Hollick opens up heart of the `Express'

Lord Hollick, chief executive of United News & Media has decreed an "open-plan" office on the eighth floor of United's Blackfriars headquarters, although the Labour peer has kept a private office for himself.

The new layout is aimed at creating what one insider calls an "open and accessible environment" at United, reminiscent of the offices of the old MAI, Lord Hollick's media and financial services company, which earlier this year merged with United.

Significantly, Lord Stevens, United's chairman, remains in his palatial office on the ninth floor, fuelling speculation that the Tory peer is no longer calling the shots at United, owners of the Express titles, regional newspapers and a conference division.

The new arrangements strike some insiders as the confirmation of Lord Hollick's growing power at United, and the increasing isolation of the Lord Stevens, who ran the newspaper group for 15 years.

Within the management area, which takes up half the eighth floor, executives are free to roam, and have access to all areas save the private offices of Lord Hollick and his senior staff. However, there is what one insider calls a "ring of steel" around the open area, as a way of securing confidential documents.

It was within this space that United's highly secretive plans to bid for the television rights to the Premier League were finalised. The project, which included a proposal to offer a range of digital television services, has now been shelved, following the deal reached between the league and BSkyB earlier this month.

Says a senior United executive: "There are really two theories about security and confidentiality. Some companies just lock all confidential material in safe in the chief executive's office. We prefer to have a more open environment, at least for the senior people."

Beyond its significance as an indication of relations between the two peers, the open-plan concept is at the heart of a raging debate in management consultancy circles about corporate efficiency. According to one school, much influenced by US experience, the open plan encourages more communication, a flatter, more efficient management structure and less friction between various layers of management. Other experts argue, however, that executives need private space in order to concentrate.

One US advertising agency has no private offices at all - nor even any desks. Staff are equipped with lightweight portable phones, and can make use of couches and tables spread out in the open space.

Media companies in the UK are more likely than most to have an open-plan environment - influenced, perhaps, by the layout of most newspapers, where only the very senior staff have private offices. Capital Radio, which is moving from its cramped headquarters in Euston Road to Leceister Square, is considering using an open-plan system, at least for most managers. But Chrysalis, for instance, which owns radio station Heart 102, has stuck with the traditional layout.