A vast number of people work in offices of one kind or another. They may be offices in buildings purpose built or attached to a factory or in business premises. For many self employed business people the office is a room in their home converted for that purpose. Solicitors, doctors, estate agents and insurance agents, in fact any business that you can think of, works from some kind of office or another. You might even say 80% of the adult population work in an office. But I wonder how many of those people have any say in what kind of office they have and whether or not it suits their requirements. Mostly when someone new joins a company or firm, they are given a space for their office usually left by the previous incumbent. I suspect that if you asked occupants how they would like their office to be they would find it difficult to tell you.
When you think of the number of hours we spend in an office, at least eight hours per day and sometimes up to sixteen hours if it’s a busy period. Yes people are allowed out for breaks and rest times, but it is an awful lot of your life cooped up in small space. If at least a third of one’s working life is to be spent in an office, then it makes logical sense to ensure the environment is as comfortable, pleasant and as healthy as possible.
So how much thought goes into the planning of workspaces?
Where a building is purpose built such as an office, then the architects I am sure will have created good designs to suit the purpose. However, it has been known for new buildings to be problematic for the people working it them. For instance, synthetic materials used for carpeting can sometimes give off toxic fumes which cause allergies or illness of the staff. Air conditioning that relies on recycled air has the potential to carry bugs that can lay the whole office off at the same time. So there are many factors to consider in creating an office environment to ensure the staff are productive, creative, energised and remain healthy.
Old buildings, originally built for other uses, when converted to office space will have different challenges to resolve. Often old buildings have very high ceilings where the heat rises up so that the inhabitants below are cold yet the heating bills are going through the roof, literally!! How to maximise the space available to provide a comfortable working environment will be a real challenge and this is where often the use of a mezzanine floor and suspended ceilings are valuable.
It is a well known fact for any organisation that happy workers give better performance and generate more revenue than unhappy workers. The workforce are more motivated, creative, helpful and have less time off work for illness if they are happy in their jobs. I am sure there are statistics available for these details, but you don’t need to review these statistics because it is common sense that tells us we have to provide a comfortable working environment. If you are the business owner, ask yourself if you would be comfortable working in the environment that you are expecting your employees to work in? If your answer is no then get an interior fit out specialist involved until you can say yes to that question.
Ergonomics is the study of workplaces and the equipment used, to achieve the best design for comfort, safety, efficiency, and productivity. Research has been carried out over the last few years at Nottingham University on office space allocation issues.
Workspace planning is fast becoming a specialist industry because of all of the current regulations and legislation. Formerly known, in the UK as the Factories Act and now known as the Health and Safety Executive regulations are in place to ensure that employees have sufficient working space in which to perform their work. This can be a potential minefield including such things as physical space, usable space, corridor spaces, and minimum light and ventilation regulations. If you are about to commence on an office refurbishment project ensure that your interior fit out specialists of conversant with all of these regulations before you engage them to perform your work.
What are the Criteria for a good office environment? We are sentient beings, which mean we resonate with feeling and perception as well as intellectually to our surrounding.
The first thing to consider when commencing an office refurbishment project is how does it look? The initial impact on us comes from what we see. The decor and arrangement of furniture, the window aspect and lighting are important in our perception of whether or not it is pleasing to the eye. Does the office have all the necessary equipment, computer, phone and sufficient storage for files and books etc? Plants provide a sense of balance in the space as long as they are discreetly positioned and don’t make it look cluttered. Plants are oxygen generators and help to refresh the air.
On entering a new place the first thing we take in is the smell whether we pay attention to it or not. We notice immediately if the air is stuffy or if there is an unpleasant smell such as sweaty bodies. However a pleasant fragrance or no smell at all will be inviting. Baker shops nearly always pump out the fresh smell of baked bread into the street to entice people in to buy the goods. So although we may not be aware that smell plays an important part in our responses, we are still animals and we do use our olfactory senses a great deal more that we realise.
How does the furniture feel? Plastic seats can be very uncomfortable to sit on for a long time. Plastic does not breathe, it draws moisture from the skin so that when you stand up your posterior will be damp and uncomfortable. Padded fabric is warmer than leather for comfort and not as expensive. The desk chair needs to be the correct height for desk and give suitable support, a computer needs to be set correctly to avoid neck and wrist strain of the operator.
The temperature in the surroundings is best if it’s not too warm and not too cold. By ensuring an ambient working temperature of around 21 degrees centigrade, in both hot and cold weather, you can be assured your staff will be as comfortable as possible, this is also an important factor in any office refurbishments.
Too warm and we become sluggish and sleepy, too cold and we become distracted and use up valuable energy keeping warm. Fresh air is also beneficial to stimulate the brain cells.
What can we hear? Is it noisy or quiet? When I was first starting out in business, I went to visit a local manufacturing company to learn about the way they managed their business. At lunch time I was taken into the executive dining area where there was a waitress service and we had a very civilised lunch. Later I was taken to the works canteen. When we walked in I was hit with a blast of noise such as I had never experienced before. The hall was large with a very high ceiling and nothing to damp down the echo. The result was that everyone ended up shouting to be heard and there was loud music playing as well. I was shocked, not just at the noise level but by the contrast between the executive dining room and the workers canteen. I had come from an business which treated all members of the company the same so there were no executive areas and everyone, high and low mingled together for meals and break times. Guess which company had the better worker relationships and higher output?
Where a company utilises an open plan office then noise levels can be very distracting and one solution is to incorporate ‘White Noise’ which is a low level background noise to interfere with the general office talk going on over the phone or mini meetings. Sometimes quiet relaxing music is introduced as background noise but this is not normal in a business place.
Well we are not going to go around licking the furniture, but another important consideration is to ensure that a there is an area to enjoy a nice coffee or tea away from the desk throughout the day. So is there a pleasant area for making drinks and preparing snacks, or even lunch facilities alongside the office. I once worked in an office where they had a small kitchen area off the main office for making drinks and snacks and there was always a bowl of fresh fruit for staff, as the company recognising the refreshing effects of fresh fruit.
So as you can see there are many things that can make the work environment a pleasant place to be. However getting the original layout and size of spaces for the employees is a complex process.
How much area does each individual need to work in? According to the Officewise publication from the Health and Safety Executive in the UK employers must provide a minimum of 11 cubic metres for each person permanently occupying a workplace. However there are all sorts of exceptions and caveats to this rule, such as making sure the space is usable space, and clearly if that space were under the stairs with no windows, or ventilation then it would not be suitable. So it is very important to ensure that your new office fit out adheres to all of the current legislation with regards to workspace laws.
In planning good workspaces the industrial fit out specialists may make use of suspended ceilings where possible which makes the installation of services easier and more less expensive. Electrical supply, air conditioning units, water pipes and telephone cables can all run behind the suspended ceiling making access easy if anything goes wrong and repairs need to be implemented.
Positioning of the electrical and telephone outlet is also critical. The computers used in offices today all require their own electrical supply even if they are networked with the system.
External light from windows is a requirement for offices. The days of the cupboard office cubbyhole are gone. Light airy spaces make people feel good and doses of sunshine each day lift our spirits. However too much sunshine will overheat an office so the use of vertical blinds is recommended to deflect the rays of the sun without reducing too much the level of illumination.
To conserve office space costs some industrial fit our specialists have come up with the idea that instead of having a board rooms for meetings they have their meeting standing up around a special tall coffee table. This reduces the amount of time spent in meetings and the space is reusable for the lunches. Other schemes encourage employees to work from home for part of a week and utilise a system of desk sharing or moveable desks.
Another way of economising on the cost of office space is by careful rearrangement of the existing floor area. There may be dead areas which could be released and turned into useable space. The installation of new interior partition walls can rearrange the existing space to create a friendlier working environment. Sometimes working in an open plan office is beneficial for communication between staff, other times it is a distraction and prevents efficiency. So having the option of both open space and separate offices provides the full range of options which can be easily introduced with new partition walls.
For example one of my clients, took over a set of offices and had various walls moved, so instead of it having two small offices, one without a window, they created one large office for the MD and a really good sized store room which they needed for long term storage of customer files. They then took out another partition and made a good size open plan office space and rearranged another wall to create a board come conference room. Also access to the little kitchen was changed to be more convenient. The choice of subtle colours on the walls and new vertical blinds caused the whole suite of rooms to be transformed into a pleasant and airy working area. Where there is plenty of ceiling height the introduction of a Mezzanine floor generates valuable areas perhaps for storage, private meeting rooms or extra offices.
Other considerations in workspace planning, is the situation of facilities such as kitchen, toilets, relaxation areas and outside space if available. Sometimes the introduction of a simple partition can create a relaxation/dining area without losing too much of the work area.
All Health and Safety regulations are paramount they have to be adhered to in the workplace and must be incorporated into any plan along with full fire regulations.
Many companies may feel that upgrading the facilities is a ‘nice to have’ idea and the reality is that it usually comes at the bottom of the list on money allocation. However this is erroneous thinking; office refurbishment is never a waste of time or money. Creating a pleasant office environment by upgrading worn out or old fashioned surroundings and furnishings will make a big difference to the working life of the employees. Improved working conditions may be only part of the picture in achieving real job satisfaction, but it is a good start in the right direction. It also says a lot about what the senior people in the organisation think about their employees. If they ensure that their staff are given the necessary equipment and facilities to do their job effectively then the employees will give better service and can be more efficient and there will be a better working environment all around.