2002 - Office design
Workers at the project management
office for the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands
might be forgiven if they ask themselves where
they want to go that day. They have options. Mexico
maybe? No problem. Africa? Quite possible. Japan?
The Sahara? It can be arranged.
The offices have been given an
exotic touch by Gispen, the Amsterdam-based office
supplier, part of the Danish Skandinavisk Group.
One meeting room, called Out of Africa, has zebra-
patterned curtains and earthenware African-style
lamps. The Japanese office has rattan and white
cotton muslin surrounds while the meeting room
has a sloping awning to give the effect of a Bedouin
Can any of this be dismissed
as a fad? Peter Veer, Gispen's managing director,
does not think so. "Let's be straight, we're
in the business of selling furniture but we are
finding that we have to respond to technical and
social developments and some of the things we
are looking at are emotional issues," he
The Utrecht office make-over
arose from a desire to provide options for greater
flexibility. The modem, the internet and the laptop
computer allowing employees to be connected with
their work in remote locations, coupled with pressures
to save costs, led to a reassessment of the office
space. At the Utrecht office only support staff
such as secretaries have permanent desks. Other
staff must look for what's available when they
arrive. Each employee has an upright filing cabinet
on wheels which can be taken to any desk.
The new arrangements did not
come easily to some who wanted to work in the
same place every day. The management wanted to
avoid the experience of Interpolus, an Amsterdam
insurance company that was one of the first Dutch
employers to experiment with hot - desking , the
1990s fad for increasing employee-to-desk ratios.
At Interpolus it was possible
to book desks in advance. What tended to happen
was that every day the same employees would want
to book the same desks.
The Utrecht office has experienced
fewer problems because it has a high ratio of
desks to employees. If "docking stations"
- places where laptop computers can be connected
- are included, most of the 40-strong establishment
is covered by a workspace. In practice the busy
days are Mondays and Thursdays. This is because
for many Dutch workers these days, Thursday tends
to be the end of the week.
"It's very much better in
the new arrangement than the way things were before,"
says Annemarie Andriessan, the office manager.
"People like to come here."
John Venneman, manager of Gispen's
consulting arm, who was closely involved with
the original designs, says: "The workplace
is a living and changing environment. It's quite
possible that in five years' time someone will
say, can't we change it? That would be natural.
But that doesn't mean we will have to get rid
of all the fixings. It may be a question of redecorating,
of looking at the details. Underneath the office
has been designed to be practical. The desks are
well designed and adjustable with power points
where they need them."
Quite independently, employees
at the Project Management offices for Amsterdam
have won their own workplace redesign. These offices
on four stories of an eight-storey office block
have, if anything, an even warmer feel to them
than those in Utrecht. There is no particular
theme to the development beyond that of mixing
social and work space.
Employees still have small offices
around the periphery of the building but the designers
have carved out a cafe-style meeting place with
an upright piano in one corner surrounded by dozens
of framed photographs of the office workers and
their families. The tables are deliberately stained
in different colours with differing styles and
shades of chairs adding to the informal atmosphere.
There is something of the eccentric
here with large floral patterns decorating one
set of partitions, bold prints on one office wall
with etched patterned glass elsewhere. One tiny
office looks like a Victorian gentleman's parlour.
The effect is homely, friendly and informal, all
very unlike an office. Yet everything works. Behind
the decor is a robust concern for function.
The makeover did not come cheap,
about 11,000 euros per employee, compared to Euros
7,000 (£4,300) per employee to fit out a
conventional office. Tom Stewart, the office manager,
believes it was worth it although he admits it
is difficult to make any cost-benefit analysis.
This "new romantic"
office is unusual in the public sector. The touchy-feely
office was pioneered in New York and the UK by
the Chiat Day advertising agency - now renamed
St Luke's in the UK after an employee buy-out.
But the Dutch planning system,
designed around a holistic approach to integrated
land use, transport, housing and environmental
strategies, places a strong emphasis on social
and environmental concerns.
There is far greater employee
involvement in decision-making than in US, UK
and many other European employment hierarchies.
Since 1991 the Dutch Ministry
of Housing, Physical Planning and the Environment
has pursued a policy of concentrating housing,
workplace and shopping areas together to reduce
This new approach to the workplace
is lending a different edge to the concept of
working from home. Rather than taking work into
the home it is bringing home comforts into the
Gone are the standardised cubicles
and antiseptic colour schemes. You almost expect
to find hanging on the wall a needlepoint picture
saying "work sweet work".
Perhaps some workplaces will
become the social environments they used to be
early last century when office workers might have
toasted crumpets by the fire, when a visit from
the cake trolley was a morning ritual and when
the odd glass of whisky did not go amiss.
Unfortunately, fire regulations,
alcohol bans, cost-savings and the continuing
obsession with productivity, are likely to suppress
this nostalgic image. Somehow the water-cooler
doesn't have quite the same appeal.
But the Dutch have shown that
you can revive the social side of work with an
upright piano, cafe-style tables and flowery wallpaper.
It doesn't take much to change things, just a
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