Clients are often impressed when they enter a luxurious office. Well-designed offices create an image that the company is doing well. Good office design must not merely be pleasant to look at, it must be comfortable for the employees who spend most of the

The functional office: making an office as comfortable as the home: clients are often impressed when they enter a luxurious office. Well-designed offices create an image that the company is doing well. Good office design must not merely be pleasant to look at, it must be comfortable for the employees who spend most of their waking hours at their desks

Tan Chee Teik


THE OFFICE environment affects people enough to increase their productivity. Because we spend more than 10 hours a day in the office, it needs to be comfortable. If possible, the majority of workers should have a window view.

When visiting clients who are fortunate enough to be located in skyscrapers along Shenton Way, I often envied the marvellous view they have of the waterfront and the cityscape. What I fail to understand is that invariably their desks are positioned in such a way that they have their backs to the windows. Perhaps they are so burdened with work that they have little time to enjoy the vista or they want to face the door in case the boss spies on them.

A poor level of satisfaction with the workplace and low morale that results often leads to a greater amount of job-hopping. Research has shown that such dissatisfaction often results in increased absenteeism that affects performance.

The office ambiance should provide impetus for task motivation. It should not be too distractive so that work is the last thing on one’s mind. Neither should it be as sombre as an undertaker’s office.

The workstations should be adjustable to suit each worker’s preferences. Some workers who are left-handed would appreciate this. Heights of desks and chairs must be adjustable as the wrong heights can lead to backaches and poor posture. Some people are particular about the direction they face when seated because of good geomancy. It would be wonderful if each worker can orientate his desk to the most lucky direction rather than aligned in straight rows as in a cemetery.

As rents go up, the space of work areas is reduced proportionately. The design of the workstations should give each individual a sense of personal control over the environment.

Employees should be allowed to express themselves perhaps in the form of a family photo, a daily dose of fresh flowers, or special decorative stationery as long as they do not encroach on the neighbouring workspace. I know of bosses who frown on the display of personal photographs at the workstation as they feel that the office is the place for work and there should be no family distractions.

Modern workstations come with hidden panels for all the ugly wiring of the info-communication equipment.

From the health point of view, workers expect offices to be air conditioned but not so cold that they have to wear winter clothing all day. A reasonable temperature is from 24 to 26 degrees Celsius.

From Warehouse to Office

After 10 years in Singapore, advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) Asia-Pacific outgrew its premises on Duxton Hill. To cater to a team of 75 people, it changed a 1,000 squaremetre warehouse at Magazine Road next to the Singapore River into comfortable and modern workspace.


BBH managing director John Hadfield is very proud of the new office, her says: “Whereas in our previous office we were split by levels, rooms, and even buildings, the new office space is more conducive to team building, as we all share the same space, and can interact more freely.

“We wanted to ensure that the space didn’t define status. The senior management team sits side by side the juniors (we have no private offices), which suits our culture and makes a refreshing change for many of our new employees. Ultimately, we have created an office that I hope inspires the whole team, not just particular individuals.”

While retaining the historic ensemble of red brick walls, solid timber floors and an exposed steel truss structural system, the designer has veered away from the typical use of offices and cubicles to create a 100-seat set-up on the open office floor. By creating a sense of immense space, the open-style seating plan facilitates maximum interaction and forms the focal point of the office.

The spatial element of the open office floor is reached via a tunnel-like walkway decked out in signature BBH red. This is complemented by the natural sunlight that enters through the large windows scattered around the office.

Overlooking the office floor are purposefully built hot rooms, creative spaces housed in two mezzanine lofts. These calm rooms provide a conducive environment to inspire creativity. Private discussions can also be conducted in freestanding “pods” interspersed throughout the open office floor. At the far end of the office floor stands a library lounge that houses a wealth of resources for the agency.

On the inspirations that make the design of the BBH corporate headquarters into a creative environment, Hadfield says: ” It feels very liberating to have created an open-style seating plan with no offices, and to have the entire team on one floor working on large work benches. This also fulfils our need to work in diverse teams.


“We have come up with an original response to the typical Agency conundrum ‘should the creative department sit in offices or on the floor?’ by having a number of private spaces ‘upstairs’. These attics allow the creative teams a private space to think, if and when they need it. But the creatives are not cut off from the rest of the agency or their teams day to day as they are still based on the main floor. Ultimately, the space is a beautiful piece of functional design and an inspiring place to be. Somewhere, you’d be happy to spend a great deal of time.”

Colin Seah, director of design from Ministry of Design explains the concept behind the BBH project: “The red tunnel provides transition from the lounge area (play) to the open-seating area (work). This creates a hushed transition that prepares one spatially and acoustically to move from one area to the next. The walls and ceiling are covered in velvet fabric panels with foam in-fills.

“The client explained the usual conundrum for an advertising agency–‘how to give the copywriters and art directors their own thinking space some of the time, but also to keep them physically integrated with the rest of the team most of the time’. So we designed calm loft areas that float over the main office space where creatives can retreat to. These lofts overlook the main office space, serving as a beacon of the creative process for the whole agency. This became so appealing to the BBH staff that even non-creatives are asking to use the space as well.”

Designer’s View Point

Maarof Yusope, a designer with Diethelm Furniture Pte Ltd, has 15 years of experience in office design. He has met all sorts of clients. He says: “Some clients require the design to be stylo-mylo. The configuration is okay with them as long as the design looks good. Others want simple design and are not particular as long as the design is functional. As designers, we hope to have free play in terms of concept.”


To please the users, he tries to give them the same space they used to get but with the high rentals, this is a challenge. He has come across chief executive officers who do not demand large offices for themselves as they spend more than 70 per cent of their time away from the office. There are others who feel that large offices are a status symbol that will impress clients and subordinates.

For clients who are less conservative, he uses vibrant colours such as lime green and orange to create a different mood. For the flooring, he will mix and match parquet and carpeting.

Some designers use large unframed mirrors to enhance the interior of the office. They give the illusion that the wall they cover does not exist. They help to make a small office look double its size. Good quality mirrors can be expensive. The cost can be comparable to a teak-panelled wall. Quality mirrors do not distort the image.

Designs for the Open Office

Two brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle who were consultants in office organisation and work flow were responsible for the concept of the open office. Since they were based in Quickborn in Hamburg, Germany, they became known as the Quickborner Team. They became interested in office layout in the late 1950s after observing that the physical setting of the office has an impact on work processes. They introduced the concept of the office landscape, which they called Burolandschaft in German. The office was primarily there to support people as a team, not just as individuals.

Hierarchies, department designations, geometry, status, and traditions were not valid reasons to arrange work settings in certain ways.

The Quickborner team considered fixed walls too static and isolating so they abolished them. Basically, employees have a strong desire to be with others.

The office landscape required new types of furniture that avoided hard surfaces that would reflect sound. Space flexibility gave companies the option to quickly respond to new opportunities.

Office Art

To improve the looks of blank walls and corridors, it is a good idea to decorate them with art pieces. Corporations with large amounts of reserves become patrons of the arts. Others settle for large posters with limited print runs.

An art programme for the office must be planned in the early stages so that budgets can be set aside and the finishes and lighting can be worked into the office design.

It is important that art in the office is well displayed. The size should be appropriate for the wall it is on. The colours should harmonise with those of the interior spaces. Artificial light must not be allowed to distort the original colours.

With 50,000 works Deutsche Bank has one of the largest corporate art collections in the world. The Deutsche Art Concept has two main aims: To hang contemporary works of art in the Bank’s buildings to support artists and to give staff and visitors to the bank an opportunity to encounter contemporary art outside museums and galleries.

Categorically not bought for investment the collection concentrates on works on paper, from 1960 to the present day.

The Bank’s commitment to art goes beyond filling its offices with art, as demonstrated by the programme at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and the sponsorship of Frieze Art Fair.

Good Lighting

Give special attention to the lighting. Avoid high contrasts. The work you are doing should be the most brightly lit surface in the room.


Hot spots of glare in other parts of the room reflect light into your eyes. These hot spots compete with the task at hand for your attention and may cause fatigue. Select non-reflective desktops to reduce glare.

If you can take advantage of daylight make full use of it. It could help to reduce power consumption and add some cheer into the office.

Lighting helps to make design come alive. Lighting can add an air of elegance to common materials. Expertly planned lighting can create the right ambiance in the workplace.

Executive Suites

Several years ago, I had an interview with the chief minister of Kelantan. I was led through more than four offices and through a maze of passages and between officers’ desks before reaching his executive suite. After the meeting, there was no way I could retrace my steps to the main door. I was puzzled by the arrangement but later learnt that because he was a political leader, he wanted his office to be in a secure and complex location to discourage those who may want to do him harm.

The executive suite is made up of the board room, the chief executive’s office, and private conference rooms. This is the area where the company’s key people meet and work. It should be a place that reflects the symbol of success, status, and power.

The approach to this part of the office should be grand to let visitors know that they are entering a special domain.

The board room’s design should be dignified. Frivolous decor should be avoided. The room is dominated by the conference table and the comfortable chairs around it. Together, they constitute the pantheon where corporate decisions are made, If the room is small, there can be a round table for 12 people. While a square table can accommodate up to 20 people.


The design of the board room table can express the company’s hierarchy by reserving certain positions for the senior executives. Factor in the audio-visual equipment in the design. Nowadays, facilities for video-conferencing are very common.

Trends in Modern Office Design Flat LCD monitors have freed up precious desk space. In future, the monitor screens can be as thin as a sheet of paper and can be pasted on the partition in front of the worker.

The steel filing cabinets are an eyesore and take up valuable space as well. With electronic filing of documents, such cabinets can be consigned to the museum. Closed filing and storage components become relics of the historical office as many believe that items that are put away are often forgotten.

The climate of each segment of the office is controlled by sensors placed strategically. These control the temperature and humidity of each segment.

For offices without windows views, the walls become huge LCD screens with photos of mountains, blue skies, and white beaches. These projected photos change with each passing hour and help to break the monotomy of office life.

Companies should invest in functional offices as it is one place where employees spend most of their lives.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Singapore Institute of Management

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning