It's the computer age, so who needs a desk? Managers must exercise their spacial skills to optimise office use.
Welcome to the "Natural Office". On the flooring a central green island is encircled by a sandy beach with blue water at its edges. Cross the blue water-run ramps, on one side of the office, to the bridge of a ship and, on the other, to a quiet room. On the bridge of the ship are round tables for informal meetings. Beneath the window (of the quiet room), aspirant golfers can sink a putt, or make a hole in one, on a mini golf- course. "A central feature is a large indoor tree growing from the garden, with limbs spreading across the ceiling and pieces of fruit hanging from them. Gently press the button on the fruit and a computer workstation will descend from the ceiling," gushes the spiel.

This is not fantasy, but a real office, owned by Digital Equipment Corporation in Sweden. Photographs of it shocked British workers who saw them recently. They felt it was a bit over the top. It did, however, stimulate employees at healthcare insurers PPP's head office in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, to think and talk about new styles of office working.

The slide show was part of the consultation exercise mounted by management faced with the problem of getting 77 information technology and systems staff into a space designed for 63. The result of talks was that staff agreed to squeeze their personal workspace area, although each still kept their own desk - unlike the Swedes, who now have mobile workdesks.

In return, however, PPP employees gained a variety of work settings, including "break-out areas " consisting of cafe-style tables and chairs plus sofas, more meeting rooms and a quiet room for concentrated work - without a telephone. The changes cost pounds 160,000 but saved pounds 70,000 a year to pay for new office space. Productivity gains of nearly 3 per cent helped to make an overall pay-back period of just over one year.

The experiment was extended to the 12-strong facilities management department. Sixteen filing cabinets were cut to eight by using only computer records for internal work, backed up daily. The department head, John de Lucy, gave up his office and desk. The area was turned into a meeting-room available to anyone booking it through the electronic diary system.

Mr de Lucy, who initiated the whole experiment, says: "I am quite happy sitting at a meeting table or a break-out area. I only work at a laptop anyway, not a personal computer." Mr de Lucy is one of a growing band of managers convinced that offices used for only 40 hours out of a possible 168 constitute an under-used asset. He is backing further studies looking at processing claims from 6-10pm, which suits some with families, and answering the phones from 10pm to 6am, which will mean the offices are used 24 hours a day.

Frank Becker, workplace guru, says Mr de Lucy is a pioneer in developing new ways of working stemming from his former post at Ernst & Young's British arm.

Professor Becker, director of international workplace studies at Cornell University in the United States, says leading companies that have been innovative in terms of workspace tend to be in information technology. IBM, for example, was one of the leaders in "hoteling", or booking desks in the same way as hotel rooms, and Digital was at the forefront of encouraging people to work in more environment-friendly ways from home or telework centres. Both were using e-mail and voice-mail years ahead of others. It is no coincidence either that management consultants such as Ernst & Young and Coopers & Lybrand have done "interesting things".

Professor Becker stresses: "You do not get new ways of working without the new management style that supports it." In his latest book, Workplace by Design - Mapping the High Performance Workscape*, written with the consultant Fritz Steele and published last month, he explains: "A high- performance team or organisation requires a high-performance workplace." The cost of overcoming poor surroundings can be high, sapping time and energy, he warns.

Elements of tomorrow's "workscape", as he calls it, are here today. But, he says, firms "lack a truly strategic view of how these things fit together". The carrot for them is that it offers better use of resources, allowing their staff to be as productive as possible, with improved services and products at lower costs.

The message, according to the innovative firm of architects and space planners DEGW, based at London's Regent's Canal, is that offices designed for another era with serried ranks of desks, are doomed. No one, for example, at DEGW has his or her own desk. The firm's founding director, Frank Duffy (who is also president of the Royal Institute of British Architects), claims workplaces are becoming more club-like. His associate director, David Toug, adds that while older generations may be wedded to their desks as the Englishman is to his castle, "today's graduates will probably not even need an office. If they are batting away on the Internet, all they need is a cafe in Tottenham Court Road."

*Published by Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. Tel: 001-415-433 1740.