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Physical Design as a Static Structural Element of Organizations

management, organization, elements of organizations, administration, controlling, leading, staffing

Some elements used to structure organizations are static; they reflect where the organization sits on a continuum, but they acknowledge that the organization occupies only one point on that continuum at a given time (although, of course, the specific point occupied can change from one time to another). One of the static elements of structure is physical design

Physical Design

The physical design of an organization has two dimensions, each influencing structure. These dimensions are the qualities of the organization's physical space—the atmosphere created by the space—and the arrangement of units within that space.
The Qualities of the Space Most organizations are formed around an existing physical design, as when social clubs are designed to fit into the existing physical characteristics of a church or community center. A church with a large population of young families, for instance, will probably establish groups oriented toward children or toward giving support to parents. Similarly, a community center with such recreational facilities as a swimming pool and tennis courts will create groups that can use those facilities; another center, with gymnastics equipment, will form groups interested in that sport.
Occasionally, architects and decorators design a physical setting to express what they feel are the goals and needs of the organization. In this way, the qualities of the space can reflect—and influence—the desired organizational structure. The pyramidal Trans America Building in San Francisco certainly reflects and reinforces the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation. Similarly, the electronics firms in California's Silicon Valley have created campus like architectural styles that fit the informal organizational structure they try to encourage.

Arrangement of Units Within the Space The details of how units are distributed throughout a space are important as well. When laying out locations for an organization in a new or remodeled building, planners ask numerous questions about the interaction of various departments and subunits within departments. They know that proximity or distance can affect how well units communicate with one another. Locating units on the same floor or gathering in one building units that had been dispersed in separate buildings facilitates communication; the opposite practices erect barriers to communication. Managers about to design a new space—say, when a company is moving—are in an excellent position to manipulate such factors to achieve their goals for employee interactions.

Sometimes the proximity of a department to a chief executive's office reflects the importance of that department to the company's mission. Similarly, the distance between a desk chair and a visitor's chair reflects a manager's view of distance between himself and others.
Another factor in the arrangement of office space is the degree to which the space is flexible or fixed. Flexible partitioning in an open-space design speaks of an organization that encourages a flow of communication and perhaps a collegiality of decision making. The use of walls and private offices to define individual spaces may reflect an organization with a more rigid hierarchy and lines of communication.
Of course, these features of arrangement may be due to other, more mundane, factors as well. The number of people in various departments, the amount of equipment required by various units, or the relative cost of office space in different locations all influence how space is arranged. These factors may even shape a space in a way that is contrary to what would ordinarily be dictated by the organizational structure.

Published: 2007-04-11
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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