21st Century Workspaces

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Comfort, collaboration and light create environments for greater productivity

Story by Lee Reinsch

If you’ve spent your entire working life in an open-concept office, fighting to focus amid 68 cacophonous coworkers, and dreaming of the pin-drop silence of a private office (or even a shoulder-high partition), the design world has news for you:

You are S.O.L.

You will never get that corner office. You will never even get that basement office. Forget that tranquil you-space. Heck, you’ll be lucky if you get an actual workstation to house your Beanie Babies.

You may as well position yourself face down in a puddle of upheaved dreams right now, because the office plan of the future is your personal brand of apocalypse.

But, on the other hand, if you’ve been pet-crated into a soundless, airless version of cubicle hell, then the office-system gods have opened the clouds – and floor plans – for you.

“The days of the cubicle with the 72-inch walls are over,” said Jonathan Webb, vice president of business marketing with the global commercial-furniture maker KI, Inc. of Green Bay.

Workspace walls, which began tumbling down several years ago, continue to make their plummet. Panels between desks creep lower than a Kardashian neckline. If panels do exist, they’re made of see-through material – like glass.

Spaces are open, and horizons are lower. Meeting spots, rather than walled-off meeting rooms, let small groups of colleagues gather for a quick confab. “Activity spaces” let them converge to share data or work away from their desks.

“Young people today like to collaborate,” said Curt Beilke, owner of Systems Furniture in De Pere. “They don’t want to spend all day in a cubicle by themselves.”

They want the freedom to move around, from pod to activity space to meeting spot to lounge. Technology has changed the way we work, and that’s changing the feel of our offices.

“Everything is instantaneous; everyone wants to have everything right now,” said Chelsea Redlin, interior designer with Ashwaubenon-based VerHalen Commercial Interiors. “You don’t want to have to walk around your cube to show something to the person sitting next to you; you want to just look over and talk to them. We’re so technology-driven that it’s like ‘Hey, I can just pull something up on my iPad, and show you this beautiful presentation. I don’t have to pull it up onto a projector screen and wait for it to warm up.’”

Out of the Dark Ages

The denuding of the modern office is fueled by a hunger for natural light, say the deities of workplace design. Natural light increases employee productivity and generates well-being, they say.

“Businesses are increasing the amount of daylight that can come into a room,” said Char Brittnacher, interior designer with Kaukauna-based design/build firm Keller, Inc. “They’re increasing the size of the windows or putting transoms (small windows above a door frame) on interior doors that let natural light cascade into the interior of the building.”

Skylights and solar tubes pump even more natural illumination into a building’s netherparts typically devoid of regular windows. Claustrophobes and Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers, this is your decade.

“I think especially here in Wisconsin in winter season, with the limited availability of light, people just do better with natural light versus fluorescent,” Brittnacher said. “People have less eye strain, and fewer headaches. Your mood is better in natural light conditions versus artificial light conditions. It provides a huge benefit to how your body performs. Employers are seeing that efficiency and mood shift, and they want to be able to offer that benefit to their employees.”

Taking advantage of outdoor light is also a budget-friendly way to be part of the whole sustainable-everything movement.

“It’s expensive to buy all of your furniture green, but people are like ‘Hey, if we move our workstations out into middle of the room, and lower the panels, we can be green without even trying,’” Redlin said.

And people are realizing it doesn’t make much sense to let a few select kahunas hog all the sunlight. Bye, bye, window offices.

“It’s popular now, rather than having the executive offices around the perimeter of a building, to have them out on the floor, blending in with everyone else,” said Redlin.

It changes the feel of the office to have execs out among the plebes.

“They’re more accessible,” Redlin said of higher-ups. “They’re not shut up in some stuffy office.”

If honchos do get offices, they’re in the main area and not enclaved. Or the walls are glass, so they can be caught picking their noses, just like the rest of us.

Bigger yet smaller

Even though open-plan offices are clearer and lighter, and spaces seem bigger, personal footage is contracting.

“Whereas an eight-foot-square (8×8-foot) space used to be standard, now even six-foot-square (6×6-foot) is somewhat big,” according to Webb.

So it could be good that desks are shrinking, too. Today’s work surfaces look more like table tops: few if any drawers, little to no storage.

One reason? Not as much paper to file.

“Things are electronically stored,” Webb said. “People aren’t running to the printer to print documents. We’re not retrieving a tree’s worth of faxes anymore. People are more mobile than ever, and the technologies available allow us to be plugged in at home, at the office, or anywhere. People have access to information at their fingertips and can do their work through their technology, and that usually means they need less space.”

Remember those big clunky desks and banks of bulletproof metal file cabinets? They came from an era when technology was bigger and clunkier, from couch cushion-sized monitors to copiers rivaling Oldsmobiles.

“The look has gone back to the sixties, with straighter lines, lighter looking workstations, no dark heavy workstations anymore. Now it’s a lighter open look that they want,” said Joyce Anderson, sales executive for Emmons Business Interiors in Oshkosh.

Ever wonder where all our heavy rotary-dial phones went? Rumor has it the Mafia used them when they couldn’t get concrete blocks.

Reinventing that round thing

Along with the discovery of natural light and the flattening of corporate hierarchies, another not-exactly-revolutionary concept is reinvigorating the modern office: The wheel.

Everything in the enlightened office can roll, from lounge chairs to desks to meeting areas to entire departments.

“The way it used to work was that purchasing was in one place, engineering was in another, and marketing was in another,” Beilke said. “Now they’re creating teams and working across a number of disciplines on a given project. Desks are on wheels so they can move the whole station to another spot and plug in when the team changes.”

Walls have wheels, too, and can be moved wherever. Walls can be glass, whiteboards, tackboards, privacy screens, or whatever suits the need on any given day.

Work doesn’t necessarily take place in the traditional places it used to, Beilke said. “Before, work was in your cube or in your private office, and now young people want to work in a space like a coffee shop.”

So employers are building coffee shop-like spaces into their office configurations, with cafe-height tables and booths.

But, unlike coffee shops, employer-sanctioned hot spots actually have enough outlets. Outlets can be found on pillars, on lunch tables and hidden in seat cushions.

In many cases, desks aren’t meant for anyone to spend a whole lot of time in, and they may not always even be used by the same person, according to Amy Sell of Systems Furniture in De Pere. They can take the form of a “plug-and-play” station  like at hotels.

“You are not really taking ownership per se, but it’s sort of a we-can-work-anywhere concept,” Sell said. “Since you aren’t taking ownership of a workstation, we can reteam and regroup for different projects.”

Other things that have slimmed down:

The big ergonomic Michelin Man chair. Instead of overstuffed upholstered chairs, many are made of thin mesh for air circulation. They have adjustable lumbar curves that don’t look like they’re on steroids. Some even mimic the human spine, with adjustable links down the length of the back. Others have Memory foam or gel cushions.

Auxiliary seating. Almost all office furniture companies are making cushion-topped rolling filing cabinets for impromptu guests, according to Brittnacher. Other stowaway chairs, like the Swopper, www.thehumansolution.com/swopper.html, slide under the desk out of the way when not in use. The Swopper – around $500 to $700 – is a colorful bouncy stool with shock absorbers and a funky look.

Meeting rooms. Small tables with multi-platform-capable screens are replacing the big roll-down projector screen. They let a handful of people share data from different devices, from smartphone to laptop, wirelessly and instantly.

“You can collaborate with people on different floors, or different buildings,” Beilke said. One is called CLUBtalk by Teknion www.teknion.com/products/tables_clubtalk/default.asp.

Conference rooms. The room with the Last Supper table and 12 puffy chairs is going the way of the typewriter. Replacing it are “activity spaces” with smaller tables or clusters of chairs with tablet arms.

Sit-stand desks. These raise and lower either electrically or via crank, allowing workers to stand and work if they wish. Sales of these are up 150 percent over three years ago, said KI’s Webb.

Lunch rooms. They’re multipurpose now, serving as workspaces, meeting spots and a place to escape one’s desk.

“I think they’re shifting into work lounges,” said Sell. “It’s rare that we’re installing lunchrooms or breakrooms anywhere that are not serving multiple functions. Work is being done everywhere.”

Lee Reinsch writes and edits from Green Bay.