Open-plan offices for everyone

Broader hierarchies, more flexible working hours, varying working environments, more team work, more space for creativity and greater transparency. These are the criteria of the new company culture at IBM.

          Broader hierarchies, more flexible working hours, varying working environments, more team work, more space for creativity and greater transparency. These are the criteria of the new company culture at IBM. The e-place is the visible surface of these cultural changes.

          "We have to tear down the walls between the personnel," is the new credo of Lou Gerstner, the worldwide head of the company. Following on from the successful company restructuring he initiated, he has now gone on to push for its cultural and logistical restructuring, the culmination of which is the so-called e-place. But, of course, Gerstner not only wants to change the company culture -- this new workplace concept is based on a tough-spirited analysis.

          IBM may be investing around 30 million euros ($US28 million) in rebuilding the Stuttgart location but in the long run, as a result of this and other similar measures, the proportion of total site-related costs to turnover will sink from today's level of around three percent to 1.8%. As Michael Rupf, head of sites, business processes and safety, explains, this is above all "due to the use of so-called desk sharing, which means that one desk is shared by several people, with the result that we will not require so many workplaces in the future. This means also that we will be able to accommodate considerably more people within the same area. For this reason we will not be needing to extend the rent agreements on various offices, which will lead to substantial savings on our part." Rupf estimates that it will require three and a half years at the most, to attain the return on investment (ROI).

          The implementation of the e-place concept is based on the workplace and room design concept applied by IBM worldwide. It will be continued successively in every country and for all branches. The personnel of IBM in America have been working in an e-place environment since 1995. The British moved over in 1996. And it is now Germany's turn. Presently a total of 3600 people are working in the e-place. Michael Rupf is aware that this is not a simple matter for many of those involved, in particular managers, to give up their private offices. "Anyone who has spent the last 20 years sitting in their own office is certain to have difficulties adjusting to performing in a completely different working atmosphere."

          Individual offices are a thing of the past

          This is how Siegfried Merkle (not his real name) feels. For 20 years the departmental head enjoyed the privilege of having his own office. But a few months ago this all changed. Now the manager has to share his office with around 40 other people. After a construction period which lasted only four months, the first 1200 personnel in the main administrative building in Stuttgart moved into their flexible workplaces at the end of April. And one of these was even the head of the company in Germany, Erwin Staudt.

          "Of course it wasn't easy for me to give up my private office," says Siegfried Merkle, "But I have already become accustomed to my new workplace." He sees very clear advantages in the form of easier communication with his colleagues and personnel. "We are living in a time in which the real value of work lies in transparency and in the successful functioning of communication among colleagues." But the interference factors should also not be overlooked. Despite heavy investment in sound insulation, noise pollution is at a considerable level. What Merkle regrets the most is "that I can no longer hear the loudspeaker in my telephone properly. I used to be able to speak on the phone and work on other things at the same time, but not anymore."

          Learn to cope with the situation

          Michael Rupf believes that it will take a few months for the personnel to get used to the changed situation. "Of course, the concept forces us to be more considerate of our colleagues. Every single person has to learn how to get on in such an environment. It is up to each individual to speak out and tell colleagues if they are talking too much or too loud on the phone." The company has tried to initiate a series of alternative methods, by creating effective ways of removing potential interference sources from the open plan offices or even guaranteeing the complete absence of disturbance to work for a limited time. There are for example alternative rooms, separated from the main offices, in which talks can be held, there are also telephone cabins and private work rooms. "And anyone who doesn't want to, doesn't have to work in the office," stresses Rupf. At IBM, everyone has the opportunity to perform his work independently of time and place. Therefore every member of staff is issued a Rollboy for his most important documents, a laptop and a mobile phone. A third of all IBM employees are already teleworkers. This means they spend at least 50% of their working time out of the office with customers or at home.

          Personnel surveys provide useful information

          IBM planned the changeover to the new e-place in detail. Already since July 1999, around 40 staff and managers of the IBM Sites Department have been experiencing the new concept within their day to day work. Over an area of 277 square meters, walls were knocked down, sound absorbing carpets and wall panelling laid and fitted, and innumerable chairs, desks, shelf variations and lighting systems tested. The Fraunhofer Institute for Work Economy and Organization (IAO) in Stuttgart supervised the pilot project and also conducted personnel surveys and recommendations which included references to the work place design and the implementation of sophisticated room concepts.

          The personnel surveys in particular provided interesting information regarding the level of acceptance of the project and the feelings of the individuals. This situation improved greatly after the surveys had been evaluated. Michael Rupf said, "We have learned how to make use of new opportunities of cooperation for ourselves." Changing project teams can work flexibly and in an uncomplicated way in their new working environment. The key factor, despite the use of soundproofing materials, remains acoustics. The work researchers from the Fraunhofer IAO therefore recommend an appropriate room size, in which individual noises can no longer be identified and therefore not felt to be disturbing.

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