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by Bob Brooke

Within the last year, the office design industry has been flooded with new trends. "What we're seeing the most is the need for lots and lots of flexibility and for teams to be regrouped or moved around on a daily basis," said Irene Pujol, director of interior design of H2L2, a Philadelphia architectural firm. "And the only way to achieve that--especially in some cases if it's that often--is to have flexible workstations or a one-size-fits- all concept. For those who need to team up, furniture must be on casters so it can be rearranged by the workers themselves." Rymshaw asks his client's executives to explain their business plan to him. "How the work done in a space relates to the business plan is very important," he said.

One of the biggest trends is consolidation--bringing people together in less space and still making it an efficient process. Some companies are consolidating by taking employees from rental space in other parts of the country and bringing them together in one place so that communication and idea generating can happen easily.

"Bringing everyone together into an owned building rather than using rental space outside of company headquarters is catching on fast," Rymshaw said. "which means that companies get into a process of figuring out what kind of space their people really need to work in. Do they need an 8x10-foot work station, or is a 6x8-foot with the right storage and right counter space enough? How can they downsize? How can they get rid of the levels? The way businesses save space today is by efficient space planning, actually building in flexibility for change by not over stratifying the company. "

Along these same lines, video conferencing has become popular. "This is also an important trend because it means that a meeting can now handle a lot more people," added Rymshaw. "But there's also the perception that a company is saving money on real estate and travel time, even though these rooms cost a fortune to build. Companies aren't disrupting an employee's day by asking him or her to fly into headquarters for a meeting. With many firms, the flexibility issue is in bringing everyone together."

"We're creating telecommunication rooms that can do sophisticated presentations through video conferencing," said Rymshaw. "The idea of an employee being able to hook up his or her laptop anywhere and do desktop presentations on the screen in the front of the room has become attractive to many companies."

Some companies are more up on this than others. The more technology driven a company is in what they make or what they do, the more technology has become a part of its life. Bristol Meyers Squibb is just getting into this. For SEI it's a natural.

"We can build modules, depending on furniture system, that are more efficient for circulation," Rymshaw said. "Depending on the furniture system we use, we can create more privacy or encourage more communication by how we set up these modules. So the other trend is in using systems furniture and how it's becoming more universal, more flexible and more technology driven. Every department in a firm has a different way of working, so the system should allow for flexibility. We can encourage employees to work a certain way by the way we build their workstations. In doing so, we're answering the firm's business plan while making sure their employees have everything they need to work. But, at the same time, we also give the facilities group the ability to maintain inventory."

Joan Heilly, vice president for facilities at GMAC, notes that if it weren't for their new modular workstations, her job would be twice as hard. "The new systems are helping us cope with overcapacity," she said. "Because of all the flexibility that was built into the design, we can take a manager's station and divided it into two analysts' workstations in a matter of minutes."

User Friendly Office Furniture
And office furniture has become a lot more user friendly. A unique invention, called a sit- stand, allows for greater flexibility by giving the user the ability to go from a sitting position to a standing one. "This device is especially useful in a computer call center," said Morgan. "An employee has the ability to stand up while on the phone with a customer simply by pressing a lever under the work surface, which allows the whole surface to rise with him."

According to Michael Shannon, market manager for Herman Miller Associates, office furniture manufacturer, the ongoing trend is open environment. "It used to be that everyone had their own cubicle," he said, "but now it's more common to work in twos or fours with a shared conference table. Many of the new furniture designs feature a quarter of a round table for each of four persons, which can be pushed together to make a round conference table."

Alternative office design is all about creating an environment that enhances the ability of an employee to work smarter. Communication is important. But the downside of an open environment is what to do if an employee needs to have a confidential conversation or what to do if he or she needs to focus on a specific project.

With an open environment, getting power to employee workstations can also be a problem. "Normally, wires would be mounted on divider panels," said Shannon. "But as electrical and data needs continue to grow, companies are turning to floating power sources above workstations, allowing employees to work anywhere in a multi functional space." SEI works with drop-down power "pythons" to which employees can plug into.

Today's designer needs to understand how people are going to want to work through their day using the technology available today. "For the 20 somethings, it's natural," said Rymshaw. "They're ready for the next step. But some of the 45 and up crowd have taken to alternative office design with a passion and some haven't. It's very generational."

Designing an office space to fit the needs of users is called "officing" in industry jargon. But many new designs use "hoteling." Traveling consultants reserve space in the home office on an as-needed basis. Individual lockers provide permanent storage space for their belongings. "Moteling" is another design industry buzzword. In this case, traveling employees, in town for a quickie visit, can reserve a bare-bones workspace in a regional office

Hoteling, an alternative to officing, was instituted to save work space during the economic downturn eight years ago. "It was a way of trying to save square footage," Rymshaw said.

"Designers tried to apply the concept to everyone. But employees still needed a sense of place, a place to keep their belongings. However, if a firm's marketing department travels four days week and all their real estate is vacant, then that department is ripe for being given lockers in which to keep their personal belongings. And they make reservations to use work space when they're going to be in the office. It works just like a hotel, the spaces are all there allocated for use by this department, but you don't have your own personal space."

In fact, even corporate interior designers like Rymshaw, Pujol and Morgan all agree that the current buzzwords are just fancy names for concepts that have been in use all along. They all represent different ways use a workplace. Today, re-designing an office is a much more dynamic process of analysis of how departments and business plans align with the workplace configuration. You don't just stick a bunch of workstations in an office anymore," said Morgan..

Everyone agrees that alternative means of creating workplaces is here to stay, but not everyone agrees on what's here to stay and what isn't. All of these terms came from saving square footage in the beginning, of getting people out where they were supposed to be doing their work.

Setting the Mood
For today's designers, setting the mood and image is what corporate interior design is all about--open spaces, being colorful, not having a closed-door policy and using glass doors. In terms of keeping people, that builds community. Space drives function.

"Image is certainly important from one company to the next," said Rymshaw. "Images tend to be important for two reasons: They convey stability or modernness of a company and they show differences from region to region. Corporately, images tends to be driven. SEI is a growing entrepreneurial service-oriented business whose campus is driven by that image."

"Depending on the company, image is very important at the front door," said Rymshaw. "But having employees feel like they have some sense of personal space is more important. To me, it's more about the amenities being given to employees to get their work done--conferencing, casual team areas, day care centers. The Fortune 500 companies that can manage to afford these, are offering them as free or inexpensive service for their employees."

Mood and culture go hand in hand. According to Morgan, GMAC has a culture of energy, collaboration, and teamwork. According to Heilly, GMAC CEO Michael O'Brien is thrilled with his new workstation--he no longer works in an office but out in the company. "It's made a world of difference here," she said.

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