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All work and no play

Technological advances have thrown up alternatives to the conventional workstation. Some interesting possibilities...

THE CONVENTIONAL open office consists primarily of a planned layout of cubicles along with cabins for senior staff and for meeting rooms. The better offices have larger cubicles, a well thought-out layout, adequate lighting for ambient areas and for individual workstations, an aesthetic coordination of colours and textures, common areas for lounge, dining, recreation, etc. along with well-landscaped surroundings and perhaps some internal courtyards. The entire office is extensively wired for stabilised power, telephones and networking. The open office furniture would be put together using a furniture system that can be configured to create different types of workstations, but generally would be L-shaped workstations that allow provision for computer work, storage and desking.

While all aspects of the office have made enormous technological advances, there have also been different directions and explorations that open possibilities for an alternative kind of a workplace. In his book `The New Office', the author Francis Duffy sees four types of offices happening. The ones where the staff have to stick at their places doing a standard type of work that requires minimal privacy and interaction are called hives. This is the typical office that we see with the size of the workstation varying from a small part of a counter to a large cubicle. At the other end of the spectrum is the cell, which is for intensive individual work that requires maximum privacy even for discussions. These are offices for lawyers, doctors, senior executives, etc and are basically enclosed cabins with all required amenities.

Between these two types of the offices we have the den, where people require some privacy for individual work along with immediate access to working with other members of the team. This is a team type of office and throws up many interesting and different ways of looking at the type of furniture and interior. This is for work that requires high interaction like media, design, architecture, etc.

And finally we have the club office, which combines a reasonable degree of privacy, high interaction and lots of support facilities. Here the staff may not have their own place as such as they may not be in the office for long periods of time. But when they come in, they get access to a quiet workplace or can take part in an interactive area. This idea has sometimes degenerated into purely trying to save real estate costs by a principle called hot desking or hoteling where you call up and book a desk for yourself when you have to be in the office.

Technological advances, along with different ways of looking at workplaces, have also thrown up interesting alternatives to the conventional workstation, some of which were featured in an exhibition called Workspheres. Some of these alternatives are actually in production and used in offices. However, some have flopped after much hype initially because the people were not comfortable using them. But many of the ideas are interesting and will probably lead to more practical variations.

The focus generally from the clients is on creating the desired ambience at the office that projects the organisational image, with a lot of attention being given to areas like the reception, meeting rooms, cabins, etc. Normally the type of office system used would not vary whether the work is for software programming, advertising or R&D. Because the facility managers require a lot of flexibility of arrangement, all workstations are kept similar regardless of the different nature of work done. And, of course, there is normally a very tight deadline that does not allow for the time to experiment with different furniture.

What could happen is that if the thinking could be pursued as a separate activity, then tested out with willing employees in controlled conditions within a running office, then this could be translated into a blueprint that could be used to design the next corporate office which is perfectly suited to the activities that happen there. It would then be interesting to see the possibilities that emerge and might also result in new alternatives to conventional office furniture.


( Subramaniam Sundar is an industrial designer who can be reached at and at )

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