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Pushing the limits of an open plan

Pushing the limits of an open plan
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First Published: Thu, Jun 11 2009. 12 30 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Aug 22 2009. 02 30 PM IST
Juergen Duerrbaum is a senior manager at a leading Swiss multinational firm but does not have a private office or even a cubicle of his own. Instead, he works on a long bench in an open-plan office, sitting alongside his junior colleagues and his assistant. When he needs to make important phone calls, he retreats to a high-backed sofa to conduct his conversation in privacy. The sofa is one of several scattered across the office, and is available to any employee.
The office, in Switzerland, is the headquarters of Vitra, a European office furniture maker with a 50-year-old reputation for trendsetting design.
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Vitra thinks this radical approach towards office design (christened ‘Net ‘n’ Nest’) represents the future of the urban workplace. This philosophy is rooted in the company’s belief that the office today is essentially a meeting point for co-workers to exchange ideas and information, rather than a place for routine work processes. Consequently, the more open the office, the better the communication and teamwork. Equally, the company recognizes that individuals need private spaces for solitary work where they are shielded from the community environment. With these dual needs in mind, it conceived ‘Net ‘n’ Nest’: an open-plan environment where zones for collaboration (networking) are balanced by spaces for solitary work (nesting).
Bringing down walls
It’s straightforward logic—but a closer look suggests that this approach requires a staunchly egalitarian approach to management.
Open plan, according to Vitra, literally means no private offices. In its 24,000 sq. ft factory campus office in Weil am Rhein, Germany, only the managing director and the personnel department have cabins. Everyone else sits alongside their colleagues at desks. “We communicate more spontaneously and learn from each other in this arrangement,” says Duerrbaum, who is head of division systems.
Non-territorial workspace
In fact, nearly 30% of employees have not been assigned desks, since they only come into the office for meetings and do not require dedicated workstations. Vitra believes that people are more productive when they can choose their own work settings, and has provided imaginative locations for group discussions, including a formal project room that can seat up to 24 people, several semi-enclosed meeting areas, a high bench for impromptu chats, a café and two timber-decked external patios that let in natural light and greenery. Storage is minimal so employees can rotate between workstations. Acoustic ceiling panels are fitted to absorb sound.
Cross-cultural viability
Asking managers to unlock themselves from their desks and work in communal harmony sounds somewhat utopian, but Vitra has justified its premium pricing over time through precisely this brand of thought leadership. “We consider ourselves partner to our customers, challenging their ideas on the office of the future and helping them to realize their own way of working. ‘Net ‘n’ Nest’ is about the culture of the company, not the culture of the country,” says Duerrbaum, and cites the example of Novartis, the pharmaceutical multinational firm which applied the concept at its Swiss head office, where 30% of the workforce are from overseas.
At Rs1.75 lakh for a Joyn workstation, and Rs4.5 lakh for a three-seater high-back sofa, Vitra’s prices are steep. It has, predictably, only a handful of multinational company clients in India. Like many of its products in the past, the company may find its biggest admirers in the local imitations that will inevitably follow.
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©2009/The New York Times
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First Published: Thu, Jun 11 2009. 12 30 AM IST
More Topics: Workscapes | Living | Office | Workspace | Workplace |