Published January 19, 1999 in the COLORADO REAL ESTATE JOURNAL
Predicting Space Needs is Never Easy
by Warren Kieding
A 1999 BUSINESS WEEK ARTICLE DECLARED that our current world is in "an era of utter unpredictability." As facilities analysts and space planners, we've seen the increasing unpredictability of business directly affect the real estate decisions and the very foundations of office planning.
As recently as a few years ago, we could pretty accurately determine the current and projected office requirements of any given client that would at least survive the full term of the lease. Today, we must deal with two or more vastly different growth scenarios for a company's projected development. And development doesn't always necessarily mean growth. Tenant build-outs, which once remained fairly static for five years, now begin to churn and change within only months of occupancy. These seeds of change have produced a new-and accelerated-generation of upsizing, downsizing, mergers, acquisitions, restructuring, fluid management and work groups, new product and service lines and technological changes in the very nature of the work, all conspiring to restructure what's' next for business.
The Cost of Unpredictability
Change costs time and money. There is the time and labor needed to make the change plus the time and labor lost in the disruption of the change itself. Unfortunately, no business is afforded a "time-out" for this change. Things move just too fast today. But those businesses which are able to flex just enough, to pre-position for imminent change, can save enough time and money to make the disruption a worthwhile endeavor. That's the dollars and cents side of the equation.
But beyond the drywall dust and furniture movers, change can have a subtle but profound psychological impact on people within an organization. Change can mean uncertainty. We ask ourselves, What's going to happen now? How is this going to affect me? In just over the past fifteen years, office workers have evolved from career to serial employees. Permanent to temporary, if you prefer. And temporary carries with it the weight of anxiety and uncertainty of what's going to happen next. The more disruptive the change within the office facility, the greater the impact will be on the morale and stability of the organization. This is where the harshest costs are exacted.
Unfortunately, there is no formula to fend off the adverse impact of uncertain change. What can help, however, is to define the spatial features in today's work places, and understand how they work when change does occur.
Fixed and Fluid
All office facilities are a combination of fixed and fluid organizational requirements. Fixed requirements are those core functions and facility features, which are considered "necessary," and generally immune from change. They can include core executive and administrative functions and the facilities which house them, like offices, break rooms, file server and computer rooms, copy/work rooms, reception areas and major conference rooms.
Fluid requirements are those features of the organization which are vulnerable to change, such as operational workstations and offices, team conference and work areas or rooms, satellite photocopy, printer, fax, and filing areas.
Fixed drywall construction is less expensive than moveable (sometimes called demountable) walls or furniture systems, until it's time to start knocking down and rebuilding those walls. That's when demountable walls or furniture systems become the better value. Their design is specifically geared to be quickly and effectively adaptive to change.
The key to understanding fixed and fluid requirements is to define what is subject to change in the organization's culture and then value-design accordingly. Whenever possible, locate fixed requirements so they're out of the path of change, and fluid requirements with an "open-ended" scope: that is, allowing systems furniture, demountable walls and the personnel who inhabit those spaces to expand or contract quickly and easily when real estate provisions call for change.
The Nature of Work
Most every office job has two aspects: isolation (private work), and interaction (teaming and telephoning). The nature of the various jobs which make up any given organization can profoundly affect the degree of change. An operation which specializes in isolated work, like heads-down data input, or telemarketing, for example, would probably not undergo significant changes to individual work areas, or workstations. More workstations would just be added, if necessary.
On the other hand, interactive jobs involving teaming, and some degree of individual isolated production may be subject to change not only in numbers but also in the design of workstations, offices and shared teaming facilities. It just depends what kind of work is being done.