A cartoon by Joe Dator in the May 9 issue of The New Yorker shows two headset-wearing office workers seated side by side in oil drum-like enclosures. “So how do you like the new cylindricals?” reads the caption. Elsewhere in the same issue, a drawing by P.C. Vey shows a suited gentleman peering over a chest-height workstation wall addressing a coworker: “We’re ready to begin the next phase of keeping things exactly the way they were.”
Such cartoons are timely markers of how aware Americans are that getting the job done in an office environment is changing. The reasons are many, including the global economic downturn (also the recovery), downsizing, environmental awareness, shifting attitudes about creativity and efficiency, and even stepped-up goals in maximizing real estate investment. All these factors are forcing architects, interior designers, and office furniture manufacturers to adapt to the sea change in how virtually all clients now do business.
“The days of Dilbertville are over,” said Perkins+Will New York director of interiors Joan Blumenfeld. “Nobody wants to work in a traditional cubicle anymore.” With her colleagues, including principal and global discipline leader Janice Barnes, Blumenfeld has conducted a series of research studies on office design over the past decade and reports that, since 2008, there has been a revolution in how most workplaces—whether media, law, banking, trading, accounting or others—operate.
“LEED certification requirements regarding daylight and air circulation have been a big driver in the move toward open plan office design,” Barnes added. Panel wall dividers are routinely no higher than 42 inches or disappearing altogether, so-called “benching” seating (where employees are lined up in rows or grouped in areas with few separating partitions) is commonplace, and communal tables or breakout rooms are supporting teamwork more than ever before.
“The culture of work continues to change at a quicker pace,” concurred industrial designer and consultant Jeffrey Bernett, principal of CDS, who has designed for Knoll, B&B Italia, and for the past 18 months has helped oversee, coordinate, and design most of Herman Miller's new furniture systems line called Canvas Office Landscape. “Most businesses have been shifting away from private offices, employees are each occupying smaller footprints, and new technologies in handheld devices have allowed a freeing mobility that allows teams to work and congregate in more places within the workplace. You are no longer tied to your desk.”
Manufacturers widely began preaching the gospel of open plan furniture systems in the 1980s, touting features such as integrated wiring for maximum power and “flexible” panels and components (overhead storage bins, desk lighting, coat closets and the like) as a progressive alternative to the build-out of private offices surrounding “secretarial” pools or worker bull pens. Once installed, however, most arrays of cubicles in the American workplace typically stayed put and were more monolithic than modular. Now, flexibility, transparency, and ease of reconfiguration are more of a reality than a marketing pitch.
“Systems furniture used to be panel-based, with storage and desk surfaces cantilevered off the vertical wall,” Barnes noted. Now the trend is toward leg- or wheel-based mobile pieces, with shared storage, tack boards, and other elements that fit into a kit of parts.
“Offices today have three generations of employees working together as a team but with very differing communication and tasking styles,” said HOK senior principal Rick Focke. “How do you please everybody? I’ve been in this industry for 38 years, and it has been fascinating to see how top management is really listening to their employees to focus office design on a cross-section of people rather than on a fixed system of furniture as a facilities line item.” Texting has replaced speaker-phone conferencing, desktop computers have shrunk to notepads, and office teams are not only grouping in enclosed conference rooms but anywhere in the office, including the lunch room.
Following this new work interaction flowchart, designers have been creating a variety of spaces within the office environment to suit a range of work styles and activities. But now they have a lot of product options to work with: furniture manufacturers are taking flexibility to a new level in their effort to meet the needs of a diverse workforce. “The entire industry of office furniture has changed within only a few years,” said architect Jane Smith, principal of the interiors practice Spacesmith that on May 2 announced its strategic alliance with Davis Brody Bond Aedas. “Furniture has become a more integral part of creating the interior space, not an element dropped into an enclosure. It’s taken on a seriousness and ability to really shape the environment in terms of pathways, social interaction, and structure more than ever before.”
Chairs have not been left out of the mix, and even ergonomics are departing from the prescriptive. At NeoCon next week, Herman Miller will also be showing their popular and innovative SAYL chair designed by Yves Béhar that, with its “3-D intelligent back,” provides support while allowing a full range of seated movement. Side chairs too will include the entire line-up of intelligent, foam, and hard plastic backs.
“It’s a delicate dance for us to make sure as a manufacturer we remain very aware of changes in communication and information technologies and changes in personal interaction within the workplace,” said Haworth principal designer Dan West. “We’re designing systems that are simpler to specify, interchange, and even integrate with existing furniture systems.” He points out that storage modules are taking on the structural load of supporting a horizontal work surface from panels. And stackable units, open bookshelves, and multiple options such as leg choices or paintable trims are increasingly in demand in the marketplace. Next week at NeoCon, Haworth will demonstrate Reside, a benching system accommodating greater user densities (industry-speak for sitting closer to your coworker); woodwork surfaces; 120-degree, non-linear configurations; and angled legs. Then there’s Beside—pull-up and stackable storage/filing units. And, finally, Belong, a set of accessories such as blotters, cubbies and screens that can personalize a work station and still maintain a consistent look.
As an example, for a recent project for the trading company Market Axess, Smith specified Teknion’s Marketplace line with dark-stained engineered flint-wood end panels, Acuity task chairs by Allsteel, and Visavis 2 guest chairs designed by Antonio Citterio for Vitra. Along the bench of workstations, each with sleek flat-screen trading monitors, elements such as storage or media/conferencing can move and shift down the line as needed, allowing traders to expand and contract their workspaces more fluidly.
While companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and Blackberry have emphasized that work can be done anywhere from a subway platform to a mountaintop, work within an actual office now means performing almost anywhere within the company’s brick-and-mortar facility. A generational, 24/7 mentality has blurred the idea of workplace altogether. “I work everywhere, I play everywhere,” says designer Béhar, founder of fuseproject and in May named Designer of the Year by Condé Nast Traveller’s Innovation and Design Awards. “I am very mobile in our office, feeling happiest when I just interact with projects and people where they just happen to be. My own office is open, transparent, horizontal, wall-less. In my home, I can work anywhere, there is no dedicated workspace. (I am currently writing this from my kitchen table).”
To better understand the variable needs of people collaborating at work, Steelcase, the 60-year-old stalwart in the office furnishings business, employed a human-centered design methodology when designing media:scape with HD videoconferencing that included behavioral research and ethnographic video. With collaborative work increasing significantly and now representing more than 80 percent of today's activities in the office, Steelcase designed a system to help workers solve increasingly complex problems with teams who are distributed across the globe.
Steelcase showcased media:scape at the vanguard TED Conference in March to help participants come together with colleagues across different locations, time zones, and continents using furniture specifically designed to foster deeper, more democratized collaboration.
"No single person can know enough to make decisions in a globally integrated world. At Steelcase, we studied the ways work has changed and found that teams need spaces for true collaboration where they can easily share complex ideas, drawings, or explanations and co-create new solutions," said Jim Keane, president of the Steelcase Group.
Practicing what they preach to clients such as law firm Fox Rothchild LP and pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, architectural firm Francis Cauffman decided to configure their own Philadelphia studio into a more open layout. They were one of the first to specify an installation of Allsteel’s Stride system, which was introduced last year at NeoCon. The array of workstations features no dividing panels. A custom option designed by the studio makes the furniture multitask as much as the staff itself: lateral files are topped with upholstered cushions between desks to double as guest or “quick-meeting-with-a-colleague seating,” said design principal Keumpyo Kim Hong. Behind each workstation desk, a long table facilitates meetings or project reviews. “The open plan has fostered a feeling of tighter camaraderie,” Hong said.
Hong and her team also recently completed the North American headquarters for the Almac Group in Philadelphia. The workplace design needed to reflect a connection to its European properties and also accommodate the American corporate culture. Thus, workstations are closer together with low partitions creating a more exposed feel. Individual work areas are smaller in comparison to the American average of 200 to 250 square feet per person to foster more collaboration. “There’s a new informality to how employees interact,” Hong noted. “Meetings can be quick sound bites as you move through an office.”
One forward-looking designer and thinker about work modes is Boston-based industrial designer Jonathan Olivares (his Smith Storage System appears on the cover). He is the author of the new book, A Taxonomy of Office Chairs (Phaidon), based on a thorough study, sponsored by Knoll, of innovative task chairs from the mid-1800s up to today. “I wanted to find something that on the one hand has a rich technical history, and on the other is related to the human body in an intimate way,” Olivares said. “The office chair is that perfect synthesis.” A well-designed chair is the key component of a suitably-designed ergonomic workspace, he noted. Next up, Olivares is studying how to build “legitimate” dedicated, outdoor workspaces (as opposed to taking your laptop to the nearest park bench). “Three people working indoors would consume 10,000 kilowatts per hour of office resources, while outside in a corporate or college campus that would be reduced to 100 kilowatts,” he said. “Outdoors is the next office frontier.”
Sending your staff outside for a meeting may be a terrace too far for most companies at the moment. Still, furniture companies are clearly stepping up the pace in adapting to new social norms and quickly emerging technical innovations. “The industry is behind the way people actually want to work and even the very reason why they enjoy working,” Béhar said. “We should deliver more pleasure in the workplace.”