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Rolling in work

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  • | 6:00 p.m. December 14, 2006
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Rolling in work

Workspaces by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier

The office furniture at Architecture Inc. is all on wheels, encouraging collaboration and teamwork. The principal architect explains how it works.

Architecture Inc.'s office in Fort Myers may be as close as one gets to Dilbert's vision of workplace heaven.

There are no cubicles and no corner offices.

The office is a wide-open space that measures about 1,500 square feet and all the office furniture is on wheels. Every Friday, employees wheel their desks and chairs into a nearby storage room and a cleaning crew mops the floor over the weekend.

On Monday morning, they wheel all the furniture back. They can move their desks wherever they want and it doesn't have to be where they worked the week before. The whole setup takes just five minutes.

The man behind the wheel is Ted Sottong, a principal of the firm in Fort Myers. The idea came about because he couldn't fit all the cubicles he needed into the available space.

What started as a space-saving idea turned out to be a big productivity booster. Employees can collaborate more easily by moving their desks around, they are more productive because they can't hide in an office and it forces them to keep paper and other clutter to a minimum. The innovative office furniture also has become a recruiting tool for prospective employees and customers.

Still, there have been some challenges. One employee left the firm because she couldn't handle the new office setup. The wide-open space can get noisy too. Sottong once interrupted a phone conversation to ask employees to keep their voices down.

But Sottong says the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and other businesses may find it could help improve the way their employees work more efficiently.

Go cart

Sottong's advantage was designing the office from scratch. The Reston,Va.-based firm recently expanded into Fort Myers and moved into its new office in May. That meant he didn't have to yank anyone out of corner offices or cozy cubicles. Instead, he gathered six employees before the new office opened and asked them to figure out how to create a mobile office.

At the heart of the concept is a mobile cart that stands about four feet tall. Each employee has a cart that contains everything he or she might need, including a computer and file drawer.

On Monday mornings, each employee wheels a cart, desk and chair to any location in the office. It can be by the window, near the kitchen or alongside another employee working on the same project.

There are 14 floor outlets where employees can plug in for power, data and phone. "We tried to be wireless, but the technology's not there yet," Sottong says.

"Smart" phone technology exists that could route calls to an employee's phone no matter where it's plugged in, but Sottong says that was too expensive. Instead, there are three phone stations spread across the room and when they receive a call. Calls come in to the receptionist who then calls out the recipient's name.

The receptionist is the one person in the office whose furniture is fixed. In addition to her receptionist duties, she also handles filing so that important papers are filed properly. "She's got a lot of stuff to store," Sottong says.

An unexpected bonus to the mobile furniture is that the office can be used for other things during the weekend. Already, the firm has held office parties and charity benefits in the space.

Benefits outweigh challenges

Despite advances in computer-assisted design, architects still use lots of paper. Sottong knew that storing all those plans and drawings was going to be a challenge. "I warned everybody that was going to be the hardest part of it," Sottong says. "It forces you to be more organized."

Noise has been a challenge too because the room is open and the ceiling is high. But Sottong says employees have learned to cope. "People are conscious of it and talk in their library voices," he says. Still, he once had to ask fellow employees to tone their voices down during a phone conversation.

Generally, the open space has been beneficial. "The communication is so much easier between people," Sottong says. If he has a question, he can just swivel around in his chair or walk a few steps. "I don't have to walk down the hall." For private conversations or meeting with clients, there are three walled conference rooms.

Because the boss sits among his employees, there's less water cooler chatting and online shopping during the workday. "I have very few problems with Internet use," Sottong says. Although it's hard to measure productivity, Sottong is certain that the collaborative atmosphere means employees finish projects faster.

The mobile setup also helps recruit new employees and customers because it's cutting edge. However, Sottong concedes that the office attracts younger architects who are not wedded to private offices. What's more, Sottong says he has to be even more careful to hire people who can work well in a team because of the lack of privacy. "I'm not looking for rebels or troublemakers," he says.

The mobile furniture costs less than cubicles. Sottong's supplier, Joe Gammons of Office Furniture and Design Concepts of Fort Myers, says cubicles cost about $2,500 while a mobile table and cart costs $1,500 to $2,000. The one problem has been the fact that it takes manufacturer Steelcase about four months to deliver the specially made carts. "They're not something kept in stock," Sottong says.

Still, the rolling furniture takes up less space and allows Sottong to fit more people into the office. The firm now has 13 employees in Fort Myers and Sottong says he can add four more employees comfortably.

Meanwhile, the firm's Reston office is about to move to new office space. After seeing Sottong's mobile setup, they decided they'd stick with private offices instead.

"I think it's a hard thing to transition to," Sottong acknowledges.


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