Contemporary Office Planning
There was a time when the planning of an office started with the owner supplying a list of users arranged according to broad organizational groupings. Against each of these users was marked their entitlement in terms of thermal comfort required, table size, number of chairs and personal storage space.
In Indian offices, until recently, few people were entitled to air-conditioning and they were assigned cabins next to windows. The rest of the office workers were put in halls without air-conditioning. Planning was simple because the layout of cabins determined the office plan. People were usually seated according to their status within the organization. Since private offices or cabins were numerous, there was little need for meeting rooms. As most documents had to be typed out, the staff included a large number of typists and stenographers. Electrical and mechanical typewriters used were noisy and it was necessary to isolate these machines to contain their noise in ‘typing pools’. Documents requiring the attention of more than one person had to be moved around by peons or office boys who were evident all over. The office plan then depended upon organizing different levels of thermal comfort, ventilation and day lighting, ensuring acoustical privacy and allocation of appropriate space to each worker.
When the ‘open office’ or the ‘landscape office’ was first introduced in Europe, it was a departure from the prevalent layouts, with cabins or rooms for the bosses and halls or ‘bullpen’ for the general staff. The objective was to allow for seating according to the communication needs of office workers and not according to their status. Its major advantage was that it allowed for changes in seating without tearing down walls. The basic furniture elements used were the table and chair, credenza, common filing or storage unit and a few dividing screens. This worked quite well at the time when the need for wiring of workstations was minimal.
The arrival of ‘system furniture’ drastically changed the office landscape. For giving the workers privacy, low-height screens with soft sound absorbing surfaces were erected between tables and soon the partitions or screens became an essential part of the individual worktable, both visually and structurally. The screens carried wires for telephones, power and computers, provided acoustical and visual privacy, and most importantly, provided support for table tops and storage units of all kinds. As the systems available have multiplied, designing the modular system has become a matter of devising a way of making and connecting the screens together and of hanging various furniture elements on them. The table was reduced to a table top, and the credenza to a screen hung filing unit. The appearance of the office is dominated not by the worktable but by the dividing screens between the tables. The overall appearance of the office with system furniture is emulated by non-system furniture designers as well and it is now common to see offices where the screens perform no other function than of dividing the open office into small cabins. Some of these offices look like cages used in laboratories for keeping guinea pigs. So long as the size of an individual cell is large (more than 240 X 240 cm), it gives a private workspace but when it begins to be minimized (say 150 X 150 cm), it takes away all sense of space. In order to restore spaciousness, sometimes the screens are made transparent, but that does not create privacy and it does not provide soft surfaces for sound absorption either. Worst of all, the system furniture is inflexible and so difficult to move that few companies have tried to change the office layout.
UBEST is a new software development company with a totally non-hierarchical structure. The company decided that its new office should be a fully networked `less paper’ office. As a result of this, the office was designed with identical workstations for everyone. Since all information is kept on the network and conventional files are few, very little personal storage is needed. With only 49 workstations this office houses a staff strength of 75 persons!
This was made possible by putting all workstations in a common pool, to be used by whoever is present in the office on a particular day. For a company in which people travel frequently, this arrangement has immediate benefits. The workstation was specially designed to include a fixed table with a computer and a mobile storage unit. Each worker was provided with a personal mobile unit and could wheel it to whichever worktop he or she was using on a particular day. The ergonomically designed workstation has a tilting tabletop with friendly wrist support. The tilted tabletop allows workers to adjust the height at which they place the keyboard, something which is impossible in keyboard drawers. The monitor was moved off the tabletop so that the entire surface was available for work.
This energy-efficient office is of course centrally air-conditioned. But specially designed individual fans and table lamps are provided to allow each person to create a more comfortable environment for himself. The personal fans allow a reduction in the capacity of the air-conditioning plant and provide workers with reasonable comfort in the evening when the air-conditioning plant is switched off. The fans also make it possible to reduce the number of hours and days with air-conditioning and thus save energy.
Software workers have no fixed working hours and when there is a deadline to meet, it is common enough for them to work late into the night. The UBEST office is built around a ‘contemplation area’ that can be used equally well for rest and for staff meetings. This immensely popular space is enclosed by a mud wall. It is fully wired to allow someone with a laptop to work in it and is furnished with a thick carpet and plenty of loose cushions.
Space being expensive, few organizations are willing to waste it on providing a cafeteria for staff and software offices can hardly afford to allow people to eat within the office. Bits of leftover food attract rats that can destroy a computer network overnight.
At UBEST this problem was solved by creating an outdoor cafeteria at the terrace above the office. The tent is a reasonable protection against the elements and most importantly it does not consume FAR. In fact, the outdoor cafeteria is popular not just for lunch but also as a place for all kinds of formal and informal meetings.
Design Vinod Gupta Consultants Gupta Consultants (HVAC), Electrical Consulting Engineers (electrical)
Cost INR 80 lakhs
Date of completion May 1995
On Office Chairs
The word ‘ergonomic’ has now been added to the active vocabulary of office workers. Every chair manufacturer calls his chairs, particularly the expensive ones, ‘ergonomically’ designed. The theory underlying this is that human bodies come in different sizes and proportions and no single design of chair can fit all human beings. The ‘ergonomic’ chair should therefore be one which can be adjusted to suit the shape of individual bodies. The more adjustable the chair is, the greater the number of people it will fit. This logic does not take into account the fact that office workers who spend long hours in a chair, suffer back problems due to poor sitting posture. While a badly designed chair makes it impossible for the user to sit properly, people may sit badly even in good chairs. The effects of sitting posture being felt only after a long time, people are unable to judge the correctness of their posture. Most office workers are in fact unaware of the relationship between sitting posture and back problems. They have no way of knowing what a good posture is and even less of knowing what a good chair should be.
Look at the chairs that are selected. If people get past considerations of price and looks, they will sit in different chairs for about 30 seconds each and decide in favour of the one that ‘feels’ most comfortable. This is usually a well-padded chair. There is no reason for anyone to believe that a chair that feels comfortable is in fact going to be good in the long term. The more choosy ones look at the features a chair offers, particularly its adjustability. How can anyone be sure that each office worker will adjust his/her chair in the correct way? Look critically and you will find that in any office, at least half the chairs would be wrongly adjusted for height and seat angle.
What is a good chair anyway? To my mind one that provides back support and encourages the user to sit in a healthy straight-back posture. A chair that makes one feel active and does not constrict blood circulation in the legs. These factors cannot be judged by anyone within 30 seconds of chair testing time. A minimum test for a chair should last the duration of a whole working day.
Worst are the chairs which have been designed for Europeans and Americans and which are now being reproduced in India. Since the average European is taller than the average Indian, these chairs end up being too high. The manufacturers claim that the height adjustable is not acceptable because the average Indian has to use it in the lowest setting and the short Indian cannot use it at all. Chairs with “spring” backs or spring tilt seats are almost as bad. Once the springs lose their tension, the chairs offer no back support. Chairs with a lot of soft cushions “feel” comfortable but lose their shape in no time.
The best chairs are those with firm seats and backs, an adjustable seat height and a floating back. Castors are a must if you need to move about quickly. My own personal favourite is an antique wood framed chair with a cane seat and contoured cane back. The seat is not deep enough for anyone to slouch in this chair. It grips your sides and supports the back. It may not be wide enough for really heavy people but with no adjustments, for most people this chair is surprisingly comfortable.
Tata Telecom Office, New Delhi
This is the corporate office for a telecommunication equipment company. The surroundings in Okhla, New Delhi, are none too pretty and thus it is designed as an inward looking office. The requirements called for a conventional office with a highly developed hierarchical structure. Workstations for several different categories of managers were needed.
The centre of the office is occupied by the technology demonstration centre, a kind of showroom that is designed like a garden complete with a glass roof, plants, real fish and mobile sculptures of birds. Most companies want to keep visitors away from the staff work areas which are therefore separated from showrooms.
Modular furniture in the general office
Tata Telecom also wanted to do the same but at the same time they wanted the visitors to get a feel of the company and not just of the technological products. The plan allows a clear separation between the public and private areas of the office. The garden showroom is surrounded by the reception lobby, meeting rooms, manager’s cabin and general office space. Visitors to the lobby can see the showroom and the offices beyond the showroom. The office workers can enjoy the view of the garden which contains the showroom.
In both of these offices, the furniture is designed as modular units without partitions and screens. All wiring is contained in a vertical divider that houses computer monitors for two tables. The tables themselves are totally removable and rest on free standing storage units. The layout balances the need for privacy with the need for spaciousness. The modular furniture is easier to dismantle and rearrange than screen based modular units. Since each workstation consists of four standard units only, changes in layout can be made without the need for new components.