Take a Look at the Future Office

November 1, 1998
Corporate America has gone from rows of neatly ordered desks to sections of neatly arranged cubicles to open-office-and in some cases, back again. Today, a passionate debate rages over whether employees work better in or out of cubes. Americans take their workplace structure seriously, and probably should, seeing that we spend most of our weekdays there. Workforce recently spoke with Tim Syfert, group manager for Holland, Michigan-based Haworth Inc., a furniture company known for creating office innovations. He explains where offices came from, where they're going, and a little bit about a growing industry called cognitive ergonomics.

Workforce: What are the key characteristics of a '90s-style office in comparison with offices in the past?
Syfert: Companies used to focus on the output of the company; therefore they'd put offices in place and didn't really care much about the individual. That's how the six-pack, eight-pack and 12-pack [cubicles] came along. Then, when the emphasis switched to the knowledge worker in the early '90s, companies went to the opposite end and tried to focus on making individuals as comfortable as possible, giving them more control over their environment.

Workforce: How will this change be reflected in office setups and furniture?
Syfert: We'll start seeing more flexibility: Mobile markboards, informal tables that serve as a primary place to do work, but are on wheels so they can be moved out to a common area. Most storage options are on wheels too, so they can be moved down the hall or across the building. By the end of the year, we'll have on market a thing called a Big Wall. It's like a partition on wheels; it can make a long, straight wall and fold up like an accordion. We have a thing called Monkey Bars, like a wall of function. It's on wheels, and is basically a vertical surface with horizontal bars on it to hook accessories-storage bins, file boxes, whatever.

Workforce: What are companies changing and what are they keeping as far as office design goes?
Syfert: Basically, customers are looking for flexibility and less permanence in the office, and they're looking to expand their power and cabling capacity. Everyone thinks there's some kind of an office of the future out there, and companies are wanting to take interim steps to get there. But people still feel comfortable with things surrounding them, like partitions or panels. They still like work surfaces, so they'll still be around.

Workforce: Tell me about cognitive ergonomics.
Syfert: Cognitive ergonomics is creating spaces where the mind does its best work. [Cognitive ergonomists] work on things like: You go into a conference room and have a meeting. A lot of information that you retain in your mind is spurred by those surroundings. So if you go back to your desk and start to work again, you may not have the same thoughts or ideas. So [cognitive ergonomists] will try to design a way to have you go from place to place so that the surroundings spur those thoughts. These people will be working with companies to basically create environments that make people think better.

Workforce, November 1997, Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 56-63.