Will the Great Trade Association Merger have any impact on office design?

Ceci n'est pas un bureauAnybody who has been working in and around the facilities management sector for any length of time will know that the FM profession/discipline (delete as appropriate) regularly undergoes protracted periods of existential angst about its role. It strikes me however that this is actually quite an easy question to deal with because the answer is the same as it is for similarly amorphous professions such as marketing. It all seems to depend on who you are and what you are trying to do. That’s the twist. The average facilities manager, like the Urban Spaceman, doesn’t exist. I might think that but it won’t stop the associations and institutes currently working together to establish a new super-body for FM in the UK having to continue the debate.

From the point of view of those who work in this broad church of workplace design and management, let alone the myriad variations of ‘facilities management’,  the main point of contention goes to the root of what we actually want from the places we work. I know that ‘The Death of the Office’ has been a theme that people have pursued for two decades, and it is now a more feasible idea than ever before, but it wasn’t the answer to anything back then and it isn’t now. It’s theoretically possible but few want it.

What we have instead is a constantly evolving idea of what the office is for. The best generalised response to what this might be is that, yet again, it depends on who you are and what you are trying to do. But, as we know, those are not necessarily easy questions for organisations to answer and even if they were, we would still be left with the challenge of developing the right workplace model that satisfies the needs of the organisation and the people who work for it.

To help us meet this challenge, we are now fortunate to be blessed with a wide choice of office design models and the technology that drives and underpins them. Yet there is a concomitant and enduring challenge for the facilities management function along with the firms they use to acquire, design, manage and fit-out offices. It is how best to develop a solution that meets their needs today but is able to adapt to those they don’t yet have without getting dragged into any dogmatic approach to workplace design based on the fallacy that any of the models we have at our disposal represents ‘the office of the future’. And please. No slides.

The underlying issue here is how you resolve the tensions that exist between the different elements of the building, each of which operates on its own timescale. From the building which has a lifespan measured in decades, through to the fit-out which is measured in years and down to the people and their technology which have needs that can change from moment to moment.

The principles behind this complex situation have been know to us for a long time, at least since the 1970s when Frank Duffy first introduced the world to his ideas about the physical and temporal layers of the building – in his terminology the ‘shell, services, scenery and sets’. The balance between these layers may have shifted significantly in recent years, but the tensions between them continue to determine how well we design and manage our workplaces.

These same tensions are also evident in the many sectors and professions that intersect with the facilities management role. You only have to look at Martin Pickard’s frankly outstanding infographic of the FM function to realise quite how many overlaps it has with other sectors.

Each of these sectors has its own characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, complexities and conflicted interests that the facilities manager must be aware of. For example, we have a commercial property sector that may be moving in the right direction in overall terms of understanding client needs but may still not be completely in step with the most current trends in the way many firms use space.  I well remember the hoo-ha with which the British Council for Offices launched its updated specification guide in 2009 with what it seemed to think was the groundbreaking idea that office space standards had fallen to 11.8 square metres per person.

Even three years ago, this was still a high number, they haven’t updated the guide since and it’s still for sale on the BCO website so is presumably still informing the way in which buildings are being developed. This is not a good thing because before we even begin to fit out these buildings and work in them, they may belong in the past, although I understand changes to the guide are in the offing.

You could also argue that there is a problem with the very idea of ‘space standards’ given that so much space within offices is now not merely shared but socialised. Creating buildings using linear equations about the number of people that work in them is increasingly irrelevant when work and workplaces are so complex that some form of calculus would be a better way of calculating their size and shape. It is this degree of complexity that drives the demand for sophisticated building management, room booking and CAFM technology and is the reason we are seeing such an exciting integration of the physical and virtual working environment.

The commercial interiors industry also has its own set of challenges, not least in adapting to its changing role. Twenty years ago, the mainstay of this sector was the desk, L-shaped, allocated to one person and heavily engineered to carry a PC with a huge monitor. Flat screens shifted the emphasis for this industry away from the desk and onto the task chair. And now we are seeing another shift which reflects the more social role of the office and the advent of a new type of working with new technology which is not reliant on somebody sitting at a desk. The emphasis is increasingly on other forms of seating, meeting tables, finishes, flooring and screens.

In this sphere too, official guidance is so hopelessly out of date that it must be used advisedly. The most up to date guidance on ergonomics on the HSE website is the Display Screen Equipment regulations of 1992. Even though these were updated in 2002, the principles on which these regulations are based mean that they are only appropriate for specific forms of work. They somehow managed to completely overlook the ubiquity of the laptop, and anybody working on an iPad in a soft seat with a coffee on the arm will need to seek guidance on ergonomics elsewhere.

And finally, the inevitable word on the environment. We will continue to see an enormous amount of bullshit talked about this. I can confidently say this will not come as news to you. The only thing I know with any degree of certainty is that the environment appears to be a lower priority for many organisations at just the time we need to be doing more than is demanded of us. There is still too much emphasis placed on mitigating our impact on the environment with welcome but marginal initiatives such as the recycling of cans and cups, when what is also needed is an entirely new approach to more serious questions about supply chains, energy use and working methodologies that cut down on travel. I think this is not only one of the most pressing issues we can all address, but also offers a great opportunity for FMs to drive an agenda that improves the environmental performance of the organisation and cuts its costs. Many are doing it already and it would be great to see many more join them by the end of 2013.

The challenge for whatever body emerges from the proposed merger will be how to address these issues as they relate to the design of the workplace in all its guises. And while they’re doing that for the issue of workplace design, they can have a go at all the other branches of the facilities management function.

by Mark Eltringham