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Office Desks – Planning ahead for Expansion

By Crispin Maby

It happens with surprising regularity – the desperate phone call from a company executive needing to fit a few more people into their office to accommodate their expanding business, and wanting us to work out how it can be done. Invariably, they want to keep the existing desks and furniture and somehow squeeze in a few more desks to accommodate their new staff, but they still want to retain the meeting room(s), executive and managerial cellular offices and breakout areas. And, more often than not, we tell them that it can’t be done (not, at least, in a way that would satisfy a health and safety inspection) unless they are prepared to re-equip with smaller desks and/or more economically shaped desks. And even then, we often have to break the bad news and tell them that the private offices have to go too to create a more open plan office environment.

It has to work because moving office is usually not an option. The company is usually committed to a 3 or 5 year lease and has already spent many thousands of £ on fitting out the office with partition walls, furniture, IT cabling and so on, so moving office yet again when the lease hasn’t run it’s full term is usually prohibitively expensive.

So what can be done? Unfortunately, sometimes nothing at all. But more often than not, prudent forward planning at the time of selecting the property and then again when planning the initial desk layout may facilitate future expansion. For any given size of office, some are always going to be more versatile and usable than others (see my articles How office shape can reduce usable space and How pillars can reduce available desk space) , so the number one priority is to find as near to the optimally shaped office as possible. Once you’ve committed to the office, you have to try to make the best use of what you have, and unless you’re absolutely certain that your business is not going to expand and that you’re not going to need to fit in more people, then purchase the smallest desks of the most regular shape that are appropriate for your business. Keep the office as open plan as possible and only introduce meeting rooms and other cellular offices where absolutely necessary, because open-plan generally allows much more flexibility and allows for a greater number of desks. Then populate the spare space you have gained from this economical layout with breakout furniture, informal meeting areas and maybe some hot-desking. Not only will this create a much nicer working environment but it means that when you do need to fit a few more people in, you can do so very quickly and simply by substituting part of these casual areas with extra desks. Get it right, and you don’t even have shuffle existing desks.

Of course it’s important to get the right mix between economy and practicality. Don’t be too stingy on desk size because they still have to be physically big enough that your staff can work efficiently and with reasonable comfort, and the layout needs to allow an appropriate level of interaction and efficiency between the working groups, but just because your staff might have been used to oversized desks in the past, it doesn’t mean they should continue with that privilege. If they are made aware of the fact that smaller desks means more open spaces for breakout and casual workspaces for them to use, then employee satisfaction and wellbeing can also be enhanced resulting in improved performance.

Get your planning wrong from the outset and attempt to utilise all available space with rooms and furniture that cater only for your current capacity with no room to spare, then expanding will mean extensive re-configurations and may mean purchasing an entire new set of desks and/or removing partition walls that were costly to put up in the first place.

Do:-

  1. Buy the smallest rectangular shaped individual desks that would be acceptable given the type of work your staff do.
  2. Keep your office as open-plan as possible by keeping private enclosed offices to a minimum, and where you have to have them keep them reasonably small.
  3. Keep meeting rooms to a minimum, unless it’s absolutely essential that meetings have to be carried out in privacy.
  4. Create informal meeting areas within the extra space reclaimed by not having large desks. These can be formed with soft seating, or small meeting tables, or café style furniture (or a combination of all).
  5. Create hot desking or drop-in areas for staff who use the office on an ad-hoc basis and don’t really need their own desk. These desks can also be used by permanent office staff if they need more desk space for a particular task from time to time.

Don’t:-

 

  1. Build lots of enclosed rooms (meeting rooms or offices). Usually, this makes the office suite as a whole less space efficient and results in a smaller (sometimes considerably) desk capacity.
  2. Avoid bench desks. These might fit your initial requirement, but can be very inflexible during office reconfigurations.
  3. Avoid corner (crescent shaped) desks. These can also be very inflexible when considering re-configurations, and can be far less space efficient than rectangular desks.

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Bench Desks. A good investment? Perhaps not.

By Crispin Maby

Bench style desks have some advantages over individual desks, but if you ever need to do an office re-configuration, or take your investment with you to your new office when you move, it could prove to be a costly mistake.
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It used to be very simple.  If you wanted to maximise your office space and populate it with as many desks as could reasonably fit, you’d buy lots of regular rectangular desks and set them out in long rows end-to-end, back-to-back. But a few years ago a designer at one of the big office furniture manufacturers came up with the idea of a bench-style desking system and now absolutely everyone (manufacturers and dealers) offers at least one, or a number, of such solutions.  Furthermore, they are now very popular and more often than not it seems that businesses are buying these, rather than single desks.  So what’s the thinking behind bench desks and are they a good deal, or are businesses being sold a concept that they might regret later?

A bench desk is defined by its design – one of long and/or wide work surfaces supported on a shared (bolted together and normally metal) framework and legs.  The original concept, apparently, was to promote flexible workspace whereby you could utilise as little or as much desk space as you needed dependent on the task in hand.  Fundamentally, no-one owns a fixed area of desk and everyone shuffles up and down the length of the bench to allow more people to join into the work group, or to have access to a larger bit of desk if they have big documents, or lots of documents to work on at any one time.  This is facilitated by the fact that the well designed bench desk has fewer legs beneath the desk top, and those that do exist are inset from the desk edge so that you don’t bang your knees as you wheel your chair up and down its length, and, perhaps more significantly, you can sit in any position without having to sit astride a set of desk legs.

That’s the theory anyway, and although I’m sure that someone, somewhere, uses these desks in this way, I’ve yet to see it.  The problem is that people still seem to like their personal space, even when hot-desking, even if the defining factor is simply the join at the sides and back of the desk where the worktop meets the next desk in the row.  But more fundamentally, no one wants to sit on the join between two desktops, no matter how discrete it is, and even though the bench unit might be many regular desk widths in length, it will invariably be too big for a single sheet of worktop (there are limits to the size a single MFC board can be practically manufactured and what can be carried into a typical office building), so we usually end up with lots of standard desk-sized worktops all bolted together.  The net result is that most bench desks are little or no different from the top to a series of regular desks sitting side-by side. Only the structure of the framework underneath is fundamentally different.

So given this,  why are people buying them?  The manufacturers sell the concept that shared components means fewer legs and less metalwork overall which in turn results in a reduction in price. But in my experience, where there is a cost reduction the difference is very small, but more often than not these systems are pretty expensive bits of kit and very often considerably more costly than the equivalent stand-alone desk.

There are clearly some advantages but in my opinion the single biggest disadvantage outweighs any and all advantages.

Advantages:

  1. Fewer legs makes the underside of the desk more open and access to under-desk cabling is easier.
  2. The open design makes it easier to incorporate a shared cable management system (one great big long cable trays basically).
  3. Because the framework and desktops are bolted together, the desk is generally very solid and sturdy and less inclined to wobble or move.

Disadvantages:

The downside, and this is a very major downside,  is that once you’ve got these things, you’re stuck with a set of very large desk clusters that can’t be moved – not easily anyway.  The problem arises mainly when you need to re-configure your office (perhaps to get more people in or because you need to change the working group arrangements), or when you need to shift furniture around  to re-carpet tile the office,  of if you move office and want to take your bench-desks with you. This is when you discover how extremely inflexible the bench system can be.  You can’t just pick up a couple of desks and shove them onto the end of another group, because they’re sharing a framework.  And you if you need to reduce the length of a bench by, let’s say, 2 desks and put those two somewhere else, you can’t just unbolt those 2 units either because the framework supporting them probably also supports part of the next positions in the line, and in any case you will end up with at least one set of desks with no legs. Although the manufacturers tell us that you can buy the extra components you need to re-configure these systems,  it can be complicated trying to work out what is required, the extra bits can be expensive and you will almost inevitably end up with a big pile of metal framework that can’t be re-used, and therefore wasted. Also, by time you need to do the reconfigurations, the manufacturer might have changed the design of their product and you might not even be able to buy compatible parts.

But let’s say that you can get all the bits you need to do the re-configuration, is that “problem solved”?  No it’s not, because now you have the enormous headache of getting everything done over night, or at a weekend, and have it all up and running again when the staff come into work the following day.  If you have individual desks, its a pretty simple process – you simply lift them up and move them around.  But with  bench desks, you will have to work out weeks in advance exactly what parts you will need and get them ordered in time for the move. Your furniture fitters might then have to spend time dismantling and re-building entire rows of desks, just because you need a couple of desks off the end of each, and this might have to be repeated throughout the office. That means that not only do the desks need to be cleared and computers and phones unplugged for the specific workstations that are being re-sited, but potentially many others too.  Of course, it depends on how extensive your office re-configuration is, and also what type of bench system you have, but what might take just a few minutes to complete with individual desks, could take an entire weekend with a bench system.

By the way, we sell bench systems, but that’s because people insist on buying them. That said, I always try to encourage customers to buy smaller units – for all the reasons explained above.

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Office Furniture and Fitout. How office shape can reduce usable space.

By Crispin Maby

When trying to figure out what office furniture you can fit into your new office, or what layout of meeting rooms, cellular offices and desks you might achieve, then the shape of the space often becomes a very important factor.   If you have 10 staff and an office the size of Heathrow Airport, then it probably doesn’t matter in the slightest, but if like most London based businesses you’re paying £80 (including rates and service charges) or more per square foot and you need maximise every available inch of your office, then shape most certainly does matter.   Much depends on how you want to use the space and it’s fair to say that what might be ideal for one business can be completely inappropriate for another, but the important message here is that the shape, rather than the size can often be the determining factor.

I’ve said it before in other articles, but you must never assume that two offices of the same floor area will give you the same results. Quite often you can fit considerably less of whatever it is you want to fit into one office than you can into another office of exactly the same floor area.  So let’s look at a few examples, but before we do, I’ve introduced a few rules.  Firstly, there’s the 11 cubic metre rule (an HSE requirement) and all of the CAD plans I’ve drawn and shown below give each desk/user at least 11 cubic metres assuming the ceiling height is 2.8m or more. Secondly, we must  allow a main traffic aisle through the office of at least 1.2m wide (in larger offices this may need to be increased in width or perhaps duplicated or triplicated – i.e. two or more main aisles of 1.2m wide dependent on the size of the office and layout of desks).  Thirdly, although not a legal requirement (as far as I know), I always like to allow at least 2m spacing between desks that are back-to-back in order that users don’t clash chairs and that there’s sufficient room for people to walk behind, and where a desk is backing onto a wall I like to allow at least 1m between a desk and the wall behind it, and 1.5m if there is a run of more than 1 desk side-by side (this is a personal view and legally you might get away with less but it depends on many other factors that I’m not really qualified to comment on). Finally, I’ve used regular sized 160cm by 80cm rectangular desks in all of my plans and of course you might argue that if we use smaller desks we can get more people in, but I’m trying to demonstrate a point here and comparing like-for-like, so 160m desks it is for the purpose of this exercise!
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Plan 1 shows a room which can comfortably fit 12 desks.  This room is exactly 47.52m².   Plan 2 is also exactly the same size at 47.52m² but as you will see, it’s a different shape and due to this there simply isn’t sufficient space to fit any more than 10 desks.

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Looking at this in a slightly different way, lets now examine how large two different-shaped offices (differently shaped to plan 1 that is) need to be in order to fit the same quantity of desks as plan 1.   Plan 3 is an extension of plan 2 and is 57.32m²,  and plan 4 shows a long narrow office of 77m², but both only sufficiently large to fit twelve 160cm desks. So on one hand we have a 47.52m² office in plan 1 which is sufficiently large to fit 12 of our desks, and on the other hand we have another office of 77m² (plan 4) which is also only big enough for the same 12 desks. This one is a whopping 62% increase on the first office in figure 1!

By now you will be saying “we understand your point, but in all of these other plans there’s extra space which, although not quite sufficient to fit desks, is certainly good enough to be filled with all the other furniture we’d expect to have in our offices such as cupboards, soft seating, casual meeting areas and the like”.  Yes, you’re absolutely right, but I’m trying to demonstrate a point without being absolutely specific to a particular office or space requirement, and besides, I will argue that these might well be rooms into which you need to cram as many desks as (legally) possible as you have all your storage, reception areas, meeting rooms and so on elsewhere in the building. Other factors also come into play, not just size and shape, such as the presence and position of structural pillars or columns which I have also written an article on, low or tapering ceilings, position of windows and much more besides.

What’s the financial impact?   London commercial property specialist Warwick Bookman informs me that as a rough guide a company signing a lease today for offices in central London is typically paying an average of £50 per square foot rental, plus £20 per square foot on rates, and £10 per square foot on service charge – totalling £80psf!   And this is just an average figure – prime space in the west-end is going at £100 psf on rental alone.   So, let’s assume that plan 1 would be absolutely ideal for your requirements if you could get it, but you can’t and so you have to settle for plan 4 instead.  At £80 per square foot (or £861 per sq metre), the office shown in plan 1 would cost you £204,573 over a typical 5 year lease term. This equates to £17,000 per desk.  The office shown in plan 4 would cost you £331,485 over a 5 year lease which equates to £27,600 per desk.  That’s a considerable extra cost and hopefully this demonstrates how important it is to ty to find the ideal office to suit your requirements specifically, rather than having to opt for something bigger with a lot of unusable space that you’re paying a high price for.

To conclude, the main message I want to put across here is that advance planning (even basic space planning) is so important. Renting office space is a huge financial commitment and the mistake I see made most often is that under the immense pressures of trying to get the lease signed companies don’t always check in advance that the office they’re about to take on is the right size and shape for them. Only when they’re fully committed do they then discover that they will have to make compromises, sometimes massive ones, on the size and layout of desks, partitioned offices, meeting rooms and so on. Occasionally and most critically, it means not being able to fit enough people into the office.

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