Pushing the limits of an open plan

Pushing the limits of an open plan

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.

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.


Cracking Art Movement


Artist Frederick Harris to write on Japanese ‘hanga’

American artist Frederick Harris, who has won prizes for works in East Asian sumi-e ink washes and watercolours, is temporarily giving up painting to write a book on Japanese ‘hanga’, or wood-block prints. The year-long project, tentatively titled “The art of Japanese wood-block prints", will be published by Tuttle.

Harris’ latest exhibition of watercolours and sumi-e pictures was held last month as a six-day show at Yoseido Gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district. One of the sumi-e pictures on display was the ‘One Pillar Pagoda’, a major tourist attraction in Hanoi, which won him a prize from the Modern Sumi-e Painters Association. The 76-year-old New Yorker is a visiting professor at National Hanoi Fine Art University, where he teaches sumi-e and watercolour painting to Vietnamese students who have studied only oil painting, sculpture or other traditional genres.


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