The Office of the Future

Stephen DeAngelis

June 18, 2009

Businessmen, especially those working on tight budgets in difficult times, seldom have the luxury of thinking about the ideal work space for their employees. “Ideal,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Every company has different challenges and different goals. Innovative design firms, like IDEO, want open spaces filled with items that can provide inspiration to their design teams. A financial services company probably prefers individual and nicely appointed offices for its employees in order to reassure clients of their privacy as well as the professionalism of their company. Office space, of course, isn’t free. That means that most businesses must do the best they can with what they can afford. The office of the future, however, may be more user friendly than the cubicle caves made famous by the Dilbert cartoon strip. A CNN report by Mark Tutton [“Work is a pleasure in tomorrow’s office,” 16 October 2008] provides a glimpse of what we might expect to see in future work spaces.

“Work stations with a built-in treadmill and portable meeting rooms are just some of the developments that may become commonplace in the offices of the future. Workplace technology has changed dramatically in recent years and the offices we work in are finally set to catch up. The advent of laptops, wi-fi and BlackBerries means that high-tech workers are no longer tethered to their desks, and the office of the future will be designed to let workers roam.”

Of course, a big part of any office is the furniture it holds. Designers are working hard to develop furniture that is both functional and attractive. Tutton continues:

“Dutch designer Michiel van der Kley has come up with Globus, a stylish spherical ‘podule’ that looks like a piece of art, but is actually a mobile work station. Open it up, take a seat, switch on your laptop and you’re good to go. If you need to see a colleague you can take your laptop with you and talk shop at a ScooterDesk, an ultra-mobile mini work station by Belgian design firm Utilia.”

One of the institutions with which Enterra Solutions has maintained strong ties is Carnegie Mellon University. It’s also getting in on the office of the future Tutton reports.

“The Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics (CBPD) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has built the Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace — a functioning workplace that is also a ‘living laboratory’ for researching office design. In an effort to increase energy efficiency, much of the heat in the Intelligent Workplace comes from solar thermal energy and recaptured heat from generators. Daylight sensors and occupancy sensors mean lighting isn’t used when it’s not needed, but workers are also given a huge amount of control over their own environment, regulating air temperature and flow, and lighting levels and direction, from their own work station. The point of all this, says the CBPD, is to show you can improve quality of life in the workplace while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

CEOs are always on the lookout for ways to save money. If they can save money, help the environment, and improve the quality of life for their employees, they’ll feel like they’ve won the Triple Crown. I spoke with Jamie Sward at AllModern.com, a retailer for office furniture located in Boston, MA, to get his take on the direction of the office of the future. He agrees that modular furniture & open desk systems will replace cubicles and private offices for many businesses. The reason, he says, is “that approximately 70 percent of all work is collaborative and 30 percent is done individually. As a result, an open office environment promotes open communication.” As readers of this blog know, I’m a big believer in connectivity. Connectivity within the office is just as important as connectivity with clients. Sward predicts that in the future, modular furniture will be designed with technology in mind — including built in sound buffering, wire management and technology storage space.

He also believes that employee health will play a large role in future furniture designs. He notes that Steelcase, for example, has created the Walkstation, a height adjustable work surface with an integrated treadmill. The idea behind this revolutionary design is to keep employees moving all day, rather than sitting stationary in front of a computer. In addition to work stations with treadmills, Sward says we should expect to see higher desks that allow workers to either sit on work stools or stand in front of their computers to promote better posture. Backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other office maladies may also become ailments of the past as designers focus on ergonomically designed furniture and technology. On the money-saving side of things, Sward believes that offices will be virtually paperless as wireless and mobile technologies improve. He believes this will not only improve speed and efficiency, but will eliminate the need for filing cabinets, archival boxes, mail trolleys, etc.

All that stress on efficiency may sound like offices of the future will be sterile and uninviting. Sward, however, believes just the opposite. He believes that design and aesthetics will play a large role in the office of the future. Rectangular work surfaces will give way to space-saving, “curvilinear” work surfaces, elegant flat screen monitors will help keep desktop clutter to a minimum, and ever-shrinking computer towers will allow for more under-desk space. Sward also believes that the research being done in places like Carnegie Mellon University will make its way into the business world. Eco-friendly office buildings, furniture and lighting will be commonplace. According to Robert McGarvey, mobility, flexibility, and sustainability are the “three key drivers [that] are utterly reshaping offices” [“Trends in modern office design,” Executive Travel, 8 October 2008].

Modern offices may have one other thing that hasn’t yet been mentioned: robots. A number of businesses already employ automated robots that follow a line on the floor and go room to room collecting mail and interoffice memos. Robots of the future may do much more [“Opening Doors on the Way to a Personal Robot,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 8 June 2009].

“Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robotics research group, said that its experimental PR2 robot, which has wheels and can travel at speeds up to a mile and a quarter per hour, was able to open and pass through 10 doors and plug itself into 10 standard wall sockets in less than an hour. In a different test, the same robot completed a marathon in the company’s office, traveling 26.2 miles. PR2 will not compete with humans yet; it took more than four days. … The company is trying to develop a new generation of robotic personal assistants.”

Although the primary target for personal assistant robots is the home — where it can take over “a lot of drudgery, from cleaning up to fetching a beer from the refrigerator” — such assistants may someday be able to do office chores as well.

“William L. Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon University roboticist and the winner of a Defense Department urban challenge robot driving contest last year, said it was ‘unprecedented’ for a robot to navigate in a building reliably and repeatedly recharge itself. ‘These guys are the real deal,’ he said.”

Whatever the shape of tomorrow’s office, there is one thing you can count on — it will continue to change. Finish one office makeover and you should get ready to start all over again. Robert McGarvey reports that a redesign every 10 years is typical. “Designers admit that sometimes they come across an office that hasn’t been redesigned in 20 years or more,” he writes, “but the industry rule of thumb says that every 7 to 10 years (roughly as long as most leases) is about right.” The next time you feel a redesign coming on, look around and see if you can’t make the office both functional and fun.