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Technology Has Changed. Why Hasn’t Office Furniture?

worst-cubicle-everHate your cubicle? Don’t feel bad. At the end of his life, cubicle inventor Robert Propst called his brainchild “monolithic insanity.” The rest of the office hasn’t fared much better. Besides the occasional minor change in decor, our offices are functionally the same as they were fifty years ago.

As the article above points out, the trouble seems to be that most rethinkings of the cubicle model concentrate on the aesthetics: bringing in more natural light, or filling the cubicle with plants, or decorating the walls with posters or the floor with a more attractive rug.

None of these plans address the real issue, which is that work itself is different than it was when our grandfathers put in their fifty years and got their gold watches. Employees increasingly work at home, or have flexible schedules. The current craze for open offices, for example, probably has more to do with increasingly collaborative and entrepreneurial workforces than it does a longing for large open spaces. (Although saving a buck on seating is certainly a factor for many companies.)

As designer Nathan Shedroff once pointed out, furniture is not the problem and all the adjustable desks in the world won’t create a solution.

So how do we create a better office? Like any design problem, the answer starts with clearly defining the question. In this case, the question isn’t, “how do we make a better office, or better office furniture?” It’s, “how do people work, and how can we make those people more productive and happier while they do that work?”

Consider these factors when thinking about your own office design:

1) What is the primary job of your workers? This sounds simpler than it really is. If your workplace is team-oriented, you’ll need more open space for collaboration. If your employees work alone on projects, they’ll need more privacy.

2) What are the other needs of your staff? Projects like Broodwork are exploring the idea that integrating family and work life can be advantageous to companies as well as individuals. Certainly, it’s better for organizations not to lose their best people because of the demands of raising a family.

3) Form should follow function. Some people need fresh flowers and lots of air to do their best work. Others, like art critic and writer Andrew Berardini, work perfectly well in a “dark, untidy cell.”

The bottom line is that the modern worker requires flexibility more than anything else. All the shiny equipment and modern design in the world won’t make up for that, if it’s missing.


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