Design: The office - it's a place to relax

Arthur Andersen's sixth floor offers a glimpse of how tomorrow's workspaces will be designed.
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The Independent Online
THE NINETIES have seen a virtual revolution in office design. Information technology has enabled a radical re-think, with forward-looking organisations turning their backs on personal desk space in favour of more flexible working environments. Early adopters of this new credo were London-based creative businesses: advertising agencies, design consultancies and the odd PR company. Now, the ripples are spreading further afield - among the latest converts is management consultants Arthur Andersen.

At first glance, Arthur Andersen's central London head office at 180 The Strand is, to say the least, underwhelming. A concrete office block, the building houses some 3,000 employees across up to nine floors in five connected blocks. Built in the mid-Seventies, it has been fitted out by the firm in briskly efficient (if drab) light wood and pastel shades. A traditional cellular structure means that numerous small, self-contained offices ring the building's exterior, while lines of window-less cubicles and load-bearing columns run down the centre of each floor.

Visit the sixth floor offices of Arthur Andersen's Business Consulting division, however, and prepare for the shock of the new. The floor has been gutted and an imaginative work environment introduced, complete with "Chaos" (action), "Zen" (quiet) and "Touchdown" (temporary working) zones, flashes of bright colour and free-standing illustrated panels. A coffee bar and other new meeting areas have been fitted with novel design features, not only to intrigue but to cater for the latest multimedia technology. Oh, and there is a liberal scattering of fish tanks.

The redesign was inspired by the changing nature of the company, explains Christi Franchie, director of organisation learning and exchange for Andersen's business consulting division. "It is a physical manifestation of where we are going in business," she says. "It is specifically designed to get different people in different teams collaborating - to foster new and more creative relationships by positioning people around each other."

Out have gone intimidating boardrooms in favour of intimate "conversation areas" to overcome "the negative them and us ethos", says Ms Franchie. And movement of staff - and clients - throughout the entire area has been drastically re-thought. Some of the floor's few internal dividing walls curve, some fold back to reveal new space while others incorporate portholes or fish tanks to create new perspectives.

The design creates different moods in different areas, says Lydia Ney, senior designer at BDG McColl, Arthur Andersen's consultants. Visitors step out of the lift onto the floor at the "Hub", or reception area, where they can use the latest multimedia equipment. Opposite them are windows which extend across the entire length of the building overlooking The Strand. Along this runs the "Touchdown Bar", a narrow lip of workspace where staff are encouraged to sit at stools, plug in their laptops and phones and work for short periods of time.

Bright and airy, this area also serves as an informal corridor between the "Chaos" and "Zen" zones, which occupy opposite ends of the floor, to the left and the right. Back towards the rear of the building, away from The Strand, the mood quietens with other work areas. No employee has their own office, although senior partners are allowed their own desk. As everyone works on laptop computers, the idea is that you work where you feel most comfortable - either with other members of your project team or to suit your mood.

Staff have their own stylishly designed lockers - large enough to store work and computer when not in use. Navy and pale green banks of these units have been zoned into groups under different place names, ranging from Antwerp to Zurich (taking in Blackpool along the way "for fun", Ms Ney says). These are supplemented by "Team Walls" - additional storage areas ordered by topic, where project materials are stored.

At one end of the floor is the "Chaos" area designed for group work and informal discussion. This is semi-partitioned from the rest of the floor by illustrated screens depicting a knot of cables and wires in vibrant red. All furniture and equipment is lightweight and on wheels, so the space is constantly changing. The area also includes three brainstorming rooms - one red, one blue and one green - inspired by Edward de Bono. The idea is that you use the red room to energise a meeting at a slow time of the day. For a quieter, more calming environment, blue or green is advised.

At the opposite end of the floor is the "Zen" zone - again divided by panels, which this time depict pebbles, sand and palm fronds in quiet hues. In this area, signs chant: "No meetings. No phones. No interruptions." It is space for quiet reflection (and, of course, fish tanks).

Technology has been the driving force throughout. Not only did Arthur Andersen want to incorporate the latest in PC and multimedia-ware to impress its clients, it also wanted to inspire staff. So, interactive white boards on the walls can be downloaded to laptop computers and infra-red transmitters will shortly enable staff to pick up TV, audio and corporate presentations from monitors positioned around the floor.

The net result is more efficient use of available space and a more effective, motivated workforce, claims UK projects manager Dean Smith. The old layout had room for 95, the new one accommodates up to 170 with 103 desks available at any one time. "An inherent problem in this building has been that we've lost meeting rooms as we've grown," he says. "This structure frees up more space - nine out of 10 meetings can be conducted in an informal area."

Three months in and the department has truly bedded down. "We have seen communication increase dramatically," says business consultant Abigail Clifton. "It's easier now to sit and share information with people from other groups within the department. It's noisier, but there is far more interaction."

Of course there were some reservations. "When you go from a cellular office to open plan, people always remark on the noise and loss of privacy," Mr Smith admits. "'Hot desking' can make people insecure." Even so, junior and senior staff adapted quickly. And even middle managers, whose initial resistance was fuelled by seeing hopes of their own future fiefdom fade, are finally coming on side.

Once, the regimented structure of the traditional office reinforced the corporate hierarchy. The office of the Nineties, gurus claim, is demolishing traditional structures. And they are right - up to a point. True, Arthur Andersen Business Consulting staff now relish their new found flexible working and laud its break with tradition with everyone sharing the same space. But it is interesting to note that while Arthur Andersen intends to re-design other departments, none will be as radical as here. Which, of course, will create an altogether new form of "cellular" structure - with Business Consulting set clearly aside from Arthur Andersen's other departments.

Divide and rule lives on, then, if in a far subtler form.