Mobile employees and flexible offices

The cost of office space has increased so much that more and more companies feel forced to downsize their offices – a trend that started in the USA and is now spreading to the major cities of the world.

A few years ago, a normal workplace in an office took up about 10 square metres. Today this space has been halved. This trend seems to have gone further in the UK than among its European neighbours.

“We have large open-plan offices where the space that each workplace may take up is shrinking all the time. We are now down to a minimum of four square meters for each workplace, including circulation space and storage”, says Alexander Gifford, Head of Design at Kinnarps in the UK.

That – namely four square meters per workplace – is where the trend has stopped for the time being. It would hardly be feasible to make it less. But offices will nevertheless shrink further as employees become increasingly mobile and workplaces are assigned less and less to individuals. Quite simply, not everyone will need their own desk in future.

The trend towards an ever more compact office environment has had many knock-on effects. One of the most obvious is that desks are shrinking in size. Space-guzzling corner desks are disappearing and are being replaced by rectangular desks with much smaller work areas. They vary from 120cm to 180 cm long and 80 or at most 90 cm deep. Mobile meeting tables are used to give extra space where needed, giving a more flexible layout.

Smaller desks would have been a problem if computers had not shrunk as well. Today’s flat monitors and laptops take up much less space than the old bulky CRTs.

The more efficient use of space means that people are working closer to each other. This in turn has a number of consequences for interior designers. Sound muffling by screens and fabrics is becoming increasingly important as a means of reducing disturbances at work, so that screens as well as cabinet backs are now being developed with new sound-absorbent materials. Another challenge is the sunlight coming through the large glass areas of new offices: the furniture has to be arranged to prevent the light falling directly onto the monitors.

The new technology is accompanied by cables. Keeping them tidy is another problem that has to be solved. The efficient running of cables is a particular must in open-plan offices. We have always had cables – even with the introduction of new technology and wireless working there is still a need for numerous chargers and transformers for computers and their peripherals.

On the whole, smaller areas mean more layout effort: where through-routes should run in order not to disturb anyone, where people with various functions should have workplaces in an open-plan office, where quiet rooms are to be located etc.

“The real challenge is to turn a smaller space to your advantage. A more compact office can help people communicate better”, says Alexander Gifford.

Shared spaces are becoming very much more important and take up an ever larger part of the entire office. Small quiet telephone rooms, coffee rooms, meeting rooms, areas for printers and other office machines must be given increasingly strategic locations.

“When we move away from personal workplaces with large desks, we have to make an effort to make the rest of the environment all the more pleasant. Areas for breaks and meetings must be places where people want to be and are inspired to communicate”, observes Alexander Gifford.

For users of the new office environments, all this has meant something of a revolution.

Shrinking workplaces obviously reduce space for the private sphere in the office. Personal objects such as potted plants and family photos are banished. This is something that Katarina Norman at Kinnarps Interior in Stockholm has had to contend with.

“It’s often hard to get the employees on our side when moving to an open-plan office. Most of them don’t want to change anything. So we go much deeper to user level at the planning stage”, says Katarina Norman.

Loss of one’s private office space has clearly not come quite as far in Scandinavia as in London and Paris.

Working life centres increasingly around communications. Employees move more and more within the office. From focused computer work at small workplaces to breaks with a newspaper on a sofa, a cup of coffee and a bit of a chat in the café, customer meetings in the meeting room or a confidential call in one of the many small phone rooms. All of them made possible by the development of laptops, cordless phones and fast wireless network connections.

Increased mobility takes place not only within the office but also outside it. The trend is clear, and employees will find themselves increasingly out of the office in future, believe Kinnarps designers. We are seeing more and more mobile employees, known as office nomads.

“Nomads who spend 80 percent or more of their working time away from the office do not need a fixed workplace”, observes Philippe Arin, Head of Design at Kinnarps in France.

“If a customer has 100 employees, possibly no more than 60 of them will be at the office at any one time. The others are mobile. They are out selling. Or working on their laptops at home or at some Starbucks in town. So that customer does not need 100 workplaces”, points out Alexander Gifford.

Mobile employees come to work for a meeting with their superiors and connect their laptops at a free area shortly before or after the meeting before returning home to work on their computers in a more focused way.

Increasingly flexible employees set up new projects, continuously form new teams that quickly arrange themselves around a suitable combination of desks in a corner.

Mobile, flexible employees – that is the future. The same applies to mobile, flexible office environments.