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Cubicle, Sweet Cubicle

June 16, 1997|JONATHAN WEBER

There is a famous picture of the writer E.B. White hard at work in his home office. He's sitting on a wooden bench, at a wooden table in a little wooden fishing shack, with a manual typewriter at his fingertips. The water glistens outside an open window.

Ergonomically, the set-up looks like a disaster. He's hopelessly unequipped with modern office equipment and communications services. Yet for a solitary task like essay writing, it's a work space to die for.

I was thinking about this picture, first suggested as an office-design paradigm by furniture designer Bill Stumpf, as I contemplated a difficult paradox of the new economy: Good working environments are more critical than ever, and yet the impermanent, impecunious and technology-intensive nature of many young and fast-growing companies makes such spaces more difficult to achieve.

On the one hand, key technical and creative talent--and their machines--need the best possible set-up for maximum productivity. On the other hand, small firms in fast-changing businesses need to remain flexible and keep costs in line--precluding expensive new construction, elaborate build-outs of interior space, or even standard, multiyear commercial leases.

Rinaldo Veseliza, an architect and interior designer who served as director of design and construction for DreamWorks SKG and now heads Santa Monica-based Arttech International, says many start-up companies understandably take a "down-and-dirty" approach to office design.

"They want to get in and get it done--and then they find that there's no privacy, and not enough power, and no 'relief space,' and people start to complain," says Veseliza. "That's when they start to get involved in design issues."

Veseliza, working with Canadian furniture manufacturer Smed International, has come up with one solution to the flexibility problem: a completely self-contained office that can literally be assembled and plugged into a wall socket in any open space. A company that has a big, open warehouse environment, for example, can install the office, then take it with them if and when they move.

Other big office furniture firms also are experimenting with new ways to serve new types of firms. Knoll Inc., for example, has come up with a product line called Knoll Dividends designed to substantially simplify the increasingly complex open-office cubicle system, spokeswoman Coco Kim says.

Knoll says the new products are easier to order, easier to install and easier to change when necessary, while still including the power and cable management systems that are so important for accommodating computers. The company also has a "SOHO Chair," which--reflecting the flatter organization of small companies--comes in only one model rather than a hierarchy of styles.

At a big office furniture trade show last week, giant Steelcase Inc. relaunched its Turnstone brand, which also offers cheaper and simpler systems for smaller firms.

These efforts don't go very far in addressing other aspects of the small-office design problem, though. Standard open-plan offices often have a generic quality that can be truly deadening, especially for the growing legion of workers who spend far more than the traditional 40 hours a week at the office--and spend most of those hours in front of a cathode-ray tube.

That explains why a lot of technology start-ups seek out funky, warehouse-type accommodations even if they can afford a conventional office. Airy, open spaces, varied shapes and materials and amenities like comfortable kitchens and accessible gardens can play a major role in keeping creative juices flowing. That's part of what Veseliza is referring to when he talks about the necessity of "relief space."

But even when the building itself or the available vistas can't provide much mental stimulation, there are alternatives. Most important, perhaps, is to allow people as much freedom as possible to customize their own work spaces.

That means both flexible furniture and flexible policies about what can be hung on the walls and ceilings. A lot of technology companies already take such an approach, which explains the cacophony of toys and balloons and offbeat art that adorn many of their facilities. A corollary to that is comfortable group spaces, both to facilitate collaborative work and provide a change of pace from chair-and-computer.

One way to think of it is that the office should as much as possible be like a home. People who work at home might need to do what they can to make their work space more office-like--a good chair, good lighting and a space set off from possible distractions, for starters--but people in offices need to do the reverse.

It's worth noting that creative professionals who really have money to spend on an office often end up with something that looks like a house. Film director George Lucas works out of a beautiful Victorian-style mansion on a Marin County ranch. Steven Spielberg's digs at Amblin Entertainment are downright neighborly.

For many start-ups, of course, office design is the least of their worries as they strain to get products out the door and keep pace in hyper-competitive markets. But they ignore it at their peril. It's a cliche already that good people are the key to most companies in the Information Age economy. Keeping them happy--even when if requires re-creating a Cape Cod fishing shack--is good business sense.


Jonathan Weber ( is editor of The Cutting Edge.

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