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Facilities challenges in the information age.

As information technology continues to revolutionize the business world, facilities managers are revolutionizing the way corporations view and address their employees' working environment.

Just as the dynamics of Corporate America continue to shift to a more defined, yet team-oriented, white-collar workforce, so are facilities managers readjusting the criteria necessary to create a working environment in which employee satisfaction, interaction, and productivity are encouraged and fostered. We've made great strides in educating corporate administration on the importance of ergonomics (the study of the effect of the workplace on humans, and the scientific cornerstone responsible for such research and product development as studies on VDT use, adjustable seating, and task/ ambient lighting). However, it is now time to take an even greater step beyond these fundamental principles of facilities management to what is becoming the newest buzzword in the commercial buildings industry: effectiveness in space, in costs, and for employees.

Remember the average office only five years ago? Efficiency was the theme, and facilities "success" was assured if, for example, systems furniture was selected (not to mention, designed by office furniture manufacturers) based upon efficient use of space and cost reductions associated with change.

Today, both the office furnishings industry and facilities managers are replacing their efficiency fervor with a more harmonious decision-making process in which comfort and personalization of the physical workplace take precedence. In fact, this recognition and its subsequent implementation are today's driving forces in recruiting and retaining the brightest employees. "Facilities managers are much more sophisticated product decision-makers," says J. Craig Speck, vice president of Product Marketing, Design, and Engineering, for Haworth, Inc., a Holland, MI-based office furniture manufacturer. "They're much more aware of product differences and attributes, and how they function and perform. In addition, they are working at making more and more informed decisions based on value, function, reliability, and even upon the security of their decision. 'If I put this product in place, can I get it in another two years?' "

Facilities management concerns have accelerated almost as rapidly as the technology necessary to support those businesses intent on competing effectively in a global market. "The trend in business is to really harness [employees] in new ways," says George Wilmot, vice president of Advanced Research for The Knoll Group, a New York City-based office furniture manufacturer. "Technology has automated the various functions; in the 90s, we're finally using [technology] more creatively in ways that really impact on the structure of the way business is put together.

"There's a huge acceleration of pace. You can't take five years to develop a product; it must be done in a year-and-a-half. [Product] lifecycle use to be 20 years, then ten years, and now five. As a result, the pressure is on everybody to do it better, faster, and more accurately - and this goes without saying for anyone providing goods or services."

Accordingly, autocratic work environments are going by the wayside, being replaced by a more participative approach to accomplish tasks. "When people talk about the workplace of the future, they must consider the work process of the future. That's where more teams are coming into play - more dissimilar disciplines working on common problems. All these' learning' environments have implications on how facilities are designed and layed-out," says John Berry, director of Corporate Communications for the Zeeland, MI-based office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, Inc.

Team structure is, however, easier to discuss than to execute. Effective teamwork requires balancing the demands of multi-discipline, very competent, and simultaneous activity with the professional personalities and work habits of its members. "One of the things the team approach demands is more communication between the individuals involved," says Jack A. Tanis, vice president of Design and Product Management, for Steelcase, Inc., a Grand Rapids, MI-based office furniture manufacturer. "Since the introduction of panel systems in the late 1960s, [the industry] probably did more to enclose the bullpen than bring people out of private offices. In team structures, [office furnishing] products must be geared toward team openness as a group, with much more visibility between people and a need to foster natural communication, as opposed to [leaving the area, to go to a meeting room."

Although facilities managers cannot randomly abandon the trappings of advancement and position in the workplace, team structures can be sensitively directed through the use of varying height panels, the integration of freestanding products within a systems environment, and an ability to reconfigure spaces with minimal interruption and inventory of parts. "Facilities professionals are planning spaces with more variety to accommodate teaming," says Knoll's Wilmot. "They are requiring [manufacturers] to provide them with products that can quickly assemble people in a way that allows them to work as a group, but does not disregard their privacy requirements for more concentrated, individual work. Integration of both freestanding components and systems furniture can help accomplish this effectively. It is important to lay-out space for employees that makes sense that follows the flow of work, not the flow of the organizational chart."

Unfortunately, a lot of open/team space planning has been done too mundanely - it is easy to lay-out one station and repeat it ad nauseum, putting everyone in the same "bucket" and the same height panel. Pro-active building professionals, looking to maximize the value of their facilities' purchases, are attempting to break away from that cycle, applying varied height panels; stair stepping; glass componentry; customization of finishes, fabrics, and surfaces, etc. "The average height of a partition is dropping slightly," says Haworth's Speck. "More often, an employee's sense of belonging and partnership, with a need for privacy and concentration, can be managed through two higher walls within an employee's workstation (for privacy) combined with two more open, lower walls (for team-oriented work)."

Admittedly, this lack of standardization in a workplace can be a facilities manager's worst headache, but force-fitting any one solution into any one organization is just not good business. "An opportunity for facilities managers exists to become more knowledgeable about the cause-and-effect relationship of furniture in supporting the individual and what that means to productivity. And that will probably ally facilities professionals with behaviorial psychologists, cultural anthropologists - those folks who were brought into the industrial work environment years ago to promote productivity and reduce repetitive [work] injuries," says Herman Miller's Berry. "The trend will be that the individual will have more control."

Just as facilities managers are beginning to understand national needs for uniqueness within multi-national corporations, thereby reducing the value associated with the development of exacting standards for global product specifications, so are they realizing that sameness of product details everywhere within a working environment must be superseded by consistency of supplier service, the highest degree of interchange possible, and an orientation to support the need for employee diversity. When spaces are effectively planned and implemented, facilities managers can anticipate employees thinking, "Somebody thought about me; I'm important to this corporation."

As we move into the 1990s with a present economy in a downward slide, the biggest challenge for corporations will be to recruit and hold the best-trained people," says Steelcase's Tanis. And so, a comfortable and effective work environment - and its impact on securing and retaining those much-sought-after employees in a very competitive arena - will become one of the biggest priorities for Corporate America."
COPYRIGHT 1991 Stamats Communications, Inc.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Monroe, Linda K.
Date:May 1, 1991
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