In the opening scenes of the 1960 film The Apartment, we see CC 'Bud' Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) heading to work at a New York insurance company. Bud and his 31,259 co-workers pour into the tower block and Bud heads for his desk - the 19th floor, section W, desk 861. Bud's ultimate aim in life is to reach junior manager level, at which point he will get a small office that looks out over the endless rows of insurance clerks.
The senior management, meanwhile, sit in plush offices three floors up, with their own executive washroom.
The film, however satirical, would have been painfully familiar for any working professional in the 1960s. Offices had a strict hierarchical structure which was reflected in their design - the size and position of your desk and office indicated your rank within the company.
How times have changed. The 1990s saw the rank-equals-square footage approach to office design pushed aside in favour of vast open plan areas, such as those illustrated on this page. The trendier professions took it one step further, experimenting with brightly coloured rooms and games areas designed to encourage imaginative thinking. (Not that finance was included in this, of course. In researching this article I came across a glowing article about an advertising agency's new office, which featured doors taken from aircraft and a 'womb room', designed to 'incubate ideas'.
The finance people, the article noted at the end, 'inhabited a slightly more conventional corner of the office'. By which they meant a grey room set with lines of formica desks, no doubt.)
Accountancy may not have taken office design to the extremes of the advertising profession (thankfully, we have to say), but the changing nature of employment and the enormous advances in technology have nevertheless had significant effects on the way accountancy offices are designed and run.
One of the major driving forces behind the changing nature of the office is the amount of time the average accountant spends out of it. In any one day, particularly in the larger firms, only 60% to 70% of the total number of staff is likely to be working in the office, which means that providing a desk for every employee became something of a waste of space, and money.
At the same time, technological advances mean that a permanent IT workstation is no longer necessary. In the 1990s, Arthur Andersen was one of the first firms to introduce 'hot desking', where employees had no designated room or desk. At the time the idea was dismissed as an American trend, but hot-desking, or at least a variation of it, is still the basis for the larger firms today.
Making your reservation
Ernst & Young, for instance, operates a system that is known in the US as 'hoteling'. Employees do not have their own work stations but are able to book a workspace, office or meeting room through the office 'concierge' when they need it.
Practical considerations aside, there is an argument that the growing appeal of work-life balance has also had an effect. Homeworkers and telecommuters are on the increase (Accountancy, August, p128) and while many accountants prefer to work in an office, the belief that homeworkers somehow have a better lifestyle has led many employers to think harder about the 'fun at work' factor, and the general comfort of their offices.
It is no secret that a happy worker is a more productive worker and the working environment has a great deal to do with that. But what do workers want from their office? According to a survey of 1,500 office employees by Office Angels, most felt that their working lives would be improved, unsurprisingly, by large TV screens, fish tanks, table football and regular massages. A little optimistic, perhaps, but also high on the list was 'natural air and light'.
That may suggest that an open plan approach is the best solution, but that is not necessarily the case. Interestingly, the Office Angels survey showed that the vast majority of those questioned - 84% - said they would prefer to work in closed rather than open-plan offices.
According to Corinne Pringle of interior architects MCM, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to office design. 'Whether open plan works depends on the quality of the space - football fields of space just doesn't work. The most successful designs come about when we understand how people work. It's all about company culture, and finding a design that fits in with that.'
She believes that an office design should encourage communication. 'Lack of communication is a problem for many companies and in my view the biggest cause of that is email. People like communities and they like to feel part of something.'
How employees can be encouraged to feel 'part of something' is a question that is as individual as the company itself, and the principle is the same whatever the size of the business. There are, of course, legal requirements covering equipment and environment that employers have to adhere to, but a carefully and thoughtfully designed office, even if it only involves thinking about where desks are placed, can add considerably to the contentment, and therefore the productivity, of employees.
CASE STUDY: 1 More London Place
Ernst & Young's head office on the south bank of the Thames in London was designed with communication in mind. Previously, the firm's staff were scattered through five offices of varying quality in the city. The building was an opportunity to create the perfect working environment for the firm from scratch and with that in mind, E&Y hired MCM Architecture to help with the interior design of the building.
'The firm already had ideas on how they wanted to use the building and had decided that it was to be completely open plan,' says Corinne Pringle, managing director of MCM. 'That could have been contentious for some departments, but everyone came behind the idea. It was all about realising their vision for the building. The firm wanted to get away from the culture that if you're not sitting at your desk, you're not working, and that can be a difficult habit to break. The building is meant to encourage mobility and transparency.'
Designing the interior space, she says, was a very consultative process.
The Foster-designed building consists of two nine-story buildings that are connected through an atrium and a series of bridges on higher floors.
'Each floor has break-out areas, tea and coffee points and meeting areas,' says Pringle. 'The aim is to encourage people to move around the building.' She says that she was convinced that the design had been a success when an E&Y employee told her that their workstation was no longer their place of work - 'the building is my place of work'. 'You can go into some offices and feel heavy. A bad building can make staff retention quite difficult. People seem proud to be in this building and that's important.'
THE LEGAL REQUIREMENTS
• The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations of 1992 lay down most of the requirements for the working environment.
• Individual workstations should meet standard recommendations, which include adjustable seating, correct light sources (details available from the Health & Safety Executive on www.hse.gov.uk).
• There are separate regulations covering computer use, the Display Screen Equipment Regulations.
• Office temperatures of between 13 deg C and 30 deg C are considered 'reasonable', although there is no strict legal requirement.