles of the firm. All of the mobile workers are now supported by laptops and cordless phones which enable them to move freely around the different office zones. Later this year, the company plans to install a wireless local area network. This will enable laptop users to access the company's network from literally anywhere in the office, without having to sit within reach of a network connection point.

For staff who spend most of their time in semi-permanent project teams, the company installed a high-performance cabling system which has the ability to support different types of voice and data equipment on a common infrastructure. 'This means that we can create and dissolve work teams as the work demands without having to worry about the cost of moving cabled desk-top equipment,' says IT manager Ron Harrison.

DEGW expects that its reorganisation will allow it to accommodate a projected 27% increase in headcount. It has also created an environment which is better adapted to collaborative teamwork. 'It's more interactive, while respecting everyone's need for privacy,' says Duffy. All in all, he says, it is a better place to work. 'In fact it is a lot more fun.'.

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