GPM First
Chapter 17 of Gower Handbook of People in Project Management (978-1-4094-3785-7) by Dennis Lock and Lindsay Scott

The Project Office Environment

Dennis Lock

This is the first of three chapters in which the physical working environment of project workers is considered. In this chapter the concern is with those who work in offices, with particular attention to the project management function for a medium to large size project.

Management Responsibility for the Office Environment

Ultimately, of course, office working conditions are the responsibility of senior management. It is they who set the accommodation budgets, approve designs and decide the location of office buildings. In all but the smallest of companies, day-to-day responsibility for setting up and maintaining office accommodation will usually be assigned to an administration manager or facilities manager. With few exceptions administration and facilities managers do not report to project managers.

There are exceptions to most rules. I can think of two for this reporting rule. One is for construction or other outdoor projects where the part of the project management function will be given office accommodation in a temporary building, such as a hut or one or more Portakabins. Another exception would be a joint venture project, for which a limited liability company might be established and housed entirely in its own premises – in which case that joint venture company’s CEO will effectively also be the overall project manager. But for most projects, project managers and their team members will be asked to work in offices that are provided for them and managed by others.

Every project manager cannot help being aware that the performance of those who carry out project tasks will be affected either advantageously or detrimentally by their working environment and the office equipment provided for them. An inappropriate office layout can hinder good interpersonal communications. Malfunctioning equipment, poor lighting, inadequate ventilation, unreliable telephone systems, difficult access to an efficient photocopier or printer can all disrupt and delay work. Even a broken or dirty vending machine can divert the attention of people from their project duties, cause general discontent and add indirectly to project costs and delays.

So it is for project managers’ best interests, and in the interests of their projects, that they should support observations (usually a euphemism for complaints) from their staff concerning any shortcoming in the office environment. Sometimes, perhaps in older buildings, allowance has to be made for conditions that are less than perfect. But remedies that can be made should be made.

Responsibility for Allocating Office Space

Most project managers would be delighted to be asked how much space they need for their team. More usually they will simply be told ‘You can put your people in there’. It often happens that the team cannot all be accommodated in one area, or on one floor level, or even (as has been my experience) in the same building. In one case our project teams were in London but our purchasing department was 50 miles away.

There is often great difficulty in planning and organising space in a projects-orientated organisation that habitually handles several projects simultaneously. Staffing numbers for individual projects change frequently as they travel through their life cycles. Project organisations are dynamic, and thus so are their office space needs. To be practical, therefore, the office planner has to regard the total office accommodation for a portfolio or programme of projects. Depending on the company organisation structure and titles given to its managers, that means it would be the programme director or projects director who would be more directly concerned with agreeing the allocation of space between projects.

Legislation

In developed countries legislation will be in place that is designed to protect workers, both from the physical aspect of their working environment and in connection with their health and wellbeing. In the UK the principal relevant legislation for office environments is embodied in the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963 and the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, together with subsequent amendments.

There are also many supplementary regulations, some of which are less relevant here because they deal with matters such as hazardous substances that are more applicable to manual workers or to those directly responsible for maintenance of the premises.

In the UK, penalties attach to those responsible who are in breach of the law. In many cases the conditions stipulated by the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act are minimum standards, and it will often be in the best interests of office workers and their productivity to provide working conditions that exceed them.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publishes a wide range of leaflets that can either be bought from HSE Books or (more conveniently) downloaded free at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns. That website will guide you to the catalogue of all HSE publications.

Regulations will also cover fire precautions. These include ensuring that fire extinguishers or fire extinguishing systems are provided and regularly checked and maintained. In the UK companies are expected to keep log books to record these regular inspections. Particularly important in fire regulations is that everyone has access to a means of escape, and that usually means that stairwells and corridors have to be kept clear of obstructions and combustible matter, and protected from smoke by doors that can withstand fire for a specified period (usually one hour). Such doors must not be wedged open, although arrangements can be made for them to be held open on magnetic catches that automatically release and allow the doors to close if the fire detection systems are activated.

Elevators may not be used for escape, because people could get trapped in them. Maybe I’m getting into a little too much detail here, but fire precautions are clearly extremely important and must be enforced. For example some office workers will wedge doors open or stack things in corridors if they are not watched.

Planning the Office Layout

The first requirement in planning office space is to know how many people are going to occupy the office space and what kind of accommodation each person will need.

How Many People Need to be Accommodated?

Strictly we should be considering how many people need to be accommodated simultaneously, because in any company some people will always be absent from their desks at any given time. That is particularly true of commissioning engineers and others (such as sales engineers) who are often working on clients’ premises or making sales visits. Such itinerant people could be asked to share working spaces: for example it might be possible to allocate three workstations or desks to five commissioning engineers.

For current estimates and predictions of staffing in the immediate future, the numbers must come from the project resource estimates, coupled with a study of organisation charts and so on to identify the unscheduled overhead and administrative support staff.

Every prudent company should have its forward plans, perhaps extending for five years into the future and updated annually. An essential ingredient of those plans will be the staffing predictions, a subject that is touched upon in Chapter 42.

If your company is successful and expanding, it will be necessary to plan for space for the future additional staff and equipment. That might mean planning to occupy more premises. But if there is sufficient spare space in the existing offices that issue should be easier to manage. One rule here is to designate any space destined for future expansion, cordon it off, and leave it empty. Unlike a farmer’s set-aside field you will get no compensation, but unless you forbid any occupation at all you will discover inevitably that your existing workforce will find some way of moving into the beckoning unoccupied areas and spread themselves.

Open-Plan or Closed Offices?

People like to have their own enclosed offices. It gives them a feeling of authority and status. They will argue, if challenged, that they need an office for holding meetings with their subordinates or visitors. But do they all need individual offices all the time? Enclosed offices are wasteful of floor space, cause ventilation and air-conditioning problems, increase the cost of services such as fire detection systems and, most important of all, can impede natural and vital interpersonal communications. So consideration should be given to providing spare offices that can be easily reserved and used for an hour or so by individuals whenever their need arises.

Open-plan offices are the most efficient users of space and are the easiest to ventilate or air condition. They also provide the quickest means of escape in a fire. Provided that people are placed in groups according to their functions, they allow for easy communications. But fully open-plan offices do not always provide good communications because of the many visual and aural distractions.

Visual distractions can be reduced by the use of portable screens with a height of about one metre or slightly more. Acoustic screens, sound-absorbing ceilings and furnishings greatly reduce noise levels. Printers and other office equipment are generally far quieter than the typewriters and printers that once existed, so are now less likely to cause irritation. General conversation and movement are more likely to be the principal distracting factors.

However, it is well known that an open office that is deathly silent brings its own problems because confidential conversation is impossible – a word spoken at one end of the office can be heard clearly at the other. Also, anyone who has ever worked in an anechoic chamber will know just how unsettling complete silence can be. So architects and planners sometimes allow for the injection of a small amount of white noise (noise that covers the entire audio frequency spectrum) into the office space. Air-conditioning systems sometimes produce sufficient low-level noise by themselves.

People need a sense of belonging and the comfort of a nest or home, a space that they can call their own in the office. That can usually be provided in an open-plan office simply and relatively cheaply by arranging desks, bookcases and portable screens to form personal cells. When individuals sit at their desks, they can then have a degree of privacy.

Possible Layout Configurations

There are many ways in which people, furniture, equipment and partitions can be arranged. But here are six principal traditional possibilities:

  1. Put as many people as possible in individual private offices.

  2. Put as many people as possible in private offices, but have them sharing (say two to each office).

  3. Have most people distributed over a large office floor, but separate them with fixed partitions that are something like two metres tall (not reaching the ceiling and allowing air to flow above).

  4. Provide furniture that has its own raised screens or shelving attached, so that people sit at work stations that surround them on two or three sides (these are sometimes called carrels).

  5. Have people distributed over the office floor in a non-geometrical arrangement, with free-standing screens and plants to give them some feeling of privacy or a space that they can own. This is sometimes called landscaping, or open-space planning. The concept was introduced and perfected by the German company Bürolandschaft over 50 years ago.

  6. Set desks out in a grid pattern in an open-plan arrangement. This harks back to Victorian times but the arrangement is still sometimes seen, for example in some call centres.

 

Figure 17.1 Comparison of some possible office layouts

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Figure 17.1 tabulates and compares some of the advantages and disadvantages of the above arrangements. But one also needs to ask the question ‘How pleasant or unpleasant will the occupants perceive their work environment?’ All these can be motivating or demotivating factors. Clearly one needs to avoid the unfriendly, regimented look of the open-plan. However, open space is a different story and can provide pleasant working surroundings whilst still allowing efficient and flexible use of the accommodation.

Preparing a Space Requirements Schedule

Most space planners will need to be given a list not only of the number of people to be housed, but also of the way in which that number breaks down into the different grades or job specialisations. Someone senior has to make (or agree) a decision that sets out how much space each person in each staff grade should be allocated as a minimum. Space requirements are not always based on grade or status, because some office workers will need more equipment than others and that will determine their minimum space needs. But it is usually possible to compile a schedule that lists the various staff grades to be employed down one column, with an adjoining column setting out the individual space allowance for each individual within each of those grades.

Distribution of People Throughout the Layout

Ideally layouts should be arranged so that people are distributed throughout the office area according to their communication patterns. Those expected to communicate most often with each other should not be placed too far apart. Much of this will depend on the type of organisation chosen (team, matrix or hybrid, as described in chapters 9 and 10).

With a matrix organisation, the specialist functional groups have more permanence than those specialisations would have in a pure project team, so the office layout would probably be arranged to accommodate each specialist group together, along with its specialist manager. Matrix organisations are easier to manage than team organisations when planning space, because the organisation is more stable and less likely to change as projects move through the company.

It is possible to carry out a study to determine the lengths of the physical communication paths between different people and marry that to the number of times people communicate with each other. This has been done by methods as simple as hammering pins into a board, with the board representing the office space and each pin representing a person or group of people. Communication channels are represented by pieces of string tied between the relevant pins and a string diagram results.

More flexible and practical solutions rely on charting methods, for example with lines ruled to represent the communication channels on drawn plans of proposed layouts. In many, if not most cases, simple common sense will provide the answers.

Knowing How Much Space is Available

Office space is still often quoted in square feet in many countries, but whether square feet or square metres are used the office planner will need to know several things about that space. One vital thing is to know whether the space available is the gross or the net area. The gross area will include space for corridors, walkways, stairwells and so forth. Even a stated net area must be examined to ensure that space is allowed for such things as photocopiers, vending machines and designated walkways. What the office planner is really interested in is the net useable space.

Planning Aids

An architect’s or surveyor’s plans of the areas to be occupied is essential. These should be obtained as a master drawing (or master file in the CAD system) for each floor or major area. Each master drawing should show the positions of windows, fixed internal walls, doors, supporting columns (what a nuisance they can sometimes be – they always seem to be in the most awkward spots!) and so on. The master for each floor level can be used over and over again for different purposes – furniture layouts, cabling diagrams and so forth can be overlaid upon the masters.

The planner has the choice of using cardboard cut-out templates to represent the various desks and other pieces of equipment, or using a suitable computer drawing application.

A Suggested Office Layout for the Project Management Function

For the core project team, which might comprise a project manager, the project management office (PMO) and associated secretaries or clerical staff, it makes sense to arrange the accommodation in a cluster. One such arrangement is shown in Figure 17.2.

Figure 17.2 Possible office layout for a project management function

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This example would be suitable for one fairly large project or where the manager and the control team handle a succession of smaller projects. There are a number of points to note about this layout.

Office Arrangement for the Project Manager

The project manager has a private office, but its door (Access E in Figure 17.2) allows easy access to the project management office (PMO) and the wider world. The door can be locked for private interviews (perhaps when counselling a member of staff) but should normally be unlocked during office hours.

The project manager’s secretary in this case has a private office because secretaries often have to handle or prepare documents or hold conversations that must be kept confidential. Other secretaries and clerical staff can be housed with the PMO.

The project manager must regard having a private office as a privilege, and not as a barrier to other project staff on the project team. Remember that project managers will motivate others best if they adopt a ‘management by walking about’ policy. The following case example is from my own experience and, I assure you, is true in every respect.

CASE EXAMPLE NO. 1: A CAUTIONARY TALE

A director of projects was accommodated in an office arrangement like that shown for the project manager and secretary in Figure 17.2 except that there was no adjoining PMO. Both offices were beautifully furnished with personally chosen reproduction antique furniture.

In this case the door at Access E was always locked. Anyone wishing to see the project director had first to negotiate Access F, then face the secretary, and then pass through Access G into the inner sanctum. Too often staff were greeted by the secretary with a message that amounted to ‘access denied’.

From the open-plan offices immediately outside it was not possible to see whether the project director was at home or away. Indeed he was rarely seen. Those open-plan offices housed about 50 highly skilled designers, working on several large capital projects. The designers resented the fact that the project director took no personal interest in them, never stepped out of his office to talk about their work or give them any encouragement.

Thus a rumour grew that there was no project director. He was a myth and did not exist. There was only an empty office guarded by the secretary. Although amusing in retrospect, there was hostility behind that rumour and it became a powerful demotivator. And the office layout had much to do with that.

 

PMO

Typical functions of a PMO include cost estimating and cost control, planning and scheduling, contract administration, risk management, change control, progress monitoring and reporting and so forth. It is usually convenient for these functions to be within easy reach of the project manager, and the arrangement in Figure 17.2 would allow for that.

Note that the project support staff are shown partitioned off in their own enclosure, but those partitions are not full height and there are no doors – only gaps in the partitions. This illustrates a general point about office planning, which is that local government planning authorities can frown upon full-height partitions with enclosing doors here because then the project manager’s office and the secretary’s office would both become ‘rooms within rooms’. Apart from problems with ventilation, rooms within rooms are considered a hazard because they increase the chances of people being trapped in the event an emergency.

Project Meeting Room

Project people need ready access to a room where they can hold meetings and put out schedules, drawings and other documents (perhaps displayed on walls). These meetings will sometimes be formal and at other times informal. They might be regular meetings, one-off diary events or ad hoc meetings called on the spur of the moment.

Ideally the project meeting room should be regarded as a kind of club room or war room for the project team. The room should be provided with locking doors, so that confidential plans and schedules can be left out pinned to walls when the room is vacated (say for luncheon breaks or even overnight). This room can become the physical heart of the project management function. It should be located as near to the project manager and the PMO as possible.

The meeting room needs to be furnished with a long table so that large documents can be laid flat for everyone to gather round and examine. For schedules that need to be displayed semi-permanently, one tip is to fix a painted flat mild steel strip along one wall, so magnets can be used to support long documents (a fridge magnet kind of arrangement that I have seen used with great success).

Whatever communications equipment is necessary in the meeting room should be for the benefit of those present at project meetings rather than for those intent on interrupting the proceedings. For example, telephones should not be listed in directories and should be set for outgoing calls only.

The Visual Environment

Appearance and Décor

Of course the layout is only part of the office design. When given the opportunity, designing the furnishings and décor can be a creative and rewarding task.

Carpets using artificial fibres are hard wearing, usually non-slip, and relatively cheap and easy to clean. They are preferable to hard surfaces for many reasons. However, they can become charged with static electricity in dry conditions, so the office humidity will have to be controlled unless people start getting irritating shocks from door handles or, worse, computing equipment is compromised.

I have worked in a company where the occupiers of individual offices were allowed to choose their own colour schemes, and this led to some bizarre combinations (my own office walls were a bright mustard yellow, which produced dramatic effects when they caught the afternoon sun).

The most pleasant (and also very practical) colour schemes for floors, walls and furnishings use coordinated browns and mid greens. These are the colours of nature and of humankind’s early existence, and it seems that we are still programmed to prefer those.

One of the most attractive suites of offices I ever knew was finished in different but coordinated warm shades of brown (except for the white ceilings) and that created a cosy atmosphere that all the staff appreciated. Yes, that was indeed a really happy place in which to work, and that kind of satisfaction can only increase motivation and productivity.

Lighting

Light has several qualities that must be taken into account for office work. Not everyone agrees on the amount of light that should be provided, but there is no doubt that illumination should be:

  • distributed as evenly as possible (for example avoiding dark walls or ceilings);

  • associated with the above, avoiding shadows (for example behind supporting columns);

  • diffused so that there is no glare, either from the luminaires or from objects in the office;

  • constant (without flicker);

  • of sufficient intensity for the work being performed;

  • with a colour value that approximates to white light (daylight) as nearly as possible.

 

With energy conservation in mind, it is important that as much of the electrical energy required for lighting is converted into light rather than heat, and for that purpose fluorescent lamps are indicated for general lighting in offices (other forms of low-energy luminaires are available for industrial premises). Desk lamps using white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are very efficient for highlighting task areas where very fine detail has to be observed.

Lighting Intensity

Illumination intensity is measured in lux. One lux is a light intensity of one lumen evenly distributed over an area of one square metre. It is usual to take the measurement on a flat desktop.

General standards for office lighting are usually in the range of about 800 to 1,000 lux. Where people are working on art layouts or designs using drawing boards, or doing other work that requires close attention to detail levels above 1,000 lux might be preferable.

I knew of one American company where the design offices were illuminated at a massive 2,000 lux, because the company directors understood that their engineers were expected to work to very fine design limits on complicated drawings. I spent some time in those offices and found them to be free from glare, not uncomfortably bright, and very pleasant places in which to exist and work. The luminaires were twin-tube fluorescent fittings mounted flush in a suspended ceiling, with polished ‘egg-crate’ diffusers to prevent glare, which has always been my own preferred method of general office lighting. At 2,000 lux, most of the ceiling space was taken up with the light fittings.

So common sense would say, illuminate your offices at 800 or 1,000 lux, but downgrade that to 500 lux for areas such corridors.

In meeting rooms it is useful to be able to draw dark opaque curtains across windows and fit dimmers to the artificial lights when projectors are to be used. However, most modern projectors – even portable ones – have been improved to the extent that they can operate in normal lighting conditions.

None of this takes into account the effect of natural light from windows, but of course natural light is not available in all seasons at all times of the working day or in offices with large floor areas. Some offices make allowance for light coming through windows by arranging their lights to be switchable in banks, so that luminaires nearest to the windows can be dimmed or switched off, either manually or automatically, when sunlight allows.

The design for lighting a new office will be based on the rated outputs of the luminaires. And herein lies another factor to be taken into account, which is that the output of fluorescent tubes falls off significantly during their life, with much of that deterioration happening relatively early. So architects should pitch their design standard somewhat higher than the required operating level to allow for the initial fall-off in performance of the luminaires. The facilities manager would probably be advised to operate a planned maintenance system in which fluorescent tubes are replaced at intervals (possibly annually) so that efficiency is maintained at reasonable levels and failures are avoided. Nothing irritates people as much as a failed tube that is constantly flashing on and off.

One danger to be avoided is to have sharp changes in illumination between the offices and non-working areas such as corridors and staircases. Eyes take time to adjust to different lighting levels, and although the illumination in transit areas is not required for work, safety becomes a consideration. Switches for such areas, especially staircases, are best placed in a central control room or some other place not accessible to general staff. I once had to have all the staircase lighting switches in a large London office building removed to a remote location because our energy-conscious managing director was in the habit of switching the lights off every time he used the stairs. There were no windows on those dark stairwells and safety arguments must clearly override energy-saving considerations.

Some offices have energy-saving measures that rely on movement sensors. After a preset period with no detectable movement in the office, the lights automatically switch off. Clearly the sensitivity of such systems is important. I once had the misfortune to be lecturing in a new university building in a seminar room with no outside windows where the lights kept switching off and plunging us all into pitch-black darkness at irregular intervals, irrespective of movement in the room.

Emergency Lighting

In most countries regulations will exist that call for the installation and regular maintenance of emergency lighting. These lights need only provide a level of illumination for a sufficient time that will allow the office occupants to make their way to the nearest fire exit should a fire start and the mains electricity supply fail. Emergency lights work from batteries that receive a constant charge from the mains supply and they operate automatically when there is a power cut (but not when the lights are switched off in the normal course of the day).

One risk with emergency lighting (as with many other office services) is neglect and poor maintenance. The lights work fine when they are first installed but unless they are regularly maintained will not operate in an emergency because their integral rechargeable batteries have come to the ends of their lives. So periodical testing is recommended, with the results kept in a fire precautions log book.

The Climatic Environment

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning

Adequate ventilation is necessary to remove excess carbon dioxide and other vapours, such as the chemical emissions from new furnishings like carpets (which have been known to make people feel unwell).

People generate considerable heat (perhaps 100W per person) and that heat has to be dissipated. When lighting is provided at high intensity, even so-called low-energy luminaires will collectively emit considerable heat. In cold winter conditions that can be fine, but on hot summer days the air conditioning has to be designed accordingly if the offices are not to become unduly warm.

People’s perception of an ideal temperature in offices will vary. Most people in the relatively sedentary work of offices should expect to exist in an ambient temperature between 21 and 23 degrees Celsius. In older buildings or where the air-conditioning equipment is barely adequate temperatures can be allowed to fall below those limits, but 18 degrees should be regarded as the minimum (and at that level you can expect complaints). In hot summer weather there is no upper legal limit in the UK but clearly all possible measures (such as the provision of fans) should be taken for employees’ comfort where air conditioning is inadequate or absent.

Obviously the best choice is for air conditioning or climate control, in which the air is replaced continuously by a system of fans, ducting, humidifiers and heat exchangers. If poorly maintained or installed, such systems can cause downdrafts that will give people aches and pains, or be noisy. Of course full air conditioning is not always possible in some older buildings.

It is important for ventilation and air-conditioning systems to be given regular maintenance and periodical cleaning or sterilisation. There is a risk of harmful bacteria build-up if too much dirt is allowed to accumulate in hidden places.

A build-up of the very dangerous legionella bacterium can build up in air-conditioning systems that use water-cooling towers, and indeed that danger is also present in any water system (especially in infrequently used shower heads and taps). Cases of infection (legionnaires disease) are relatively rare, but they are very serious (often fatal) when they do occur. Even passers-by in the street can be affected by droplets from water-cooling towers mounted on roofs. Office occupants need not be unduly alarmed, but they do deserve the assurance that air-conditioning and other water-containing systems are regularly serviced by competent maintenance engineers.

Catering for the Needs of the Individual

The study of the interaction between people and their immediate work is called ergonomics. Most reasonably priced office furniture will have sufficient adjustment between the chair and the desktop height for individuals to make themselves comfortable. Backrests are also usually adjustable.

However, some people have special needs. For example those with short legs should be provided with footrests, if they cannot plant their feet firmly on the floor when working. Sympathetic consideration should always be given to any person who has some physical disability, one of the most common being back pain. Requests for suitably designed seating should not be ignored.

It is now generally acknowledged that use of computer screens does not by itself cause permanent eye damage, but people should be allowed breaks to give their eyes a rest from time to time. The screens should not be placed facing windows or lights that could reflect and cause glare.

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is common among people who use keyboards (or perform any other routine manual operation continuously and repetitively) for long periods. Wrist supports are known to ease this problem. Again, people should be allowed to take short breaks.

Some office managers like uniformity and ‘neatness’ in a large office, but I take the view that some individuality should be allowed. Clearly risqué calendars are not desirable and should be banned, but if someone wishes to have a family portrait or a picture of a loved one displayed on their desk it would be petty and unfair to disallow that. Some people also like to have screensavers showing personal pictures. Why not? After all, an average office worker spends a good proportion of their waking day at their desk, so if they want to make it a little home from home, my view is, let them. But everything within reason, of course.

Conclusion

As a project manager you might not have direct responsibility for arranging and maintaining the office environment for your project team. But you should be aware that office conditions are great demotivators when things go wrong. Conversely, support your team in getting for them the best possible office environment, and you will be rewarded by increased motivation, better communications and enhanced productivity for your project.

References and Further Reading

Health and Safety Executive, (2006), Working with VDUs, HSE reference ING136, rev. 3, HSE Books. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.ik/pubns/indg36.pdf

HMSO (1963), Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

HMSO (1971), Fire Precautions Act 1971, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

HMSO (1974), Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Warner, M. (1998), ‘Facilities management’, ch. 57 in Lock, D. (ed.), The Gower Handbook of Management, 4th edn, Aldershot: Gower.

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