On paper, designing an office looks as easy as rearranging a living room. Put a few desks here, a few chairs there, throw in a trash can, a computer table and a few filing cabinets and, voila, you're done. Right?
Experts say too many people overlook the basics of office design when setting up their home or commercial offices -- and wind up paying dearly for it later in comfort, productivity and cold hard cash. The trick, they say, is trying to accommodate technology -- faxes, printers and computers -- and people without forsaking the day-to-day efficiency of either.
Desktop publishing systems, for example, require more space than personal computers, and printers and faxes need to be in places that are accessible, yet not intrusive to the people who need to use them.
"It's the old statement that 'form follows function,' " said Irve Godles, vice president and general manager of Desks & Furnishings, a local office furniture supplier. "A lot of people buy what looks good, but doesn't work."
To avoid that pitfall, people should think hard about their needs before setting foot in an office furniture store.
Those who don't, warns Mr. Godles, run the risk of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices that many office furniture stores offer or, worse yet, buying on impulse just to get the deed done.
First and foremost, people need to know exactly how big their office space is. While this may sound very basic, office design experts say it isn't unusual for shoppers to come in ready to buy -- without the foggiest notion of the size of their office.
"Most people are really unprepared," said Greg Weinberger, president of Timonium-based Computer Furniture Center. If space is at a premium, for example, a smaller workstation might be required. Some of the more compact units on the market today can fit into a 6-foot-square space, Mr. Weinberger said. One unit, just 28 inches wide and 26 inches deep, permits a computer and printer to be housed in a single desk -- and folded down under the desk when not in use.
If more space is available, a more expansive unit may be preferred. Some of the modular and free-standing units on the market today give customers a wide choice of options.
Once space has been determined, other factors need to be weighed, such as:
* How many workers are going to be in the office?
* What are their jobs, and how do they do their jobs?
* Do some workers, or departments, need to talk to each other regularly?
* What are the high traffic areas? What are the low traffic areas?
"When people look at what they want to do, then look at their actual square footage requirements, they may have to rethink something," said D&F's Mr. Godles.
Part of that process also involves taking into account future growth, something many businesses fail to do when investing in office furniture, said April Wall, district sales manager for Cort Furniture Rental.
"Many people make the mistake of buying in a hurry and not planning for future expansion within the office," said Ms. Wall. "We see a lot of companies, two years down the road, with a tremendous amount of excess furniture because they no longer have a need for it, and they don't know what to do with it."
To head off that problem, Ms. Wall recommends renting instead of buying office furniture so businesses don't get loaded down with furniture that may not meet their future needs. Cort is one of several suppliers that specializes in renting office furniture.
Any office design diagram should also take into account a basic but critical element of any high-tech office: Electrical outlets.
According to Ms. Wall, furniture space planners and electricians need to work hand-in-hand "to see what's feasible and what's not," said Ms. Wall. "You gotta have plugs."
As with any furniture, laminates tend to be less costly than wood veneers. Today's laminates come in a rainbow of colors to help create any office mood a buyer wants. They also tolerate abuse well, making them a popular choice for commercial use.
The final consideration is cost. According to some experts, shoppers often go into sticker shock when they see the prices of office furniture, which can be as pricey as furniture for the home.
NB The answer to that problem: Have a budget in mind and stick to
Once purchases have been made, setting up the office in a configuration you can live with is all that remains. The best way to do that is open to discussion -- even among the experts.
"Design is a personal thing and opinions about it are like noses," said Mr. Godles. "Everybody has one."