The Ever-Whirling Wheel of Change

Feb. 23, 2005
BI Opinion
Recently, I read Douglas Levere’s Changing New York, a sensitive homage to photographer Berenice Abbott’s 1939 classic Changing New York. In this new collection, Levere painstakingly re-shot Abbott’s classic Depression-era scenes. The juxtaposition of Levere’s and Abbott’s images revealed striking images of New York City’s drastic changes and surprising continuity.From ramshackle tenements to slick, glass-front office towers, these photographs chronicle how New York City has responded to change. On a smaller scale, facilities managers continually find themselves accommodating change. Conference/training space/eating area: Facilities managers are often challenged with making the best use of their spaces for several purposes. Reconfigurability has become one of the most pressing issues in commercial interior design.With 21 years of experience, Bill Dowell is the director of research at Herman Miller Inc., Zeeland, MI, and leads two groups. One examines how work will change in the near future by following trends in work-tool technology, human resources, and the work environment. These trends inform the company’s research, design, and development processes. The second group Dowell oversees – the development insight group – looks at business opportunity projects, as well as identifies and solves problems. His researchers have varied backgrounds and training, such as economics, engineering, design, and psychology.“There is an overall trend for more shared space in the workplace,” says Dowell. A 1998 study, sponsored by the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) and Herman Miller, asked a large group of facilities managers about the percentage of usable space in their facilities devoted to individual and shared workspace. At that time, approximately 75 percent of the respondents’ work areas were individual space and 25 percent was shared space. This same group also predicted that in 2003, that breakdown of workspace would be 63-percent individual space and 37-percent shared usage.In 2003, Herman Miller replicated the survey to verify this prediction. Surprisingly, the results were 56-percent individual space and 44-percent shared space. Dowell continues to perform high-level surveys with facilities managers; currently, the workspace ratio is 50-50.Generally, the footprints of organizations are not growing; therefore, the allocation of more shared space is coming at the expense of individual workstations. “Shared space is probably best used if it is reconfigurable; if it can be more than one thing,” says Dowell.So what is the best arrangement for shared, multipurpose spaces? There is not one answer. Since workstations are shrinking, it is less likely for guest chairs to be in workstations. Instead, small shared spaces are becoming the norm for one-on-one collaborations and small informal meetings.More organizations are creating these intimate shared rooms, usually taking space from the facility’s circulation space to create flexible meeting rooms. “If that circulation space can also double as small group meeting space, then you can actually do two things at once,” says Dowell.Another option is in large community spaces, such as a theater. These spaces can be used as a town hall center for large groups, and later morphed into several smaller rooms for conferences, presentations, training sessions, and social events.With multipurpose, reconfigurable space, privacy is still a major concern. Privacy has a number of different definitions, including acoustic and visual privacy. Acoustic privacy is usually the most critical issue for end-users – the need both not to be distracted and not to be overheard. While there are many solutions to prevent conversations from being overheard, tackling the distraction problem is more challenging. Some end-users actually prefer the stimulation of a noisy environment. “Trying to provide each individual with the privacy that they need 100 percent of the time is so costly. Talk about a paradox!” says Dowell.The increase of cafés and other eating areas in the workplace, along with portable technology, allows for new opportunities for work. Adds Dowell, “At my office, we have a coffee bar – and people were afraid to use it 5 years ago. Now, that same area is in constant use because work happens in many places outside of the workstation.”Regina Raiford Babcock, Senior Editor ([email protected])

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