Playing With Space

Sept. 30, 2003
Solving the Space Planning Puzzle
Remember Tetris? Move one block down, turn another block on its side and shift it over to the right. The game gives you a certain amount of space, and it’s your job to make all the pieces fit. And while space planning and Tetris aren’t exactly the same, they’re really not that far apart. “It’s like a big, big puzzle,” says Barbara Truemper, IIDA, IFMA, principal at InterSpace Interior Design and Space Planning, Cedar Rapids, IA. So whether you’re managing a space planning project or doing the hands-on work yourself, here are five basic steps to get you started.Evaluate the Current SituationDon’t just haphazardly move furniture around and wait to see what happens. Talk to employees and tenants using the space to find out what they like about their current environment. What’s working right; what isn’t? Are there problems that need to be addressed? “Make sure you capture all of the support space requirements, too: storage, shipping/receiving, coatrooms, libraries, and computer rooms,” emphasizes Truemper. Measure the current performance of processes and task implementation – a more updated space plan could improve routines. Create a workflow map to identify possible breakdown, redundancy, and enhancement opportunities. Now is an ideal time to conduct assessments with staff members to gather opinions and observations. Which improvements are important to them; what do they value most about their current workspace? Take down any complaints or any ideas for space development. “The more functional a space is and the better it supports a person’s activities, the more productive that person can be,” explains Truemper. Ask tenants and employees the following questions:Is the current work environment a place of stress or a place of high energy activity?Is the current workplace a reflection of company image or is it outdated, cluttered, and poorly maintained?Is your office a place you must escape in order to think or a place that helps your creativity?Is the workplace a source of frustration or a resource for your work?Do you consider the work environment a “place you go to work” or a “place that works for you?”Is the workplace a recruiting and retention tool or a necessary evil?Is your office a place your boss wants you to work or a place you go to do your best work?Discuss and Agree on Goals for the New Space PlanWhy are you making these changes in the first place? Incorporate employee and tenant input as you list your goals for this venture. Tackle the issues and arrangements that were identified as “not working” during the assessment stage and see if there’s a way to improve. Do you have specific goals to address with this new space plan, such as improving financial performance, shortening a certain processing cycle, or reducing communication gaps? Create and list these company goals to use as a reference tool.Consider These Points During ProgrammingMost importantly, make sure you understand what the space is being used for. Planning work areas for engineers who use computers and drafting tables is much different than planning for telemarketers who are constantly on the phone. Once you have a grasp on the tasks being carried out in the space, review company values and views on the workplace environment. Where do the company’s preferences lie? These values will make a difference when trying to reach conclusions regarding best use of the space:Does your organization thrive on collaborative group work or heads-down solo work?What determines office space – tasks and functions or title and pay grade?How do people communicate? How frequently?Is a distraction-free workplace imperative to finishing tasks or is free and open knowledge transfer encouraged?As the trend swings back and forth between private offices and open plans, “It always comes back to the same thing,” says Truemper. “You have to look at what people do in order to provide the right space. Somebody even in the lower ranks of the company may need a lot of privacy because of what they do. It would be better to put them in a private office, whereas an executive might be easily accommodated in a cubicle; often times, they are traveling or in meetings. If they need to have a private conversation, they can go to a conference room. That’s why the needs assessment and what [people] need to support their work is really so important. It makes all the difference in the world for the effectiveness of the business.”Begin the Design and ImplementationOnce you’ve evaluated current situations, listed objectives for the new space plan, and considered what the workspace is used for, it’s time to establish a plan and carry it out. Remember these guidelines:As you devise a plan, keep in mind that you have to meet building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines with your new layout. There’s a balance between visual stimulation and clutter. If a space looks in disarray, it’s only going to create anxiety and stress for the occupants that have to see it every day. Don’t try to cram too much into one space. On the other hand, lack of visual stimulation may force tenants to work harder to maintain alertness.Make sure paths are spacious and clear. This allows a safe and easy thoroughfare for people and provides views to stairs, elevators/escalators, restrooms, and other offices. Also, make sure that maintenance can easily get to storage closets and building systems (HVAC, electrical, etc.).Plan informal gathering places near lobbies, copiers, mail boxes, restrooms, vending areas, and stairs/elevators. This will encourage information exchange, and may lessen the frequency of disruptions and impromptu meetings occurring in the middle of open plan office space.Don’t forget to plan for “additional” spaces that are sometimes overlooked: areas for visitors to wait, space for temporary or holiday employees, and graphics/microfiche stations. Remember the “adjacency” factor. “You need to look at departments and departmental adjacencies so that people working together can sit together or at least have easy access to one another,” explains Truemper.Plan for the future ... in terms of building expansion, additional employees, and emerging technology.Not every office or cubicle has to look exactly the same. Let employees have choices regarding artwork, plants, desk accessories, etc. This will give them some involvement in the design process without them deciding things that must remain management decisions.Establish a “move coordination” plan.Don’t forget about incorporating lead times into your project timeline.Monitor and Conduct a Post-occupancy EvaluationYou’re done ... right? Wrong! After tenants have had a chance to experience and adapt to their new work environment (about three months later), make sure you follow up with them. Conduct face-to-face evaluations, pass out a questionnaire – just make sure to revisit the initial goals and objectives of the project. Has productivity improved as planned? Are occupants complaining? Get their take on the situation – noise, number of available electrical outlets, storage capacity, comfort level of the office chairs, lighting – and find out how their new setting affects projects, creativity, information exchange, and employee interaction. If things are working well, you may decide to keep the information in written form. “[This] helps to draft private office or workstation standards and helps a company do space planning in a more efficient way down the road,” says Truemper. You may also want to generate a binder cataloging choices on furniture, color samples, and finishes that are working best.From needs assessment through design development, she emphasizes that whether you’re dealing with a school, a hospital, a bank, or a corporate office building, the rules of space planning “seem to be very similar no matter what. You have to find out what kind of furniture, equipment, and storage people need in order to do their particular work and how they need to group together in order to get that work done.” But if you still don’t know where or how to start, Truemper suggests contacting a professional: “They can probably give you some advice, help you to ask the right questions – even in just a one-hour session – to say, ‘Maybe these are some of the things you should look at.’ “It’s not terribly difficult,” says Truemper, “but it is time-consuming for somebody whose job normally does not include space planning. I think unless you’ve done it a number of times, especially on larger projects, you have to have a good mind for puzzles. You save yourself a lot of headaches if you have somebody to help you with the details.“Even in a down economy when you don’t want to spend money, or you need to reinvest your money into your business and don’t want to spend it on a new office layout: If you can take a clear look at the workings of each department and how people work together, then sometimes there is a way – with minimal cost – to improve on the workflow and communication and to position people to increase productivity and impact the bottom line. It doesn’t always have to cost a lot of money.”Use these steps for future projects, and you’re sure to become a space planning champion. Game over!Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is editorial coordinator at Buildings magazine.

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