Thinking outside the cubicle

Technology, productivity poised to make the office desk and chair a thing of the past

My ideal workspace would involve a recliner, a 52-inch plasma television and a soft-serve ice cream dispenser within arm's reach. And maybe a pencil or two for good measure.

That might seem impractical, but it's hardly implausible.

The areas where we work — at home and in the office — are in flux, altered by technological advances that have loosed us from our desk moorings. We can drift about with our laptops and iPads, sending data into the clouds and filing documents as easily from desktops as from the doctor's office or our backyards.

Freedom begets options, and so we see mattress-maker Kluft creating a 7-foot-by-7-foot bed ideal for those who want to spread out while working from home. There are treadmill desks that let you walk while you work, inflatable balls to replace chairs, desks that let you stand while you type and all manner of options that effectively demolish the image of a traditional workspace.

"There is a big shift going on, and the old idea of the office as a place that you might go from 9 to 5 and sit at your desk is disappearing," said Andrew Laing, a global practice leader for AECOM's Strategy Plus, which focuses on the relationship between people and the design of their physical spaces. "We used to sit at desks with big computer screens and hard drives and things. Many people aren't even using a conventional computer anymore, they're using their iPad or iPhone. Even the way computers are networked is shifting, so now it's more cloud-based," making our idea of offices and workspaces passe.

Based on a study Laing's group did involving nearly 5 million observations at more than 260 office buildings, the average workspace is occupied only about 40 percent of the time. That means people are working remotely using mobile devices or working collaboratively outside their cubicle or office.

"Some organizations are thinking about offices more as places of collaboration rather than individual work," Laing said. "The shift in space is less about providing individual desks and offices but rather a whole suite of rooms where people can gather to collaborate or have client meetings."

In essence, workplaces are fragmenting, with some employees drifting off to work alone and others coalescing in ways that differ from the traditional cluster of cubicles. This can be hard for some workers and managers to accept, as the textbook image of a workplace has been hammered into our heads for decades.

"It's almost counterintuitive psychology," Laing said. "When we were in elementary or high school, we were very mobile. You moved from classroom to classroom, you worked wherever you could do your work. But when we grew up and got to the office, it seemed we had to sit in the same place every day. So many of us still have that mindset."

As I see it, there are two sizable advantages to the deconstruction of an office workspace.

Employees respond well to freedom and autonomy, so when they can modify their work environment, either by working outside it or tailoring their space to suit them, it has to be good for productivity and morale.

The other advantage is that companies can save money by reducing their overhead. IBM, for one, has about 40 percent of its workforce working remotely, a strategy that has reportedly saved the company millions of dollars in rent and other costs.

This is not a trend that's going to reverse. And I'd expect that the way people work will only grow more unique.

"People have more choice and more control, so they can work standing up, they can work from home, they can work from the bedroom or co-working spaces or cafes or airport," Laing said. "So how do those places become suitable for working in with new technologies?"

I have some ideas:

The Cubicle Couch: This soft-as-a-feather-bed sectional is designed to fit into any cubicle, as long as you remove clutter such as filing cabinets, shelves, desks, chairs and, possibly, the entranceway. Made to wrap around a large-screen television set (tell your boss it's an "information reception system"), this microfiber sofa will make your workday a new adventure — in comfort!

The Edible Keyboard: Whether working in the office or at home, why waste valuable time getting up to grab a snack? Just break off a piece of this soy-licious keyboard and you'll feel prfclty satisfid. (Sorry. The "E" key is DELICIOUS!)

The Closet Boss: For workers who can't quite adjust to life outside the office, this robotic taskmaster will keep them on track. Intimidating, though not particularly qualified, it can be programmed to routinely burst out of the closet and pester you about everything from overdue status reports to not surfing the Web on company time. Plus, the Closet Boss is designed to use up to 399 meaningless buzzwords.

The Trampoline Desk: Similar to the treadmill desk, only about 1,000 times more fun! While keeping your hands on your keyboard or touch screen, your legs will spring-a-ding-ding into action on this bouncy under-desk-mounted platform. Guaranteed to keep you in optimal physical condition, the Trampoline Desk has a safety harness that attaches to your mouse pad and a Bluetooth-enabled emergency system that calls 911 if you accidentally bounce out a window. (Helmet sold separately.)

So good luck making your workspace your own. I'll be in my recliner enjoying a bowl of soft serve.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

CHICAGO

More