The office environment

The environment within which office work is carried on has been the subject of much study in recent decades, though this has lagged very much behind that done for the factory. Particular attention has been paid to the way furniture and equipment is arranged within offices, especially in those premises where the floor area is large.

The conventional office provision of the past was that of a series of small offices accommodating just a handful of people in each, access to all being by means of corridors and the work being done behind closed doors. This is a cosy arrangement, with privacy being assured and intimate groupings being formed which are attractive to most workers. Still much used by small organisations, this type of arrangement leaves a lot to be desired for organisations employing more than very few office workers because of the difficulties experienced in internal communica­tion and the difficulty in establishing standard procedures and overall supervision. Each private office becomes an inward-looking entity, face-to-face communication is possible only by opening and closing the door which shuts it off from the rest of the firm and authority is, effectively, only in the hands of the senior occupants of the office.

Further, this type of office arrangement is wasteful of floor space because of the need for adequate corridors used only as passageways, the provision of dividing walls or partitions which also take up floor space, and the space needed for the opening and closing of office doors, which amounts to nearly eight square feet (or 0.74 m2) per door. The disad­vantages associated with this type of office accommodation, and the increase in the number of office workers being employed, has led to the development of the open office.

1. The Open Office

This style of office accommodation consists of one large, unbroken, floor area accommodating several different departments and devoid of divid­ing partitions or walls. It is the type normally found in modern office blocks. Desks and other furniture and equipment are arranged in orderly rows, as far as possible all facing the same way. It has undoubted advantages, which may be listed as follows:

  1. Supervision is improved over that possible in small, private offices, chiefly because the office manager or supervisor has all, or most, of the workers in view. This tends to inhibit workers from slacking or indulging in activities not strictly official. Absences from desks are obvious. Further, because all, or most, staff are together, there are fewer excuses for workers to disappear from work stations into corridors and other offices. Direct supervision ceases when a worker is out of sight.
  2. There is a considerable saving of floor space (some authorities estimate this to be in the region of 20 per cent or more) over small offices, mainly because of the reasons advanced above.
  3. There is greater freedom of movement for the staff in open offices, there being no restricting partitions, nor doors to open and close when visiting other departments.
  4. In consequence of 3, communication is easier, in particular there is a reduction in the need to use the internal telephone, with its attendant noise problem, because it is easier to walk across to the person it is necessary to contact.
  5. There is greater flexibility of layout with the open office because of the absence of partitions. It is easier to move furniture and equipment around and thus to rearrange departments without the undue expense and inconvenience associated with small independent offices. Thus, changes in work patterns can be more easily accommodated.
  6. Open offices promote a smoother work flow as documents can pass more easily from one operation to the next within the overall work space and layout can be easily planned with this in mind.
  7. Lighting and heating are easier, and thus less costly, to install in an open office than in a series of private offices and experience shows that running costs are inclined to be lower as well. Open offices also lend themselves to the installation of air-conditioning, which is the most effective way to overcome the problems of ventilation which otherwise beset all offices, large or small.

Open offices, however, are also subject to some disadvantages, all of them relating to the staff that occupy such offices. Research has been carried out on the use and effects of open offices and the results claim to show that management considers them highly satisfactory but that they are not generally popular with the staff who have to work in them. Some of the disadvantages that arise are:

  1. The symmetrical arrangment of rows of desks promotes a factory-like and impersonal atmosphere, and inhibits the formation of a corporate feeling in the staff.
  2. Workers are subject to too many distractions, such as other staff walking about, or the unusual occurrence happening in another part of the office.
  3. There is a rise in the general noise level, again a distraction. This comes from various sources such as office equipment, of which there are many units in an open office, telephone conversations and talking generally. Much can be done to alleviate this problem by effective supervision.
  4. Some workers complain about the lack of privacy, though many of these complaints emanate from those who have been accustomed to working in private offices.
  5. In cases where senior staff are located in the open office, there is a danger that they will become too involved in routine matters to the detriment of their true function.
  6. Open offices frequently appear less tidy than small private ones. This is probably because there are more untidy desks in view. It is also a fact that untidiness is infectious and will spread from desk to desk unless prevented by good supervision.
  7. It is said that colds and other minor infections spread around the staff of open offices rather quickly, and that staff working in such condi­tions are more vulnerable than those working in small, individual, offices, though it is doubtful if this can be proved.

In order to reduce some of the disadvantages of the open office, particularly the impersonal atmosphere, it may be advisable to mark off departmental areas with counter-height barriers, such as filing cabinets, shelf units or storage cupboards. Doing this provides an aid to the concept of departmental or group loyalty without significantly reducing the effectiveness of the open-plan arrangement. Sufficient convenient access spaces must, of course, be provided and there must be no interference with the free flow of traffic and communication, nor with effective supervision.

Some firms divide groups of workers by means of clear glass screens less than ceiling height, and this method is particularly useful where there is a problem with local noise, especially as it maintains the visual advantage of the open office.

2. Private Offices

Despite the undoubted advantages of the open office, the private office will still be needed for certain work, although the number of these should be kept to a minimum in the interests of effective office supervision. The three main reasons for the provision of private offices are for the performance of work of a confidential nature, for work requiring maximum concentration and for the holding of interviews. All these reasons, of course, can be applied to senior staff such as the company secretary, departmental managers, and the chief accountant, but other members of staff such as estimators, whose work is both confidential and requires concentration, computer programmers, whose work requires maximum concentration, and certain members of the personnel staff, whose duties include private interviews with work people, also have a valid claim for private offices.

Finally, a private room should be provided for receiving visitors to the organisation so that interviews can be conducted without the necessity for the visitors to be taken through the office premises to conduct their business.

3. The Panoramic Office

Also called the landscaped office or burolandschaft, this is a completely fresh concept of office planning which originated in Germany and has since been adopted by many of the larger organisations. A large open area is required, but it is by no means simply an open office. It is, in fact, based on the concept of what is termed organic planning. Instead of the rather regimented pattern of the normal open office there is a pattern of groupings within the floorspace related to the flow of work within the group rather than an overall workflow throughout the office, with related., groups being adjacent to or very near each other. Desks, furniture and other equipment are arranged within the groups (which are, in effect, departments or sections) in apparently random fashion, certainly not in straight lines, each arrangement being that which suits the work-flow of the group the best. In similar fashion, the groups themselves are arranged asymmetrically throughout the office area, being divided from each other by troughs of pot plants (hence ‘landscape’) and acoustic screens about shoulder high.

There are three main claims made in favour of this development. First, it succeeds in putting more people in a given space, whilst making them feel that they are valued by management. Landscaped areas should be carpeted, carefully designed acoustically, colourful, air-conditioned, with new systems furniture and laid out in a way that defines departments and individuals. Second, it is asymmetrical and because of this is more pleasing and acceptable to the occupants whilst at the same time it retains the benefits of the open office.Third, the layout is fluid and not fixed.

3.1. Practical aspects

What does the landscaped office entail? It is suggested that rather more care must go into every detail of such a plan, in particular as regards the environmental aspects, than is put into straightforward open office plans. Four especial requirements must be mentioned:

  1. As large areas are involved, air-conditioning is essential because ventilation through windows cannot be relied upon for the whole office area.
  2. Artificial lighting needs to saturate the work areas because, again through size, it is not possible to rely on daylight through windows to provide sufficient illumination for proper working conditions. Fluor­escent lighting, which simulates daylight, is therefore necessary in such offices, giving unvarying and virtually glare-free lighting at each desk.
  3. Sound insulation is essential in this concept. This is achieved by fitting thick carpeting on the floors, usually heavy carpet tiles, lining the ceilings with acoustic tiles and applying sound absorbing materials on wall and other surfaces such as supporting pillars to damp down sound reflection.
  4. Individual group work areas must be divided off, and this is accom­plished by the use of pot plants and acoustic screens. These screens also assist with the sound deadening requirements. Both plants and screens are easily movable, which facilitates the rearrangement of layouts at any time.

An interesting thought behind the landscaped office is that it is a community concept, which gives staff the feeling of belonging whilst at the same time it provides privacy for concentrated work. This latter is achieved by having the pot plants and screens at such a height that people seated are isolated from all but their group colleagues, but when standing have a view of the ‘landscape’ and fellow employees.

It is usual for quite senior staff to be accommodated within the panoramic office rather than in their own private offices, and it is claimed that after the first unfavourable reaction they come to like the arrange­ment because they are still furnished with their status symbols (larger desk, superior chair and so on) and this proclaims their superior status to all. It is interesting to note, however, that directors and other senior executives usually retain their private offices.

3.2. Observations

One or two other comments must be made about the panoramic office, as follows:

  1. Because of the apparent random siting of departments, movement discipline is important to prevent individuals walking through two or three departments to visit a third: definite traffic lanes must be established and maintained, identified by plant troughs, screens and desk positioning.
  2. Owing to the smaller amount of space assigned to individuals, great emphasis must be placed on tidiness. The question of adequate storage for papers, files and similar items is important in this connection.
  3. This is not a method that can be put into practice without a full commitment. It requires considerable thought and planning, and a large floor area is essential. It can be contemplated, therefore, only by organisations that have a large staff. Small offices garnished with a few pot plants, and staffed by a handful of people, do not qualify for the description ‘panoramic’.
  4. All furniture and fitments should be easily movable so that rearrange­ment is facilitated. This feature makes it simple to accomniodate an infrequent requirement, such as a meeting or conference, when furniture, screens and plants can be positioned easily to form a meeting area, which is either free from the possibility of eaves­dropping, or where eavesdropping would be clearly apparent. The acoustic screens normally used in landscaped offices are, of course, virtually sound-proof, one manufacturer claiming a sound absorption factor of 80 per cent, but what is said on one side of a screen can be heard on the other by someone close enough. All equipment can be repositioned in the original places without difficulty.
  5. Fixed breaks for refreshments are dispensed with. A rest area is provided which staff can use when they feel the need, and which includes vending machines serving drinks and, frequently, also snacks. It is claimed that experience shows that staff do not spend any more time on refreshments with this method than they do with the traditional tea trolley or other fixed break arrangement. In fact, it is said that less time rather than more is taken up, especially as the conventional tea break often becomes a time for gossip and frequently extends beyond the period officially allocated for it. In other words, staff do not abuse the flexible breaktime arrangement, though no specific reason has been advanced for this fact.

4. The Layout of the Office

Whatever form the provision of office accommodation takes – a series of private offices, an open office or a landscaped office – proper attention must be paid to the question of layout so that the floor space available is used to the very best advantage, and the maximum output of work is achieved.

Whilst it must be appeciated that the perfect office layout is unlikely to be achieved, it should be the aim of the office administrator to come as close to the ideal as possible. Attention should, therefore, be paid to certain principles of office layout so that the best use can be made of floor space and workers’ efforts. These principles are:

4.1. Workflow

Work should flow through the office in as direct a fashion as possible. The ideal flow is a straight line, which is seldom practicable: this will entail a corridor-like office with a door at each end. The next best arrangement is a circular or elliptical flow, which is usually possible. The main requirement in regard to workflow is that documents should move forward all the time, so that there will be no back-tracking or zig-zag movement which will increase the actual distance they travel. The shorter the distance the work moves the more efficient is the workflow.

4.2. Supervision

Desks should be arranged so that supervision is facilitated. In practical terms this usually means that desks are positioned in rows and that the office manager or other supervisor has a desk at the front of this array, rather like a school classroom. Alternatively, the supervisor may be positioned at one of the corners of the room, desk set obliquely, so that all the workers are at view. Where the office manager or supervisor finds it necessary to have an office apart, this is, again, usually at the front of the office and is divided from the rest of the room with glass partitions. Whatever arrangement is adopted the question of adequate supervision must have the fullest consideration.

4.3. Floor space

The fullest use must be made of the available floor space. This means that desks and furniture, whilst being fully adequate for the work to be performed, should not be unnecessarily large and one of the aspects of new equipment to be considered when being purchased is the amount of floor area it will cover. Certain items of equipment, such as strip index telephone directories, can be fixed to walls instead of being accommo­dated on desks or small tables which take up floor space.

4.4. Working space

Each worker must have adequate space in which to work effectively. The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, lays down a minimum of 400 cubic feet (11.3 m3) per worker, the maximum ceiling height to be used in calculating the floor area being 10 feet (3 m), which gives a minimum floor area per worker of 40 square feet (3.77 m2).

As pointed out in Chapter 4, however, considerably more space than this will be required for most personnel. A particular point to watch is the need to provide sufficient space for workers to move their chairs away from their desks in order to sit down or leave. Failure to do this results in workers bumping into each other’s desks, disarranging papers and causing interruptions to work.

4.5. Gangways

Gangways of sufficient number and of sufficient width must be allowed for easy access by clerks about the office without interfering with other workers. Three feet is considered to be an adequate width in normal circumstances, but should there be equipment that occasionally encroaches into the gangway space, then allowance must be made for this encroachment. An example is that of standard vertical filing cabinets whose drawers open into the gangway, so effectively reducing its width when the cabinet is being used.

4.6. Proximity of workers and equipment

Where clerks are constantly using equipment, such as filing cabinets, duplicators and so on, such equipment should, wherever possible, be situated adjacent to or very near the workers concerned. This avoids unnecessary movement of staff significant distances from their desks and assists in promoting good workflow. It must also be realised that when staff are moving about they are not usually being productively employed; any reduction in unnecessary movement, therefore, must reduce clerical costs.

4.7. Noisy machines

Many office machines are inclined to be noisy and can seriously interfere with the work of those who need quiet conditions to operate properly. An example would be a typist working alongside a clerk who has constantly to use the telephone. In such cases steps should be taken to segregate the offending machines from those requiring quiet, if at all possible, even if it means interfering with a smooth flow of work.

4.8. Natural light

Except for a few of the more advanced landscaped offices, offices rely on natural daylight for day-time working. It is important, then, that those workers who most need the best lighting conditions should be located nearest the windows, even if this causes some modification in the workflow. Typists, for instance, especially if working from hastily written material, operate more efficiently if they are working in conditions of good lighting.

4.9. Privacy

Where the work demands it, conditions of privacy must be provided in the layout, even if, again, it interferes with the workflow. However, in many cases total privacy is not essential, but can be simulated by means of store units and the like, as described earlier in this chapter under The Open Office’.

4.10. Appearance

Everyone likes to work in a pleasant environment. When the layout is completed, therefore, it should present a pleasing but purposeful appear­ance, attractive but workmanlike. It is claimed that such an environment promotes greater productivity: this should be borne in mind.

5. Planning a Layout

The practical steps involved in planning an office layout can be enumer­ated as follows:

  1. Measure the dimensions of the floor space of the office concerned and draw the outline of it to scale. This is usually done on squared paper of \ in or 5 mm squares, the larger the scale the easier are the subsequent steps.
  2. Plot on the outline all door openings, windows and obstructions such as radiators, pillars if any, protruding walls and so on.
  3. Measure the floor area covered by each piece of furniture and equipment to be accommodated, and cut templates to the same scale as above of each piece in card or stout paper.
  4. Sketch out on the outline drawing the preferred workflow pattern and position the templates on this as required.
  5. Examine the layout so produced and make the necessary adjustments to take into account aspects other than just the workflow, such as proximity of equipment to staff, use of natural light and, especially, ease of supervision. Where other managers and supervisors are intimately involved the final proposal should be discussed with them and any further adjustments made to suit all parties.
  6. Install the layout and carefully observe the operations of the office under these conditions for two or three weeks: make any changes that operating experience shows to be desirable.

The period of observation is essential to attain the most efficient layout, it being accepted that the ideal is never attainable. Many circumstances which cannot be envisaged by desk-planning will present themselves and must be remedied. For instance, personality problems with staff may arise which could not be foreseen, such as two clerks placed close together whose personalities clash; or, something which could not be ascertained from flat templates, a piece of equipment may be so tall that it casts an undesirable shadow on one or more work stations.

Some unforeseen consequences may occur because the planning is done in two dimensions only. These can be avoided to some extent if the templates used are in three dimensions, illustrating the height as well as the length and width of each piece of furniture and equipment. Some office planners, therefore, use solid models to scale instead of relying on card templates. Such models can be carved from polystyrene foam plastic by the planner, or they may be purchased commercially in the form of solid plastic pieces which can be ‘plugged’ into a plastic ‘floor’ formed to receive them.

These model layouts give a very much better idea of what the finished layout will look like when put into actual practice than do flat card templates laid on squared paper. They are particularly useful in allowing the planner to see the effects of the heights of the various pieces of equipment to be used with regard to their effect on lighting and the ‘tunnel’ effect sometimes produced by aligning more than one tall piece in close proximity.

6. Office Furniture

The desks and chairs provided for clerical workers are as much part of the working equipment of the office as are the typewriters and dupli­cators, and as such should be considered from the point of view of their effect on the productivity of the office. Office furniture should be functional in relation to the tasks that have to be performed when using it. Certain recommendations can, therefore, be made in regard to the choice of desks and chairs which can be modified in the light of personal preferences.

6.1. Desks

Desks for general clerical work should be of such a height that writing may be carried out in comfort and without strain. The generally accepted height is 30 in. but many workers, especially female clerks, find a slightly lower surface more convenient. It is important that clerical workers are not forced to bend over their work too much and so find themselves victims of back strain and constriction of the chest.

The amount of work-top will depend very much upon the type of task to be performed at the dek, but for general purposes there is a commonly available standard of approximately 4 ft 6 in. x 2 ft 9 in. Where a great deal of desk room is required – say for analysis work and similar operations where many documents and books are in use at one time – a larger desk top can be provided: a better solution is, however, to provide a desk which has its top extended at the sides, or even a truncated horse-shoe shape, so that the clerk using it does not have to reach out over to the back of the desk but has all the papers within arm’s reach.

Desks for machine operators should be of the correct height to assist accurate machine operation. Desks for typists, for example, should be about 4 in. lower than those for writing as this enables the typist to adopt the proper position of the hands for fast and accurate work. In cases where a worker both operates, say, a typewriter and is required to carry out ordinary clerical tasks the solution nowadays is to have an ‘L’ shaped desk, usually two desks linked together, so that the writing surface is at normal height and the top bearing the typewriter is about 4 in. lower.

The provision of drawers in desks should not be neglected, and these should be suitable for the work to be performed at the desk. A typist’s desk, for example, should have a number of shallow drawers for the storage of the several different types of paper to be used, so that they can be kept separate and are of easy access: so often the typist has to endure just two or three deep drawers in which the various papers become jumbled together. Similarly, a clerk who is constantly using the usually A4 manilla files needs at least one very deep drawer suitable for storing the folders upright with the tops at view for easy identification. It is also recommended that a lockable drawer is fitted in which the worker can keep items of a personal nature in reasonable security.

Whilst office desks should be chosen primarily because of their functional aspects, nevertheless too many different designs should be avoided as some interchangeability is desirable so as to accommodate possible future office changes.

So far as the appearance of the desks is concerned, and the material from which they are made, wood polished in a variety of finishes is the traditional material. It has the advantages that it is pleasing in appear­ance, warm to work on and easily repaired should damage occur. Its chief disadvantage is that it is easily marked and scratched, but this problem is easily overcome by covering the work surface with any of a variety of hard-wearing materials from hard plastic sheeting through simulated leather plastic covering to real leather.

Other materials used in the manufacture of office desks are metal and a combination of tops of chipboard covered with laminated plastic sheeting with metal legs or stands. Both types are colder in use than wooden desks, but are very resistant to scratches and marks and are very hard-wearing.

The appearance of desks, therefore, is largely a matter of personal taste, but it should be stressed that all should harmonise when they are used together.

6.2. Chairs

Office chairs probably come in a greater variety of patterns and colours than do desks, so the choice is wider. The same rule of being functionally suitable obtains, however. The correct working height is again very important, and no hard and fast rules can be laid down because of the differing physical characteristics of the people who use them. The average seat height is between 16 in. and 17 in. for fixed-seat chairs and minor adjustments can be made by the provision of foot rests or cushions. Bearing in mind that workers are going to be seated for the better part of six or seven hours a day the chairs must be comfortable and the seat area and profile must be of adequate size and shape. Most clerical work is done by the clerk leaning over the desk and it is not, therefore, feasible to provide constant back support. Nevertheless, chair backs should be so designed that they enable the user to lean back on them in comfort for brief periods.

Machine operators, such as typists, should be equipped with posture chairs. These chairs are usually of the swivel pattern and the seats are adjustable in height. In addition, the rake of the back can be adjusted to suit the precise requirements of the user and the actual back-rest is also adjustable in height and angle so that the user’s back can be constantly supported in comfort. It is not commonly appreciated that typing, particularly, places a considerable strain on the back, and posture chairs do much to alleviate this problem. Strangely, people doing normal, written clerical work do not seem to regard posture chairs for their work as useful or necessary.

Whether the clerical worker is provided with a chair with arms is very often a matter of status. The materials from which chairs are made, however, is of importance. Frames are either of wood or metal and this is to all intents and purposes of no consequence. The covering of seats and backs, however, is. The materials used for this purpose should be cool to sit upon and should allow some air through. Many of the plastic sheetings used can produce discomfort in hot weather, though this problem can be alleviated by indentations in the material surface. Fabrics are, however, more comfortable than plastic sheeting.

Another point to consider is the surface texture. A very smooth, perhaps shiny, material tends to allow the user to slip about on the seat and can cause suits and skirts of certain materials to take on an unwanted shine. On the whole the best type of chair covering material is one that is of fairly rough texture and slightly porous. The amount of padding and the quality of the covering are, again, largely a matter of status.

6.3. Status furniture

What has been said so far about desks and chairs relates to the ordinary clerical worker. The furniture provided for those in supervisory and managerial positions is viewed more in consideration of their status than from the purely functional standpoint, though inasmuch as their status is proclaimed by their furniture it can be said to be performing a function.

In the normal organisation, the nearer the top of the managerial ladder a person is the more impressive is the furniture. Therefore desks are larger, sturdier and more solid; they may even be of carved oak. Chairs are also larger and are much more comfortable: coverings are of higher quality, and at the top of the managerial ladder may be covered in real hide. Invariably they are equipped with arms and most not only swivel but also tilt.

This type of furniture is not only a reward for status: it is also to impress visitors of the occupant’s position.

6.4. Modular furniture

In order to reduce the space required by conventional desks whilst still accommodating the same number of clerks, or alternatively in order to accommodate more clerks than can be easily done with conventional desks, modular (or system) furniture was devised. This consists of interlocking desk tops which can be assembled in any number of configurations, such as ‘L’ shapes, TT and ‘Z’ patterns, each individual desk top requiring only one supporting panel or drawer pedestal, the other end of the top being interlocked with, and therefore supported by, its companion top or tops. Only in certain configurations, such as the ‘L’ shape just mentioned, is it necessary to provide more supports.

Where several work stations are connected together there is normally a running length of top which facilitates the moving of papers from one worker to the other.

Because of the closer proximity of workers one to another two advantages accrue from the use of modular furniture. The first is that floor space is saved and thus it is used more economically, and the second is that communication between clerks is facilitated and therefore work flows better and faster.

These two advantages are certainly apparent, but because the workers are so close together it has been found that this system encourages gossiping which, of course, can reduce productivity. This disadvantage can be overcome to a large extent by effective supervision and by designing the office layout with this in mind.

6.5. Built-in furniture

Lastly, no discussion of office furniture would be complete without considering built-in furniture.

Built-in furniture, which, of course, is constructed on site, has many advantages over ready-made furniture. First, it can be designed specific­ally for the work that has to be done on it, so that height, length and depth can be precisely as required and any special fitments, such as a light panel for checking that inwards mail envelopes have been com­pletely emptied, can be made and fitted. Second, building in furniture in odd recesses in the office makes good use of these areas and so saves floor space, and also it prevents such recesses from becoming traps for dust and dirt, as they so very often do. Finally, it is possible to build fitments up the walls of the office to store infrequently required files and documents so saving further floor space that would otherwise be occupied by filing cabinets containing rarely used items.

The two main disadvantages of built-in furniture are that it is usually very much more costly than standard, ready-made furniture, and that being built-in it cannot be moved around into new positions if required without being completely dismantled. Even then it will probably not fit into the new position without expensive adjustment.

Most built-in furniture is constructed for special use where standard fitments are difficult to obtain, particularly where working height is a problem. A common location is, therefore, the mail room where much of the work is done standing.

Source: Eyre E. C. (1989), Office Administration, Palgrave Macmillan.

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