Business Essentials : Three L-shaped plans, one perfect fit

What do you get if you divide an 80sq ft office by 16 people? Kate Hilpern goes back to the drawing board for an answer

Anyone who has worked in an open-plan office will know just how crucial it is to get the layout right. Get it wrong and staff can feel isolated or, at the other end of the spectrum, they can suffer from lack of any privacy. Meanwhile, noise levels can be unbearable or communal space almost non-existent.

Ian Peel, the director of the media and marketing consultancy MCC International, knows this all too well. Based just outside Winchester, the firm has trouble fitting its 16 employees - who work in five teams - around its L-shaped office.

"We want to make it as communal as possible," Mr Peel explains, "but also keep noise and interruption to a minimum. We've tried various arrangements, none of which we've been particularly happy with."

When the company first moved into the office in 1999, the desks were set up facing each other in pairs all round the room. "People got on well and worked fine, but the employees at one end of the room had no idea what their colleagues were working on at the other end," says Mr Peel. "We'd go down the pub on a Friday and you'd get people saying, 'Oh, you're working on a project very similar to me. I could have helped you with it if I'd known.'"

As a direct result, MCC set up Monday morning meetings for all employees to share ideas and views. "But it still didn't change the fact that one employee might ring a journalist, and another employee might ring them a few minutes later," he says.

The current arrangement is a combination of desk clusters, one for each team. Crucially, Mr Peel says, although three teams of three people do similar jobs, the other teams - one of four people, another of two and another person on their own - can all exist independently.

Although the inter-staff communication level is now higher than it was, the layout still isn't anywhere near perfect. "There is a physical problem as well," says Mr Peel. "During the summer, we had one day when an employee had her back to everyone all day. That's not on."

To make matters worse, one member of the team of four people has to sit on his own because there isn't room for four desks to fit together.

Mr Peel's preference is for what he calls "the classic model agency layout". "Whenever I see model agencies on TV, the desks seem to be in one big oval facing each other, and I can see how that might lead to very focused work chat. I'd be happy to try this, but my only concern is that you might get someone on the phone all afternoon sitting next to someone else who is trying to write an article."

He is also willing to try hot-desking, with staff using any available workstation rather than having one assigned to them. Alternatively, a "social corner" could be set up, where colleagues could chat over a coffee. But he is keen to stay clear of cubicles, "because they can create a feeling of isolation".