When Ken Seiff launches a New York-based, office-supply company later this year, the customer-service department will have a starring role. Customer-service reps are often shunted to a back room—or outsourced to cheap overseas outfits. But Seiff wants his managers, sales and marketing team, and support staff to know what the phone reps are hearing from customers every day. "You won't be able to walk from one end of the office to another without going through customer service," he says. And an open environment, he hopes, will help foster the communication that's vital in a start-up.
The office is undergoing a transformation—and not just because of the recession. Even as companies downsize their office space along with their payrolls, powerful business trends are forcing corporate America to reorganize everything from the supply closet to the boardroom. Corporate bureaucracies often move too slowly, and the traditional business setup, with executive offices surrounding banks of cubicles, reflects that. So companies big and small are tearing down walls, experimenting with technology, and creating funky new spaces to juice creativity and innovation. "Everybody's looking for a competitive advantage," says Jim Keane, president of Steelcase, a big office-furniture company based in Grand Rapids, Mich. "These days, there's less hierarchy and less structure, and more transparency and nimbleness."
In the hit movie Up in the Air, corporate hatchet man Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, warns, "The slower we move, the faster we die." Many executives know the feeling, and like Bingham they spend more time working in airports and hotels than in the home office. That's why many modern offices are designed to take advantage of laptops, mobile devices, and other remote gizmos, while relegating desktops and servers to a supporting role. More companies are realizing they need to go global and communicate with customers and suppliers in other countries—in real time. Many younger workers, meanwhile, are happier pecking away at a laptop in the cafeteria than chaining themselves to a workstation. And with hiring likely to be weak for a long time, companies need to get more out of every employee. Here are some of the trends coming sooner or later to an office near you:
The decline of the cubicle. For two decades, the cubicle and its mid-rise panels did the job for workers who performed solitary tasks and needed a touch of privacy. But isolation and fake offices are becoming passé. Cubicles sales peaked in 2000, when they accounted for nearly 37 percent of all office furniture sales. That's fallen to about 26 percent. Companies now prefer more open spaces that make it easier for employees to work together.
More gathering space. Workers used to spend most of their day at a desk or cubicle, report to a conference room for meetings, then tread a familiar path back to their workstation. Now, companies are setting up more gathering areas in "in between" spaces, where workers can hold informal conferences, chat with colleagues, or plop down with a laptop. Workers like the flexibility, and companies encourage the collaboration.
Work lounges. You might be inclined to relax on the couches or other comfortable furniture in these trendy new areas. But don't get too comfortable: The key to work lounges is that work actually gets done there. If the atmosphere is too boisterous or casual, productive employees will take a pass and the boss will notice the slackers. And in case you're wondering, those computer plugs poking up out of the table are for logging in and getting stuff accomplished, not shopping or checking in on your Facebook friends.
The demise of foosball. In the dot-com ear, it signified the "work hard, play hard" approach to work. But for many firms, the foosball table was little more than a phony effort to look trendy. In today's lean environment, companies are cutting the superfluities and focusing on getting the job done. If you want to play games, wait till you get home.
Less space. It used to be a status symbol, but that spacious office now looks like an unnecessary expense. And with more people working from home or other mobile locations, there's less need for a big office, anyway. The new status symbol, in fact, is the flexibility and freedom to be away from the office. Still, some execs—like CEO, CFO, and human resources bubba—will probably always require a locking office with plenty of privacy.
The "wormhole." If your company doesn't have one yet, it's probably just a matter of time. A wormhole is a workstation dedicated to online videoconferencing, with a connection to other key offices around the world that's always on or ready to go. That way, people who do business together frequently can have a quick video chat when a phone call or E-mail won't quite do. The new lingo you might start to hear: "Meet me at the wormhole."
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Electronic whiteboard. Forget magic markers. With an electronic version of the ubiquitous whiteboard, a laptop screen can be projected onto the board for everybody in a meeting to see. An "electronic pen" functions as the mouse, moving stuff around, except you point it at the whiteboard instead of pushing it around a table. (It communicates with the laptop via Bluetooth.) The trend is toward collaborative tools that benefit everyone in the room, rather than individual tools, like a mouse and keyboard.
Standing-room meeting table. Anybody who's been in a loooooong meeting knows the sensation: After a while, you desperately want to get up and move around, except it would draw unwanted attention and make it look as if you're leaving. With a standing-room table—at the height of a lunch counter or bar—you can easily slide off your stool, adjust your posture, or fidget without causing a disruption. It might even create a more intimate meeting, with people leaning into the discussion instead of slouching away from it.
Work benches. Who needs flimsy partitions? Some firms find that long tables, with roving plugs for laptops and no legs or obstructions underneath, offer a more productive, and perhaps humane, place to work. With no obvious start or end points for workstations, they can accommodate more or fewer workers, depending on who's telecommuting that day or out on the road. Note to bosses: If you're putting everybody at benches or tables, make sure a few private offices are available for sensitive business or personal matters.
The "walkstation." If you feel you're not multitasking enough already, climb aboard a walkstation, where you can get some exercise on a treadmill while answering E-mail on a computer that's ergonomically placed where you can reach it without tripping. A few firms have set these up in open spaces, where workers rotate for 15- or 30-minute sessions. Some workers, apparently, can't get enough: Walkstations are even becoming popular for home use.
The shared office. Why waste space? With more workers logging in remotely, firms are taking a cue from the submarine force, where sailors "hot bunk" by sacking out in same bunk but on different shifts. One worker might get the office three days a week, another, two days a week. And if there's overlap, there's always extra space on one of those benches or in the work lounge.
The "switch office." It's like a shared office, except it doubles as a small meeting or conference room rather than an individual work space. It usually takes a larger executive office, outfitted with a table or a few couches, to do the job. If the exec isn't in, a sliding, locking door might secure those valuable files, while a handful of other people meet in the other half of the office.
More glass. In the sitcom The Office, bumbling boss Michael Scott often closes the blinds on the glass walls of his office so the staff on the other side can't see what he's up to. Big mistake. Transparent doors and walls are supposed to create the impression of openness and approachability. No wonder the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin struggles to make its numbers.
The "diner booth." A few firms are filling hallways or other open areas with booths, just like the ones you'd find in a restaurant. Colleagues can grab a cup of coffee and sit down for an informal meeting without tying up a conference room or standing in the hallway. Some employees even prefer working alone together with others crammed in beside them—as if on a train or airplane.
The empty office. With companies parceling out their space more carefully, fewer employees rate prime space, especially if they're on the road a lot. That makes a little corner of office real estate even more valuable. "The ultimate status symbol may now be an empty private office," says Keane of Steelcase. "You have one, but you don't have to go there." Add one more item to your list of career goals.