Open plan layouts are the Marmite of the office

Open plan offices are like Marmite: you either love them or hate them. And they continue to strongly divide opinion in the workplace.

But one thing is for sure, they are likely to be around for a while as businesses struggle to balance the tension between the need for immediate collaboration and the demand for individual, quiet spaces where people can concentrate.

Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office, says that his company continues to install both open plan offices and private office spaces in equal measure despite the growing global pushback against open plan.

“It’s a horse for courses situation. There is no cut and dried winner in the debate. It really does depend on whether open plan is best for your employees and the way they work rather than a philosophical debate.”

Andrews does acknowledge however that there is a growing body of recent evidence that shows open plan makes it harder to work.

A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that studied 40 000 workers in 300 US office buildings concluded that enclosed private offices outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of Indoor Environmental Quality – namely in acoustics, privacy and proxemics (how uncomfortable people feel when forced into close proximity to other people) issues.

Said Andrews: “Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”

Another study by SP Banbury and DC Berry showed that loud noise has become one of the greatest irritants at work. It revealed that 99% of employees reported that their concentration was impaired by various types of office noise, especially telephones left ringing at vacant desks and people talking in the background. A further study showed that 68% of those surveyed become frustrated when sounds levels rise above normal conversation level.

Even employees at Apple, which just spent $5 billion and six years building a centralised campus around the open-plan office concept, are reportedly dissatisfied. Some are said to have insisted on their own space outside of the new spaceship style building.

“But, just like a taste for Marmite, many businesses have a definite passion for the lack of walls or other physical barriers in open plan offices.

“Open spaces makes it easier for employees to interact with each other on a regular basis. The constant intermingling not only generates a sense of camaraderie, it also enhances the flow of information and teamwork.”

Andrews noted than another benefit which may not immediately spring to mind is that of budget.

“Having an open plan office can save the company money, as costs are reduced on construction, utilities and office equipment. It is more efficient to have everyone in one room in terms of utility bills and office supplies. It also provides the best flexibility to accommodate extra capacity for when the company grows as desks can easily be reconfigured.

“It really comes to how your company works best,” Andrews concluded.

Don’t just sit there!

Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels.

And there’s a direct relationship between time spent sitting and your risk of early mortality of any cause.

Richard Andrews, Managing Director of Inspiration Office, an Africa-wide office space and furniture consultancy, said that most workers have gotten so used to the notion of sitting all day, they don’t even think about the damage it could be doing to their bodies.

“Our analysis shows that people sit in a car or bus to get to work and once there, sit at their desks, sit in meeting rooms and even sit in the canteen for lunch. And what compounds the problem these days, is the culture of answering emails after work hours.

“This can easily addd an extra hour of sitting to the day. This means workers will typically sit for between 10 and 12 hours a day without even realising it. And it can have a devastating impact on peoples’ health – even if they exercise frequently.”

One study compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of a with those who logged more than four hours a day of screen time.

Those with greater screen time had a nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause and about a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack.

Andrews added that if there was ever doubt of the effects of sitting, most people ‘shrink’ during the day. The reason lies in the vertebral column, specifically in the inner part of the vertebral disc. The discs in the spine are composed of a gelatin-like material which provides cushioning and protection to the spine.

“It’s your body’s shock absorber. And with the pounding your vertebrae take during the day with by sitting, it needs time to rest, rejuvenate and elongate again. Sitting for hours literally causes us to shrink a little during the work day.

“There is however a simple way to combat the negative effects of sitting on our health, “ Andrews noted.

“People in offices should take a movement break every 30 minutes. No matter how much you exercise, you still need to do this. Research shows that people who sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had the lowest risk of early death.”

Andrews said that while people know they need to move more, guidelines on what the entails should be more specific and should be put up in every office and encouraged by management.

“For every 30 consecutive minutes of sitting, stand up and move/walk for five minutes at brisk pace to reduce the health risks from sitting.”

Study results indicate that those who frequently sat in stretches less than 30 minutes had a 55% lower risk of death compared to people who usually sat for more than 30 minutes at a stretch.

People who frequently sat for more than 90 minutes at a stretch had a nearly two-fold greater risk of death than those who almost always sat for less than 90 minutes at a stretch, he said.

Andrews added that an added benefit of moving every 30 minutes was to encourage older workers to move.

“As we age we tend naturally to become more sedentary, but this increases the risk of poor health. Everyone will benefit from moving every 30 minutes. It’s important people just make it a habit.”

Sitting is bad for your health

Spending those long hours sitting in the same fixed posture at a desk is doing your body no good and may even be causing long term damage; but the growing adoption of height adjustable desks in South Africa may prove the antidote.

Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office, says people weren’t designed to sit at a desk all day.

“But we’re seeing growing demand for sit stand desks from our clients in South Africa. Giving workers the choice of adjusting the height of a desk can make a big difference helping people to work more healthily and productively as well as relieving back and joint discomfort.”

Importance of movement and variation

“While a good quality office chair offers great comfort and support, it can only go so far. As a result it’s always a good idea to get up out of your chair regularly through the day,” noted Andrews.

In reality what often happens is we get involved with our work and end up sitting far too long until the aches and pains set in and force us to move.

The beauty of sit and stand working is it allows you to work in a wide variety of postures that can’t be achieved while sitting.

“It helps to make for a far more natural way of working. And by taking note of our body’s signals of fatigue and stress all that’s needed is a change of work position. This wide variation of movement keeps the body more active and healthy,” says Andrews.

Benefits to office workers

Variable height desk workers often report significant benefits when changing from straight sitting all day to this more flexible working method:

• It keeps them in better shape physically
• It helps to control weight as additional activity burns off excess calories
• An ability to focus and concentrate more effectively
• A greater level of energy
• Feeling more engaged in their work
• A much wider variety of positions, many of which can’t be achieved with a chair
• Less aches and pains through being more active

A recent study shows the long-term harm of prolonged sitting. The American Cancer Society undertook a study of 120 000 people with no prior history of serious illness.

It discovered mortality rates rose by 37% for women and 18% for men who worked more than 6 hours a day sitting, when compared to those sitting for less than 3 hours a day.

How to fight back against sitting

“There is a fundamental difference between the pressures on the body when sitting and standing,” says Andrews. “When standing, your body’s weight is spread through the hips, knees and ankles. Prolonged sitting inflicted undue pressure on the back’s discs. A standing position reduces pressure on your back and allows weight to be carried via the legs.”

A study carried out by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Laboratory at Cornell University found computer users noticed a marked decrease in musculoskeletal pain after only 4 to 6 weeks of working at a height adjustable desk.

Dr. Delgado, a Cape Town based Chiropractor, has advised that we also need to establish a healthy work pattern. As a rule of thumb, every 30 minutes of work should be spent as follows:

· 20 minutes sitting
· 8 minutes standing
· 2 minutes moving / stretching

Says Andrews: “Although this way of working is radically different to a conventional office desk, it’s clear there is little problem to adapting to it for new users. In fact as the work position is so easy to alter it makes it very simple to pace yourself and adapt to the new way of working at a rate that suits you. However people should always have the choice and work in the way that is most comfortable for them.”

Co-working spaces set to shake up property industry

Co-working spaces, the trend that is shaking up the traditional workplace model the world over, is set to cause a dramatic change in how and where people work in South Africa.

Linda Trim, director of FutureSpace – a joint venture between Investec Property and workplace specialists Giant Leap that offers high end co-working space, says that in 2016, there were approximately 11 000 co-working locations around the world.

“But this figure is expected to more than double to 26 000 by 2020. By comparison, there are approximately 24 000 Starbucks locations worldwide. Taking a cue from the popular reference to the coffee giant’s location strategy, that means there may soon be a co-working space on every corner.”

Trim noted that co-working spaces were increasingly popular with strong demand for FutureSpace’s offices.

“We already have steady 80% occupancy rate only three months after launching.”

FutureSpace plans to open further offices around South Africa, a possibly overseas in 2018 such is the demand.

The biggest shift Trim expects to see in the coming years is that co-workspace will become a key component of many companies’ workplace and real estate strategies — for occupiers and building owners alike.

“Flexible workspace is not just for millennial freelancers or tech startups anymore. Large, multinational companies are increasingly taking on space at flexible workspace operators or integrating shared working spaces into their own environments,” she noted.

For example, Microsoft recently shifted 70% of their sales staff in New York City to flexible workspace. Large employers already make up the fastest growing market for shared workspace provider and many businesses’ preferences are moving toward short-term real estate contracts with flexible provisions.

Companies like IBM and Microsoft have begun to outsource the design, building and management of some of their workspaces to third parties.

Says Trim: “In the same way we now purchase many technologies as services rather than as software, the future of ‘space as a service’ looks bright.

“This model provides companies with a way to access space in an on-demand fashion, drawing on the knowledge of outside experts in a way that frees them to focus on their own core businesses.”

Building owners are also finding opportunities to revitalise underused spaces by transforming them into the type of shared work areas that are increasingly in demand.

Already, many occupiers won’t consider a building without available flexible space. To remain relevant, commercial office buildings will need to create spaces that attract people to connect and collaborate — both within the office and outside of it.

In South Africa, as in the rest of the world, companies will soon need to think more about accessing office space than owning or leasing it.

This paradigm shift will require an evaluation of “core” and “flexible” space needs.

Core space is the real estate a company must rent or own over the long term for the business to function. Flexible space is the real estate that can be deployed quickly without long-term commitment, adjusting in near “real time” based on needs.

“By categorising space needs this way, businesses can make better decisions about how to execute a real estate strategy that minimises cost and maximises opportunities,” Trim adds.

One of the best examples of large companies adopting the flexible co-working workspace approach in Asia is HSBC’s recent contract for 400 desks in WeWork’s Tower 535 in Hong Kong.

“It created the right environment for their staff, working in the same location as other like-minded teams, including Hong Kong’s fin techs and other startups,” says Trim.

By making flexible workspace an integral part of an organisation’s workplace strategy, companies can not only provide employees with a valuable opportunity for choice and connectivity, but they can realise meaningful benefits thanks to flexibility.

In balancing core and flexible space needs, companies can reduce financial risks related to long-term space needs and be nimble in making changes as needed.

“Building owners can benefit from transforming underutilised spaces into shared working areas, which in turn can help attract and retain tenants, “ Trim concludes.

Lifestyle-focused work environments are for everyone

What time do you power down your laptop at night? Look at the plug next to your bed. How many devices are plugged in there? Your answers to these questions have probably revealed you’re at the office more than you’re actually in it, tucking into some bite-sized admin with breakfast at the corner café or catching a quick IM meeting from the back seat of an Uber. Your staff are no doubt doing the same. So, how do you restore work-life balance to encourage happy, healthy and motivated employees when everyone’s overflowing inbox is tagging along home with them? Make them feel at home with a lifestyle-focused work environment.

At the moment, a fundamental shift away from hierarchically designed offices, toward more inclusive, collaborative spaces, is taking place. One major reason for this is the growing platoon of Millennials in the modern workforce. These super-social and adept multi-taskers like open plan coffee-shop style environments, tech bedecked meeting hubs, acoustic pods, and even working from treadmills or barber shop chairs is not an unusual request these days. As a result, more and more companies are starting to mimic the trendy offices of the Googles and Facebooks of the world. But what if that doesn’t align with your brand… and your older staff just can’t comprehend the idea of morning meetings in an indoor treehouse?

Embracing lifestyle-focused work spaces doesn’t mean your office needs to look like a children’s playground. It’s simply about making the office more flexible to your employee and business needs. That means the first step to an ideal workspace is to understand your company requirements, culture and staff. Traders are bound to their workstations, attorneys require privacy, creatives like space to throw ideas around in, and so all the lifestyle-focused workspaces for these kinds of employees will need to be different to efficiently support the way in which they operate. However, there are a few minor changes that we’ve noticed can help to streamline any and every office, improving efficiency while giving it a homey air.

Comfortable soft seating hubs, intimate task lighting, quiet areas, private spaces, warm colour palettes, and the smell of brewing coffee are just a few minor tweaks that make most staff feel at home in the office. But another major stand-out benefit and consideration of lifestyle-focused work spaces is scalability. Lifestyle focused spaces allow for expansion without the costs of a new workstation for each new staff member. Instead, employees may move around an environment, without desk ownership, working from a pod or quiet room, canteen or bar-height collaboration table.

A lifestyle focused workspace that looks and feels more welcoming and comfortable will put your staff at ease, make their work-lives more meaningful and encourage them to invest more passion and drive into a company that is investing in their in-office experience and overall work-life balance. After all, home is where the heart is. Start your journey to a more lifestyle-focused workspace today and get more heart from your staff, as well as a responsive and agile office that changes and grows around you, instead of the other way around.

By Robyn Gray, Associate Director for Tétris South Africa

Top five SA workplace trends in 2017

South African offices are changing rapidly as the workplace continues to shift from a utilitarian place where you earn your money from 9 to 5 to a much more people=friendly, welcoming space where we will spend more than 50% of our time during our working lives.

Emma Leith, Interior Decorator at workplace specialists Giant Leap, shares her top five workplace trends in South Africa for 2017:

The end of fixed workspace layouts

Creating multifunctional community space as well as a diverse selection of areas is becoming increasingly important in order to accommodate constantly changing needs; allowing people to have greater fluidity, mobility and flexibility in the workspace.

“This trend can be seen in the form of modular furniture, work benches and sit-stand desks. Communal areas are becoming an important part of the workplace where people can get together for an informal meeting, to simply enjoy a cup of coffee alone or with a college or to collaborate across teams,” says Leith.

The Modern Office: A Home Away From Home

The office fit out is becoming increasingly geared towards creating a more lived in and homey feel.

“It’s a home away from home type of scenario. This is created by providing cosy, welcoming lounges, communal canteens, and comfy break out areas.”

Leith says that this ultimately provides for a better working environment allowing for greater employee satisfaction. This trend interlinks with point one above as people now have the option to work in more relaxed, comfortable environments.

“Residential furniture is another element that is being used more and more to create that warm, never-want-to-leave-the-office feeling,” Leith added.

Private Areas

The growing trend towards the open plan office generates the need for private pods/ areas, as the open plan concept does not always provide for the best working environment.

“Private pods are needed whether it be to have a quiet phone call, meeting or place to work with no distractions.  Therefore a combination of spaces is essential in the modern workplace,” notes Leith.

Private areas can be innovatively designed telephone booths, sound proof quiet rooms and sound proof space dividers. Increasingly, various new “pods” are being installed in the workplace in South Africa.

“Secluded pods allow office workers to meditate, smash things or scream and will be commonplace in two years time,”  Leith notes.

Themed Meeting Rooms To Portray Company Identity

Themed meeting rooms are becoming important areas for companies to portray their identity, values and what they do.

This may be in the form of wallpaper, graphics, furniture, lighting, or colour.

This allows for each meeting room to take on a certain personality, ultimately making them more interesting and inviting spaces to be in, as well as emphasising the firm’s identity.

Play Space

Not just for trendy companies like Google any more or start ups burning through cash.

“Games such as pool and Ping-Pong are also being brought into the communal areas which allow colleagues to interact with other on a more relaxed level as well as help them to relax.

“This trend is growing in South Africa is an effective way to break the office stress cycle and rest the brain, “ Leith concluded.

Offices would be better if they were more like cars

Offices would be much better places to work if they were more like cars.

“New car models are often embedded with technologies that make driving easier, safer and more fun.

“Sensors tell drivers if there is a truck in their blind spot or if they are about to back into another car when parking. Some cars allow drivers to safely take their hands off the wheel. Increasingly, more will be Wi-Fi enabled. The car doesn’t just provide transportation anymore—it actually helps people be better drivers,“ says Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office.

“So why can’t we embed technology in the office to help people feel, work and think better?

“A lot more people will drive a smart car to go to work in a dumb office. But this simply has to change and it will change.”

People used to think that technology would make offices obsolete—but the opposite is happening. Technology will be embedded in offices so it actually helps people work better and makes the workplace even more relevant.

“It will help people cope with the sense of overwhelm they often feel as work has intensified and the pace of change has accelerated. It will also help organisations design the kinds of spaces that workers love to work in versus have to work in.
Technology will be embedded in offices so it actually helps people work better and makes the workplace even more relevant.”

Work is fundamentally more complex than ever before. Workers who used to be assigned to a single project team now find themselves juggling multiple teams and tasks, constantly switching from one set of tasks to another, transitioning from one work mode to the next and orchestrating their way through a maze of meetings. The constant focus-shifting wastes time and drains energy.

When it comes to technology workers are already familiar with such mobile phones, laptops and Wi-Fi, this has had the impact of freeing employees who used to be tethered to their desks.

“It’s liberating—people have more choices about where and how to work.”

But it has also caused information overload as data has multiplied exponentially. And increasing globalisation brings new ideas and team members from all over the world.

“For example, video-conferencing makes collaboration across time zones easier. But it also means that you can’t just book one conference room for a meeting—now you need to book multiple spaces for your global team’s video call. So collaboration improved, but meeting scheduling got more complicated.

Think about a conference room that can alert you before the meeting ends, to make sure you wrap up what you need to accomplish before the next group stands impatiently outside the door, waiting for you to get moving.

“What if it could also recognise you and bring up notes from your last team meeting and adjust the lighting to the levels you prefer?

“And what if offices had a data stream that knew which rooms are always busy and which rooms no one seems to like. With this information, organisations can better understand what’s working and what’s isn’t.”

Just as technology in today’s cars is improving the driving experience, tomorrow’s office will harness the power of emerging technologies.

“It will allow people to more easily navigate the complexity of work as well as help organisations create better work experiences for individuals and teams” Andrews concluded.

Open plan: the suboptimal office?

Although the current work zeitgeist is for open plan offices, further thought is needed to keep different types of office workers happy throughout the workday.

Linda Trim, director at Giant Leap, says the open plan office has been around since the 1960s when it was first introduced in Germany to boost communication and de-emphasise status.

“As the idea took hold in North America in the decades that followed, employers switched from traditional offices with one or two people per room to large, open spaces.

“Right now, it is estimated that roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers spent their days in open-plan offices. South Africa has a similar experience.”

But as the layout became commonplace, problems emerged.

A 2002 study of Canadian oil-and-gas-company employees who moved from a traditional office to an open one found that on every aspect measured, from feelings about the work environment to co-worker relationships to self-reported performance, employees were significantly less satisfied in the open office.

One explanation for why this might be is that open offices prioritise communication and collaboration but sacrifice privacy.

“A reason for this is that ‘architectural privacy’ (the ability to close one’s door) went hand in hand with a sense of ‘psychological privacy’. And a healthy dose of psychological privacy correlates with greater job satisfaction and performance.” Trim noted.

With a lack of privacy comes noise—the talking, typing, and even chewing co-workers.
A 1998 study found that background noise, whether or not it included speech, impaired both memory and the ability to do mental arithmetic, while another study found that even music hindered performance. There’s also the question of lighting.

Says Trim: “Open offices tend to cluster cubicles away from windows, relying more on artificial light. Research has shown that bright, overhead light intensifies emotions, enhancing perceptions of aggression which could lead to a lack of focus during meetings if arguments get heated.”

Another under-appreciated twist is that different personality types respond differently to office conditions. For example, a study on background music found its negative effects to be much more pronounced for introverts than for extroverts.

“Even the office coffee machine could be hurting some employees. Although a moderate dose of caffeine was found to enhance long-term information retention and was ranked as the most important thing in the workplace by an Inspiration Office survey in 2016, caffeine has previously been shown to hinder introverts’ cognitive performance during the workday.”

A recent craze is the standing desk, inspired by the widely reported health risks of sitting all day. One study found that people who sat at least six hours a day had a higher risk of premature death than those who sat three hours or fewer—regardless of physical-activity level. But being on one’s feet presents its own health risks: standing for more than eight hours a day has been tied to back and foot pain.

So what’s a company to do?

“Give employees their own private offices, with plenty of sun, and turn off the overhead lights.

“Supply the introverts with noise-canceling headphones and decaf, but pump the extroverts full of caffeine and even let them listen to music now and then.

“And don’t let anyone sit too much—or stand too much.” Trim adds.

Despite the well worn office mantra of group work being central to success, businesses often struggle to offer effective collaborative spaces. This is according to Inspiration Office, an Africa-wide office space and furniture consultancy.

Says Richard Andrews, MD of Inspiration Office: “Historically, most collaboration in South Africa has occurred through formal, scheduled meetings having many participants.

“As a result, organisations have had years of experience building conference rooms and other formal meeting spaces. These spaces were designed to facilitate large group work processes, efficient client exchanges of information and decision making.”

Andrews notes that the need for innovation, improved productivity and particularly speedy decision making are the principal drivers behind the charge towards collaborative, less structured workspaces.

“This is especially true when you consider 70% of great, innovative ideas at work come from people collaborating,” he says. “The search for competitive advantage through innovation and effective decision-making has led many organisations to highly value group-oriented work and workspaces.”

Today’s collaborative spaces fall short of expectations, driven by a lack of spaces to support the most valued types of collaboration, and a lack of adaptability of both furnishings and technology within the spaces.

“While the most highly prized collaborations are informal in nature, they need to be supported with the right design characteristics such as convenient location, support for social and small group work interactions, and casual look and feel.”

Most organisations consider the social component of work separate from “work” spaces. To foster social interaction, some copy the obvious characteristics of successful public spaces (the café, bar, market, lounge) mistakenly hoping that the variety of social interactions occurring in the public versions of these spaces will translate to a business setting.

However, organisations have few insights into supporting innovation other than to encourage as much interaction as possible and “wait for the magic to happen”. Organisations know their group spaces are under-performing, but do not know how to respond.

Andrews says that while the trend to establish comfortable, informal collaborative spaces within offices has taken hold in Europe and particularly in the US over the past few years, and to some degree in South Africa, he expects the trend to accelerate here in 2017.

“The economy is sluggish and adding a collaborative space in an unused office area means you can enhance office facilities without taking on extra spaces and bumping up the rent or spending a lot on expensive office reconfiguration.

“Another advantage is because these spaces typically consist of things like screened off areas, perch tables with high stools, booths with comfortable ottomans and chairs, they are easy to move to a new office.”

Andrews says that the types of collaborative spaces offered continue to evolve- the most rapidly growing categories support brainstorming, small unplanned meetings, videoconferencing and project team work.

“In the future, most collaborative spaces will offer features that facilitate connection to technology, sharing of visual information, adaptability to changing work process and amenities such as food, beverages and daylight,” he concludes.

Hay fever? Get an aircon

The sun is rising a little earlier and things are heating up around the country, signalling the onset of spring knocking at our doorstep.

To most of us, this means no more wearing layers upon layers of clothes while out. For others it signals the beginning of a period where hay fever unleashes a relentless onslaught of sneezing, stuffiness, a runny nose, or itchiness in your nose, the roof of your mouth, throat, eyes or ears, enough to incapacitate even the toughest individuals.

All these uncomfortable conditions can definitely lead to a loss of productivity in the workplace, put a dampener on your mood and leave you none-too-keen on enjoying the spring weather.

The biggest spring allergy trigger is pollen. Trees, grasses, and weeds release these tiny grains into the air to fertilize other plants causing millions of people around the world suffer from their effects.

As much as there are external triggers such as pollen and dust, there are also internal triggers from within your own home. These allergy triggers can include dust mite droppings, animal dander, cockroach droppings and molds, just to mention a few of the really nasty ones. On top of these there are also germs in the air that we pass on to each other in spaces like offices or even at home.

With exposure to some kind of allergen or floating bacteria an imminent reality, one would need to live in a bubble to not suffer those effects. The latest conventional air conditioning units might be able to protect you from most of these elements but research has revealed that they may be making you sick – by collecting and harboring harmful germs that then get re-circulated into your home or office. The bacteria gets trapped in the filters and begin to multiply before eventually reentering your home.

So how do we battle all these bacteria? Using an air purifying system works effectively on airborne, adhesive and in-filter trapped micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses thus providing a cleaner living environment.

By Nelmarie Kapp, product marketing atPanasonic South Africa

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My Office News Ⓒ 2017 - Designed by A Collective


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