Living Office concept for the new species of worker

Herman Miller reconfigures office layout into 10 dedicated spaces to match different types of work behaviour, be it in groups or individually

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 4:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 November, 2014, 4:40am

Are you standing comfortably? Or kneeling? Or sitting? Are you dividing and conquering, chatting, conversing, co-creating, huddling, warming up or cooling down?

If so, you may be working in one version of the salt mines of the future, because the latest research into office landscapes is bringing new rules to the game of workplace musical chairs.

In 1904, long before the evolution of Cubicle Man, American engineer Frederick Taylor inflicted Taylorism on ranks of human battery hens, whom he installed in sometimes cavernous open offices. As decades passed, the landscape incorporated pinwheel layouts, dividers, moveable walls and the infernal cubicle, the credit for which is partly due to Herman Miller's manufacturing of the first modular business furniture line, Action Office, in 1968.

But the company's studies now indicate that rather than such standardisation, diversification within office layouts could ensure future generations of workers remain optimally productive.

"We think there are 10 modes of work," says Jeremy Hocking, Herman Miller vice-president for Asia-Pacific, introducing Living Office, a descendant of Action. "Seven involve working together, only three individually. Work has changed significantly but office layouts haven't changed to reflect that fact."

In the company's findings, those modes encompass "chat", "converse", "co-create", "huddle", "divide and conquer", "show and tell" and "warm up, cool down" when tasks are performed with colleagues. Work tackled alone is labelled "process and respond", "contemplate" or "create".

"As we move from an era of industry into an era of ideas, the need for people to work together increases," says Hocking. "They need collaborative spaces, but workstations in serried ranks don't do it. We're finding that spaces are changing [because] work isn't done just sitting at a desk. Work gets done as you bump into each other in corridors. Change is accelerating and is driven by technology, the miniaturisation of which has enabled mobility, so setting an office out to allow for those encounters is really what we're doing."

Standing around the water cooler talking to colleagues or brainstorming in a group, for example, are such time-worn notions they are cliches, so there may seem little value in giving them fancy new names and pointing out that they are part of the work process. But where Herman Miller's concept might reconfigure office geography is in the specific design of dedicated spaces to match the 10 types of identified behaviour.

The company calls these spaces Settings, allotting them names such as Haven, Hive, Forum and Landing, one version of the last being a luxuriously appointed executive area with Eames lounge chair and ottoman. Yet such a scrupulous division of zones of activity raises the faintly ludicrous possibility of employees apparently engaging in "chat" (defined as "an impromptu interaction with a colleague") realising they are in fact "conversing", or conducting "a purposeful interaction between two to three colleagues", then dashing off in search of the appropriate Setting before continuing to talk.

"Companies like ours have been great at producing desks and chairs, but we haven't necessarily been great at producing spaces like this where you can easily sit down and converse for 15 or 20 minutes," says Hocking, explaining the benefits of a Hive layout, which features integrated tables and easy chairs adjacent to desks. "Seventy per cent of meetings take place like this, around workstations, where you have to pull up a chair. We're trying to develop solutions built into the office layout."

Living Office, wheeled out at Chicago's 2013 Neocon World Trade Fair, may be experienced at Herman Miller's Quarry Bay showroom, where visitors might penetrate the mysteries of "warm up, cool down" (pre- and post-meeting talk, in the Plaza) and the like, then order all or just some sections of hardware. But for the solo craftsman working from his garden shed, office redesign is likely to remain much more modest.

It might, for example, amount simply to swapping his backache-inducing desk chair for an ergonomically sound Varier kneeling chair, designed by Peter Opsvik in 1979 and never out of favour since.

Scandinavian-design consultant Manks, of Hong Kong, supplies various models of the chair to streams of converts. "We sell one almost every day," says co-founder Paul Fung. "More people than ever seem to be buying them. They're funny-looking but the design just works; and the classic, basic model is still the most popular."

Good design endures whatever the requirements and restrictions of office environments. The design concepts underpinning Living Office may provide the habitat for a new species of office worker; future decades will reveal all.