Open Space: A commitment to communication.
By Wojciech Czaja, 11. April 2018
Mr Wiesner, could you give us an idea what the office of an office furniture manufacturer looks like?
Wiesner: Being the CEO, I have the privilege of having an office of my own. But it’s not one of these typical prestigious executive’s offices. Instead, my office is subdivided into three areas: There’s the usual workplace, where I mainly work on my laptop. Then there is a common area, which is used for smaller meetings. And last but not least there is a recreation area with a low couch, where I sometimes lay down for fifteen minutes. But unfortunately, this is not very often.
Plasterboard walls? Louvres? Glass?
Wiesner: My office is enclosed by glass walls just like that of the other employees. There is no hierarchy. Transparency is maintained through all levels up to the management.
And you, Mr Kern, where do you work?
Kern: I sit close to my colleagues in an office of 14 square metres. However, I have to admit I travel a lot. 40 to 50 percent of my working time I’m away on business. I use my office mainly for organizational work, for phone calls, for short meetings, and so on. When I want to focus on some work I prefer to retreat. In the office it’s too busy for this, with the phone ringing all the time.
This also happens in an open-plan office!
Kern: Quite definitely, you’re less by yourself than in a single office or a small group office. You’re faced with a certain openness and transparency. This is absolutely true. It’s a matter of habit. However, compared to the solitude and privacy where I retreat and might even close the door behind me, open-plan offices have one decisive advantage: employees have the opportunity to participate in the corporate affairs directly and immediately. Thus, open-plan offices are a commitment to communication and hence to the modernity and vitality of an enterprise.
These middle zones are extremely important in an open-plan office. Both in the sense of configuring the standard workplaces and of ensuring a certain heterogeneity in the office.
In spite of this, many employees are not very happy with the situation in the open-plan office.
Wiesner: This is a cliché. Not only, but also. Railing against open-plan offices is en vogue today. From my experience I can say that there is one interesting phenomenon to be observed world-wide: as a general rule, employees are unhappy with new room concepts. Novelties tend to be met with a critical attitude. It takes some time until people adapt to a new situation.
What should be particularly considered when planning open-plan offices?
Wiesner: A large hall covering 700 square metres only provided with desks and cubicles as we have seen it in the USA – this is not the solution. You have to create a topology, namely a topology for different space situations, for different characters, as well as for different moods and conditions on particular days. A certain privacy is also necessary. And to this end some optical, acoustic, climatic, and atmospheric measures have to be taken.
What measures would that be, concretely speaking?
Wiesner: In fact, there’s no limit to design. What is needed is diversity. This can be achieved by furniture, by partition walls, plants, but also a certain, unconscious layout. That cannot be standardized.
Kern: Another possibility is the way of designing the so-called middle zone.
Kern: Middle zone is a general term. It may include service areas, printer areas, discussion tables or quite simply differently designed communication areas. These middle zones are extremely important in an open-plan office. Both in the sense of configuring the standard workplaces and of ensuring a certain heterogeneity in the office. The more different zones and personal styles, the better.
Are there any international differences in the quality of workplace design?
Wiesner: Of course! Some time ago I was in Asia and had a look at the open-plan office of a consulting company. I was shocked! This was just like a laying battery! Hundreds of desks linked to each other. Nothing else. But apart from such extreme examples, I’d say: in general, the demands on office design are definitely higher in Central Europe than in Asia or in the Anglo-American region, that is to say mainly in the UK and the USA.
The typical American open-plan office, where you overlook 200 places when you get up from your chair, we don’t have this in Austria?
Wiesner: Very rarely, I’d say. It is certainly not the standard.
From your experience: how many square metres of office space should be considered for one employee nowadays?
Kern: I’m reluctant to give any figures, but roughly I’d say: 25 to 30 square metres of gross floor area and/or 15 to 20 square metres of effective area per employee would be a good guiding principle. But this is really just a rough guide. In the concrete case, the optimum office size always depends on the structure of the enterprise and the architectural conditions.
The German management consultant Jan Teunen recommends so-called “decompression spaces” in the open-plan office. What’s your opinion about this?
Wiesner: Decompression? This term has a very negative connotation. It sounds like: the room conditions I’ve created are so bad that I have to plan some space for decompression to compensate it. That’s not how I want to see this causal relationship.
But isn’t it a fact that employees are more and more pressed? Higher performance, better quality, but less time, less money, less staff? This is bound to cause overpressure. In this sense, the term “decompression” may be justified.
Wiesner: That’s a matter of opinion. I’m not a friend of the large and boring open-plan office, into which I put some boxes and cubicles for decompression. Who’d go in there voluntarily? The quality of design has to permeate all areas. Therefore, I’d rather use the term middle zone instead of decompression space. This may include, for example, a meeting room that looks like a woozy, cosy library with winged chairs. That’s how an office should look like. Then this overpressure you’re talking about, will simply not build up.
So it is a question of comfort and cosiness? A certain living room character?
Wiesner: Yes, there is a strong tendency towards living room offices. Last year I was at the Orgatec trade fair in Cologne, and I noticed that in many cases you almost can’t distinguish between a living room and an office any more.
It this good?
Wiesner: If the character of a place it all that matters, I can easily understand the crossover design of living room and office. But mixing these two areas too much would be dangerous in my eyes. A certain separation, a certain distance should be maintained. The term work-life balance definitely has its justification. I consider this very important.
Final questions: What is the office of the future like?
Wiesner: The office has to be a place where I’m comfortable. A place that reminds me a little of living at home. A place that encourages communication and creativity within the group. Above all, from the employer’s point of view the office has to become a place that is planned very carefully and in great detail. Architecture and office design may not be everything, but they are important factors that can influence and thus also improve the satisfaction of the employees, the climate in the office, and identification with the enterprise. Nothing more and nothing less.