How Much of a Good Thing? Workplace Flexibility — Striking a Balance

Workspace flexibility is great — but it can also be expensive. Here are some tips for striking a balance between time and money

By Robert Klein  

The future of work environments is becoming increasingly difficult to predict as the needs of businesses and the way business is conducted change at a rapid pace. “Flexibility” in workplace design often becomes a code word for “I don’t know what I really need, so give me a solution that works for everything.”

In other words, many companies want it all — they are looking for workplace design that can accommodate any possible scenario quickly, inexpensively and without inconveniencing a lot of people. This one-size-fits-all approach is not only unrealistic, it is also economically undesirable.

Rather than keeping all options open, facility executives should aim for designs that are tailored to the specific business. In addition, any design proposal for a flexible office interior should be based on cost models to ensure that using flexibility as a solution is really more economical than just solving problems as they arise. The process demands a keen awareness of the direction management expects the company to evolve in — through acquisition, outsourcing or technological development — and what kind of churn is characteristic for a particular business.

Two Sides of Flexibility

The desire to create a flexible workplace cannot simply be regarded as a cost-saving measure. To yield the desired results, a flexible workplace should reflect an existing or targeted corporate culture and should be in line with the policies the company has established. For example, a corporate culture that prides itself on innovation and openness should have the policies in place that support this kind of attitude on every level of the organization.

Policies and physical environment should be aligned. A companywide policy restricting the use of speaker phones to conference and meeting rooms will help ensure sufficient privacy and support productivity in a flexible open-plan office. By contrast, an HR policy that entitles employees to a larger office upon promotion will limit a company’s ability to support a flexible workplace because it eliminates the option of creating a modular design based on standardized office sizes.

To ensure that the designed environment is in sync with business goals and policies, facility executives should work closely with senior management of key business units as well as the real estate, HR and IT departments. Creating a “steering committee” to navigate the decision-making process and interpret available data is a prerequisite for finding a successful flexible design solution.

Design Options

In most cases, an inflexible workplace is out of sync with today’s business culture. Fortunately, many options are available to meet demand for flexibility. Creative solutions include zoning, modular design and benching, a principle that has become very popular in the United Kingdom.

Zoning is a design strategy based on the subdivision of total available square footage to accommodate specific uses. For example, rather than reinforcing an entire floor to allow for condensed file storage, a zoning approach would designate a particular part of the building — most likely the core — as an area suitable for this purpose.

A modular design approach will create a set of similar spaces that can easily take on different functions. Traditionally, spaces are designed around specific square footage requirements for office, storage or meeting room use and are designated for a single use.

A benching system is very different from a typical cubicle system. Instead of a hard-walled spine and partitions, the benching system has a single continuous work surface that may be nearly 20 feet long. It is essentially a large table. The surface area can be allocated to workers according to need using movable dividers. The system is wired to accommodate the largest possible number of occupants, and the size of the space allotted to each individual is adjusted as necessary. Mobile storage units can be wheeled under the work surface as needed. That approach allows different numbers of people to use the benching system without making significant changes to the system itself.

Two factors that determine the appropriate level of flexibility for a specific project are cost and speed. While cost factors may be first and foremost on a facility executive’s mind, it is actually the amount of time needed to accommodate change that is the key driver when it comes to making design decisions.

One solution is a hybrid design — flexible space around a fixed core. For example, at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., a privately held partnership bank, three different modular layouts were created to meet the desire for a standard floor layout combined with various special department needs. Each layout achieved the desired mix of workstations, partners’ stations and conference rooms for each of the 10 floors. This modular approach satisfied both the ideal of standards and the reality of the multifaceted bank. In addition, this modularity assured the plan’s flexibility with regard to future change.

By creating zones on the floor plan for Reuters’ 720,000-square-foot U.S. headquarters in New York City’s Times Square, occupants were able to quickly and easily shift uses with minimal downtime or expense. A ceiling design that accommodates private offices or clusters of workstations eliminated one of the most costly and time-consuming factors in flexible planning: the need to get air conditioning to private offices.

The 245 Park Avenue offices for JPMorganChase are an example of a flexible office design that allows for easy expansion. A 6-foot raised floor provides each of the 11 floors with the space for power and data cables to accommodate potential trading floor users. Beyond that, the creation of modular public and user group zones allowed for a “just in time” design concept that enabled the client to wait until right before move-in to select the final user groups that would occupy each floor.

Time and Money

When it comes to evaluating and prioritizing the “value” of downtime to accommodate redesign, an income generating environment such as a trading floor provides an extreme example of the benefit of a large up-front investment in IT, communications and HVAC. The loss of even one day’s time can have a significant impact on revenue creation and, subsequently, on shareholder value. Whether or not a reconfiguration of the space can be accomplished within the timeframe of a weekend is a good way of establishing how much flexibility is necessary. The goal should be to do as much up-front work as necessary to get as close to this timeframe as possible.

In all instances, the balance scale of time versus expense must be aligned with the design strategy. In other words, if time is a critical factor — and this will vary from company to company — the design strategy for change and ultimately flexibility must support that goal.

Robert Klein, AIA, a principal at Swanke Hayden Connell Architects in New York City, is in charge of the firm’s Workplace Consulting division.

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  posted on 5/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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