Changes in the business environment and in technology are revolutionizing the nature of work and the demands placed on businesses. This transformation is dramatically effecting the requirements placed on the office environment.

Changes in the Business Environment

To be successful today, businesses must deliver products and services that fulfill their customers' needs any time, any place. These products and services must often be customized to fulfill each individual customer's needs.

In order to respond instantaneously, organizational structure has fewer layers. Staff with customer contact are empowered to make decisions that can ensure customer satisfaction. Team work and collaborative efforts are essential to responsiveness and quality management. As a result, increasing demands with decreasing tolerances placed upon the work place.

An increasingly competitive marketplace is also increasing pressure to reduce prices, which creates a need to increase productivity and decrease costs so that profit margins can be maintained. As a result, businesses are taking a fresh look at the cost of facilities and evaluating strategies to reduce these costs.

Changes in Business Technologies

In parallel, advances in technology are making the office, as we know it, obsolete. Many workers do not need to be at the office to do much of their work. A worker can log on to the computer network at any workstation within the company's office, from a client site with a lap top, or at home with his own P/C or lap top. Telephone calls can be forwarded anywhere in the world. Video phones make it possible to attend meetings without being physically present. A document can be transmitted instantaneously by fax or e-mail. Voice mail has eliminated telephone tag and expedites communication.

In the future, technological advances will make all this simpler, quicker and better. Today it is already worth considering whether all workers need to be at the "office" daily, and whether it is necessary to provide dedicated work space for each employee.

Some organizations have already transferred staff out of the "office" and back home, including managers, word processors and data entry clerks. These workers are maintaining contact with the office by telephone, computer links and voice mail.

Other firms are providing work areas that are assigned to staff only when they are in the office. This concept is called "hotelling." In organizations such as consulting and accounting firms, or sales groups, the staff is out of the office more often than they are in the office. For certain types of staff, the office space can be reduced by over 50%. These savings can make significant contribution to increased profits. (Call, write or eMail and we will send you an example which illustrates a 20% increase in profits.)

Implications for Office Design

Planning and design requirements for the virtual office are significantly different. Increased sophistication of products and services generates more stringent performance requirements than those for a traditional office setting. To be successful in the highly competitive market place, a business needs a work environment that fully supports its processes and management objectives. There are four key considerations that dictate the success of the virtual office: flexibility, functional organization, personal work areas and building systems design.

Flexibility: To respond immediately to changing customer needs, the virtual corporation must be able to implement change rapidly. Activities and work tasks may be redesigned and re-engineered continuously. Teams may be formed, reorganized and disbanded very quickly. These organizational changes require almost instantaneous reconfiguration of the work place, or expansion, or contraction. Therefore, an adaptable work place is essential for today's business to effect rapid change.

Flexibility depends on layout of functions and spaces, construction design, selection of furniture systems, workstation design, and engineering design of building systems. Appropriate strategies will depend on the nature of the organization and its activities. For example, strategies can be modularization, limiting flexibility to specific areas, providing fully convertible space, etc.

Functional organization: The arrangement of work areas differs from that in a standard office. Usually there is a higher proportion of support space than in a typical office. Functional interrelationships are different. Design should encourage interpersonal communication. As mentioned above, adaptability is a critical necessity. Planning must sensitively respond to new requirements and conditions.

Personal work areas are very different from those seen in a more typical office. They must be much more flexible to be quickly personalized and adapted to specific needs. Very little storage space will be necessary within an individual office or workstation because no one individual will occupy the office for more than a very short period. Personal storage is accommodated elsewhere or in mobile units which are moved to an office or workstation when needed.

The personal work areas must be designed for prolonged use of computers. As the use of computers becomes increasingly widespread cumulative trauma disorders (CTD's), such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, become more common. CTD's are cited by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as the fastest growing category of work place injuries. OSHA estimates that by the end of this century, one half of all medical expenses will go to treating CTD's. Good workstation design and careful selection of furniture systems are key to reducing the potential for these injuries and can improve employee productivity as well.

Design must respond precisely to clearly understood, specific, atypical requirements.

Building systems design: Changes in the way people work, the equipment they use and the need for increased adaptability directly effects the systems of a building.

The method used for distributing cables will effect flexibility, initial cost and the cost of change. Some methods to be considered are power poles (unattractive, low cost, moderate flexibility), under floor troughs (expensive, limited capacities, moderate to high flexibility), poke through (inexpensive, inconvenient to relocate but changeable), access floor (expensive, highly flexible, large capacities). Each of these methods can be combined with the use of raceways built into furniture components which can deliver the cable to the exact point where it is needed.


A business must also confront numerous issues other than physical design in order to achieve a virtual office that works. These should be addressed early in the process, concurrent with physical planning and design.

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