Technology And Furniture Design Shape The Office Of The Future

Technology And Furniture Design Shape The Office Of The Future

Benhar, Mark

The office environment is an evolutionary process. Nearly 40 years ago, rows of desks began to give way to the rise of furniture systems-a combination of varied- height panels, cantilevered work surfaces and integrated storage and work tools that created highly flexible and efficient workstations for the rapidly growing white collar workforce.

Organizations adopted the new paradigm as they recognized both the efficiency of systems workstations over traditional architectural walls, in both initial construction and adaptability to changes in the interiors, and the opportunity to afford a measure of privacy and work support superior to open bullpens. They also afforded tax advantages as “personal property” rather than the “real property” treatment of traditional architectural offices. The eventual dominant application of systems furniture over linear rows of bland, identical stations (contrary to the original intent of the design) led to the term “cubicles.” Today, systems workstations, or cubicles, are giving way to new ‘desking systems” as office furniture evolves to meet the needs of today’ s modern- day worker.


In the first hall of the 20th Century, through the early 1970s, most office workers worked in a big open room with rows and rows of desks. As more technology came into the workplace, these tools generated more noise and a proliferation of wires, cables cind cords. Having this mess exposed on desktops was unsightly and inefficient. The advent of office systems provided greater visual and acoustical privacy, while providing space saving efficiency and a place to route the cables.

Workers welcomed it. In essence, it was like having your own office. But the acoustical and visual privacy that taller cubicles provided could also isolate workers and make it more difficult to communicate with others in the workplace. Throughout the ‘ 90s, more managers saw the value of open communication between workers, and furniture began to relied that desire. Walls started coining down. That led to desking systems, which have screens to offer a degree of privacy, but al lower heights to create a more open work environment.

Office cubicles are so often ridiculed loday in popular culture (like the “Dilbert” comic) that it’s hard to believe at one time they were a revolutionary idea that would boost employee morale and accelerate ofiice efficiency. But that was the case in 1968, when the Herman Miller furniture company introduced the “Action Office” design by inventor Robert Propst. The Zeeland, MI-based manufacturer built its Action Office on modular, integrated components supported by panels. The concept was so popular that virtually every other office furniture company in America copied it.

Systems furniture workstations are now used in more than a third of all offices nationwide, and while Herman Miller is still a major force in the traditional systems business, its newer lines of modular furniture bear as little resemblance to their predecessors as laptop computers do to manual typewriters.


Office systems, defined as “any kind of furniture that fits together to form multiple workstations, ” accounted for about 50 percent of total North American office furniture sales last year, according to the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) . Seating represented another 25 percent, more traditional desks made up about 11 percent, and tables, storage, files and other furniture accounted for the vest.

Today’s showrooms offer systems workstations with sheer textile panels suspended from frames to divide space, while poles and overhead trusses hold the voice, data and energy wiring. There are boomerang- shaped worklables and divider walls made of wood and glass, and a growing number of desk- based systems to complement changing office needs. The gray cubicle walls upholstered in carpet- like labric are few and far between.

The quality of workstations is far superior today, wild a greater range of acoustic, consideration and visual privacy, and configurations offering multi- functional versatility, lint as wire-less technology becomes more advanced and affordable, a growing number of employers can he expected to move more of their space from panel- based workstations to the more flexible open desking systems.

The predominant factors driving this trend are a general management shift toward collaborative working environments, as well as advances in wireless voice, data and other technologies. Whereas lhc need for technology support (and resulting cables) drove many of the office furniture innovations of the last 20 years, the diminution of data wiring will undoubtedly lead to new furniture concepts that deftly blend privacy and collaboration.

Today’ s workplace calls for a mixture of environments with areas for community and collaboration, which are blended with areas for heads down” individual tasks. This concept is sometimes referred to as “caves and commons, with the caves being private areas and commons as collaborative space. Today, about a 70/30 cubicle-to-traditional office ratio is the individual workspace norm in most large workplace settings, with a growing portion of the entire office shifting toward more shared, or collaborative spaces.


Many envision the ultimate “office of the future” as a virtually paperless, highly mobile, literally transparent, intimate environment notable for what it physically lacks as much as what it contains. Gone will be the rows of filing drawers, mail trolleys and archival boxes wailing for transport. The days of the cloth- covered cubicle partitions will give way to a patterned, open “landscape” of versatile desk systems.

The individual office of the future will most likely be recreated with a small footprint. To make the most out of smaller office spaces and private offices, there are several solutions that many of our manufacturers have come up with that make use of vertical space efficiently. By wall- mounting rail tiles and overhead cabinets, office workers are able to hang tools such as phones, letter trays and even computers-clearing them off the work surface as needed.

In addition, many furniture manufacturers have moved to “curvilinear” work surfaces, as opposed to more traditional, rectangular work surfaces. These new surfaces create a “cockpit” setting that works well with modern space-saving technology, such as flat screen monitors that require shallower work surfaces.

Flexibility, technology and an environment that allows end users to customize furniture to meet their own personal work styles will shape the office of tomorrow. Desking systems and mobile tables fit in perfectly with this business model, as they offer the necessary flexibility and versatility. The traditional static office does not function well in this fast-paced work setting. It is the responsibility of furniture manufacturers and interior designers to give workers the tools to be more productive.

Tools like instant messaging, file sharing and wireless networking allow employees to easily collaborate while reducing the dependence on more traditional space design. Today, 70 percent of all work is collaborative, while 30 percent is done individually. Yet the modern office was conceived when that ratio was reversed.

Even five years ago it was impossible to predict the spread of such technologies as Wi-Fi, which allows workers to become office nomads, yet always connected to email and crucial corporate data. The technology has proven so popular, it’ s a key force in reshaping the topography of the modern office. So what will the workplace actually look like five years from now when such tools are ubiquitous and new technologies are springing up in equally surprising ways?


Don’ t expect the office of the future to look like an episode of The Jetsons.” The main goal of tomorrow’ s office will be to help workers capture, organize, analyze and share information more easily and efficiently. Ultimately, the locus is not on gadgets, but on production, privacy and personalization for office workers. Multi-directional audio/video conferencing with all- surface visual displays may never become the norm in American office settings.

But all of the high- tech concepts making their way into the workplace will certainly require new and more versatile furniture to insure the comfort and productivity of tomorrow’ s office worker. The office spaces of the future will likely be designed to improve efficiency without having to worry about reserving rooms and getting people from point A to point B.

A report published in January 2004 entitled, “Working Environments of the Future,” calls for workspace design to “mimic life in the home” by encompassing a wide variety of working spaces. According to the study, which surveyed middle managers of companies with more than 100 employees in London, respondents were looking for a “borderless” office that “brings variety to the workplace.” According to the report, in much the same way that people move around their own homes to do different things, such as socialize in the living room and read quietly in the bedroom, offices need to enable variety.

Another report entitled, “The Distributed Workplace, ” which summarizes the findings of a two- year study into the future of office spaces, states the rise of the information age has “exposed the inadequacies” of traditional ways of working. In the future, there “is likely to be a blurring between working and living-people won’t need a distinct workplace,” but many people will choose to work in an office space for its “social and cultural role,” while looking for an environment that also incorporates the best aspects of working at home.

As always, flexibility and mobility are key. Current designs still focus on the PC, but the technological building blocks are now in place for a more mobile approach. Wireless technology, flat screen displays and smaller input devices such as mobile phones and personal digital assistants point to a flexible interior that is not based around maximizing the number of spaces for individual PCs.

As furniture manufacturers incorporate new technology and work patterns into their new designs, the next few years should offer some unique visions for the office of the future. Already it’ s clear that the future will offer more variety in office space, including comfortable and spacious rooms for entertaining clients, quiet thinking spaces and social areas that give people a place to escape the desk.

While the paperless, wireless office may still be a long way away, furniture designers are thinking creatively about how to reduce clutter while addressing the need I or storage solutions, personal interaction and the incorporation of advancing technologies. Built-in flexibility in new furniture systems will ultimately offer the individual worker more control in decision- making about the layout and design of the modern office.

Mark Benhar, president of Benhar Office Interiors, is a recognized leader in the competitive world of contract furniture. With nearly 40 years of industry experience, Benhar and his partner, Bob Mauer, have averaged over $13 million in annual sales for the last several years before forming Benhar Office Interiors, a New York City-based company, in the Fall of 2003.

Copyright Imaging Network Co May/Jun 2004

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