Designing The Office Of The Future

August 14, 2006
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When Herman Miller introduced its Action Office furniture system in 1968, office workers experienced a complete upheaval of the white-collar workplace. In the next decade, the office gradually shifted from neat rows of bulky desks to a landscape of semi-private cubicles. Thirty years later, the hulking Steelcase desks that once embodied office design are rarely seen outside of public schools and small-town newsrooms.

Of course, stacked against other changes that generation has witnessed, the rise of the cubicle is little more than a footnote. It isn’t even the most memorable change in the workplace, compared to the adoption of the personal computer and telecommunications.

But unlike virtually every other component of the workplace, furniture systems have changed little since then in form or function. Only now, with the emergence of a work force intimately familiar with technology, is the white-collar workplace ready to evolve.

The Next Generation

“We’re at one of those unusual points in history that doesn’t happen very often,” said Chuck Saylor, founder and CEO of Spring Lake furniture-maker izzydesign. “It takes multiple generations to see change at this level.”

The last time Saylor experienced such a distinct change, he said, was during the advent of systems furniture in the 1970s. Just as that was a reflection of the culture of the time, so too are the office design changes he expects in the future. The generation entering the work force today is technology-based, networked, interconnected, mobile and highly interactive, he explained, with a value system that has difficulty adjusting to a traditional hierarchical structure.

“They want to be involved, take ownership and make a difference. The quality of their lives is more important than the quantity.”

As this culture invades the office, it will surely impact the built environment. Office systems will have a smaller footprint, be easily adaptable and provide constant interaction. Acoustic privacy will only occasionally be necessary. Although not limited to younger workers, one key characteristic of this generation is an ability to work in a distracting environment.

When Saylor observes his youthful office, he sees what he calls the “Starbucks halo” — workers listening to music on headphones or laptop speakers, people interacting and collaborating. This will only grow more common in the next decade, as the next generation to enter the workplace will be the first raised with cellular phones and Internet instant messenger.

“The challenge is the furniture needs to be much more supportive of me as a person and how I work,” Saylor said. “The old furniture solutions forced me to relate to the furniture and the technology. Now the furniture and technology has to relate to me.”

Large work surfaces, for instance, are no longer necessary, as the big-box computers that necessitated them no longer exist. With mobile technology enabling a greater amount of work to be done in the field, at home or at Starbucks, many of these workstations could be predominantly empty.

In a Haworth Inc. client case study, 40 percent of the offices were empty during the day, with workers toiling somewhere else. Applying distributed work principles, sometimes known as hoteling, the company reduced its real estate, leveraging technology such as Wi-Fi and VoIP to provide a stable of as-needed workstations. Ernst & Young LLP famously piloted a similar effort that produced real estate cost savings of $40 million.

Attendance will no longer be a worthwhile method to show if someone is working, just as office size and location will no longer be a suitable way to denote stature.

“The cubicle is dead,” said James Ludwig, Steelcase Inc. North America director of design. “There is no longer a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Ludwig heralded the coming of design and facility management as a service, suggesting businesses look to facility managers as profit centers, able to influence the productivity and innovation of knowledge workers.

This human-centered design will be vitally important for workers regularly grounded to the office. There are more single adults in the work force today than there have ever been — a full 32 percent. Many of these look to the workplace for social connections, sometimes even as a virtual family. More often than not, a worker will spend more of his waking day in the office than at home.

“The office environment will take on a much more residential feel to it,” Saylor said. “The lines are getting a little blurrier between the home and the office. People are going to want the warmth we all relate to at home.”

Technology Changes Everything

In roughly a quarter-century, technology has rapidly changed the office. First, the personal computer improved productivity through automation. Then it provided a means for the worker to reach beyond the office through the Internet and later break free of it with wireless Internet and cellular phones.

“All of us are used to this ubiquitous connectivity, where you can go anywhere and magically be connected,” said Franco Lodato, Herman Miller vice president of design exploration and development. “What people don’t focus on is how that can be a benefit to them. They focus on what enabled that to happen, when they should be looking deeper to a place where they can integrate that into their work.”

An industrial designer by trade, Lodato is a student of “experiential design.” He came to Herman Miller earlier this year from Motorola Co., where he oversaw the development of the Nextel and Razr phones.

“It’s humanizing technology,” he said. “The idea is to use these elements to become more intelligent, to enable you to improve certain activities.”

As he sees it, the role of office design will be to absorb or manage those elements. Much of this will come from integrating technology into furniture, but not in the manner designers have traditionally used. For example, this would likely not include building computer components into furniture. The next-generation office will likely reverse that paradigm, using technology to add value to furniture.

Technologists envision a workplace that essentially manages itself. Individual workstations could be outfitted to recognize users, adjusting climate control and light settings. A next-generation Aeron chair might remember ergonomic settings for each user.

“You could create an intelligence in the fabric that will understand your weight and chemistry,” Lodato said. “It could recognize who you are, and maybe that you’re perspiring too much and overstressed. It’ll know you’ve put in a long week and say, ‘Hey, it’s Friday, take a break.’ The chair talks to you.”

Such a scenario is several years away, but its foundation is already being built. Lodato said the first step toward a “smart office” is creating an identity for the components. Once that is accomplished, the components can eventually be made to interact with each other and the user.

A number of furniture companies are in the midst of programs incorporating biometric and Radio Frequency Identification technology into potential product offerings.

“The health care sector is driving this with a need for privacy and safety,” said Brian Bascom, principal of Holland market strategy firm Velocity Partners. “We’re also seeing this with traditional furnishings in large enterprises looking for the ability to track furniture.”

File cabinets and casegoods are being fitted with biometric locks. Chairs and files are fitted with RFID tags, which in the health care field also can be used to track wheelchairs or patient beds.

Bascom has already seen research and design efforts toward the higher level functions as Lodato speculated, including pressure sensors in patient chairs and beds and executive seating with biometric-activated ergonomic settings.

At Home

A key component of the next-generation office is that a significant percentage of workers will have the opportunity to work at home. Unfortunately, the companies historically responsible for office design have been largely unsuccessful at penetrating the home office market.

“We do a dismal job of addressing the home office market,” said West Olive-based contract furniture analyst Mike Dunlap. Whether it is an employee or entrepreneur, he said, the rule for furnishing a home office is technology first, furniture second.

“So you spend $2,000 on computer equipment, and then with whatever you’ve got left, you go to Staples and buy a Chinese chair.”

Dunlap attributed much of this to poor positioning creating a disparate value threshold for the industry. In the traditional office, a chair is seldom a commodity — it is generally the most emotional part of a furnishing purchase. There is no such allure in the home office.

The largely commoditized consumer electronics industry has a stronger value perception to the home office worker than furniture. Yet, virtually any electronics purchase will be obsolete in six months to a year, whereas only the most specialized of furniture purchases are ever obsolete. It is not unusual for a consumer to happily spend $20,000 on an entertainment system, Dunlap said, but balk at $500 for a case to house it.

“I think the problem is consumers don’t have a long-term history with electronics,” said Max Shangle, chairman of the furniture design program at KendallCollege of Art & Design in Grand Rapids. “They are new and costly, so we don’t understand how these products work in their environment. As we mature with the technology, we’re going to desire better ways to accommodate it.”

Retailers such as Crate and Barrel and IKEA have found success by marketing prearranged “situations” to consumers. The consumer is able to see the best way to set up a room, whether it’s an entertainment center or a home office. This is one of Dunlap’s and Shangle’s primary complaints toward electronics retailers and office furniture makers — there is no partnership between the two industries to jointly market products.

“When a retailer like Crate and Barrel starts stealing home office, you begin to wonder what you’re doing wrong,” said John Wojewidka, a Redmond-based PC veteran who has partnered with Dunlap to market a new home office product line.

Wojewidka made headlines last year with the unveiling of his “55,000 Amish computer,” an attempt to integrate custom PC hardware into desks and other hand-crafted home furniture. Created through a partnership with major electronics manufacturers and distributors, the line that will eventually launch will be significantly lower priced, but still cater to the discriminating buyer. It will integrate technology components, but will be fully upgradeable. Dunlap believes this will tremendously reduce waste, as the difference between the newest model and an obsolete one is usually only one or two parts.

On this theme, Dunlap speculates that furniture companies could be desirable acquisition targets for technology firms. This is not without precedent, Shangle noted, as former Grand Rapids icon Baker Furniture was for many years a subsidiary and supplier of television boxes to Magnavox Consumer Electronics.

Mark Groulx, president and COO of Trendway Corp. in Holland, said he could envision such a merger, although he did not indicate an interest in such a deal.

“The real value would come in distribution,” he said. “Furniture companies need to start looking at different distribution models. A merger could do that, but I don’t know if it’s necessary.”

Herman Miller’s Lodato also was attracted to the idea of partnering with a consumer electronics company, citing iPod maker Apple Computer Inc. as a company that could work well with Herman Miller.    

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