Innovations in the world of office furniture design have tended to serve one of two purposes. Some are designed to help the corporations who pay for them — open-plan offices are supposed to make workers more collaborative, for example, and cubicles or “hotel” desks help save on real estate costs. Then others are designed to help improve workers’ health — like ergonomically designed office seating, balance ball chairs and the current obsession with standing desks.
Yet increasingly, companies and furniture designers are considering a third purpose: helping workers concentrate and focus in the cavernous, noise-filled open offices that have become practically de rigeur in today’s workplace.
With roughly 70 percent of U.S. workplaces adopting an open-office environment, while in the meantime research piles up on how ineffective and stressful open plans can be, there’s a growing recognition that workers need some sort of refuge to concentrate at work (beyond putting on headphones and hoping for the best).
The latest example is Steelcase’s “Brody,” a new workspace design the company will introduce in late August. It resembles an inverted library study carrel, and that’s somewhat intentional: The concept began as a project in the company’s education division.
The designers observed how students came to the library, found a seat where their back could be to the wall, then isolated themselves as they dove into their assignments. Steelcase used those observations to design a pod-like space that includes a reclined seat and a movable desk, surrounded on the back and sides by a privacy wall.
It quickly became clear the concept had potential for the workplace, too. “People really need a place to focus at work,” said Steelcase design director Markus McKenna in an interview. “We’ve been hearing a growing voice that our customers want more of these. … It was about halfway through the project that we thought maybe we could address both markets with the same product.”
Steelcase also launched a line of "introvert" room designs last year with Susan Cain, the author of Quiet. But it isn't the only design firm to sense this growing demand from companies. In the past two years, Herman Miller has done research showing that the most progressive employers are planning on at least five sound-proof work spaces for every 100 work stations in the office. It's also seen increased interest from clients in designing "quiet car"-like areas of the office, set aside for concentrated work.
Lori Gee, a vice president at Herman Miller, said interest has spiked in the concept in the last couple of years. "It's less about an exact furniture widget and more about how you appoint what the space is designed for," she said.
Meanwhile, office furniture and design company Knoll has been promoting the concept of “refuge rooms,” outfitted with video displays for connecting devices, where workers can get away to concentrate. “Within the last 24 months, we have focused aggressively on the needs of companies to balance individual workspaces with areas of the office that provide for individual and group privacy,” said Knoll company spokesman David Bright.
The responses are partly out of demand, and partly out of a growing recognition among designers that workers value — and miss — their privacy.
A 2012 study by the architecture and design firm Gensler found that workers spend 55 percent of their time on focused work, up from 48 percent in 2007. Steelcase’s internal research shows the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk has increased by 16 percent since 2008 and that privacy is consistently listed as the top workplace issue, according to spokeswoman Katie Pace.
Shrinking office space isn’t helping things. The New York Times reported recently that the average amount of space per office worker in North America dropped to 176 square feet in 2012, from 225 in 2010, the most recent numbers available from commercial real estate association CoreNet Global.
Steelcase’s “Brody” design is not intended to replace a worker's regular desk, but to provide somewhere to escape for an hour or two. In the process of researching the design, the Steelcase team looked not only at the habits of college students but at research on neuroscience and how the retina works. Once the designers better understood the eye's response to movement in its peripheral vision, "that little fact flipped the project around for us," McKenna said. "We began to see distractions and distractibility not in the pejorative sense, but as a human biological response to stimulus."
That influenced how they designed the walls to surround the pod. Other research highlighted the anxiety people feel about little things like the location of their bag or their laptop's battery running out, which prompted them to incorporate convenient power outlets and a cubby into the design. "We tried to build a product for the emotional and cognitive well being of the user, rather than merely the physical well being," McKenna said.
How much such designs will really change people's distraction levels is, of course, a big question. Users will still have to face the onslaught of digital distractions such as email, text messages and Twitter updates. And Nikil Saval, author of the book Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace, notes that furniture design can only do so much to change the office norms that prompt interruptions. "They're latching onto a real problem," he said, but: "there's just so many things that contribute to distraction in the workplace, and furniture solutions are just one small part of it."
Still, Saval added, "What you see them responding to is the sense that the openness of the open office plan has gone too far, and it now needs to be mitigated." Over the last 10 or 15 years, he said, "you had this whole movement that was predicated on this soft coercion of what workers should be doing — they should be collaborating, they should be interacting, they should be running into each other. Now it's clear workers don't like that setup."