In spite of all the promises of virtual offices, many of us are still tethered to traditional work setups: a computer sitting on a desk in a row of other identical desks. Why? Because collaboration—the oft-cited driver of innovation—depends on spontaneous face-to-face interactions.
The problem, as Yves Béhar sees it, is that most of our collaborative moments happen hunched over a desk, which isn’t designed for more than one person. Public Office Landscape, his new furniture system for Herman Miller, resolves that paradox by turning every workstation into a hub of social interaction.
The key is what the Swiss-born designer and his team at Fuseproject call the Social chair, a modular seat made from tensile fabric stretched over a steel frame that can attach to upholstered benches or storage units to create casual gathering spots. Béhar’s favorite arrangement is a meeting area in the middle of two rows of inline desks where six or eight people can huddle without going to the trouble of reserving a conference room.
Béhar began thinking about the system three years ago after noticing how collaborative office furniture was being made out of big blocks of foam better-suited to a student union than a corporate environment. “They were fun and cool-looking but really had no performance whatsoever,” he says. So he began working on an alternative based on his Sayl task chair, whose lumbar back support was inspired by a suspension bridge. He used his own office as the testing ground. For a year, 70 Fuseproject employees worked in prototypes, refining the design to fit their own creative habits. (The Chinese marketing conglomerate BlueFocus recently bought a majority stake in the design studio for $46.7 million.)
Fuseproject didn’t rely just on its own experience and research. It also turned the system over to another company with entirely different needs and ways of working: Oculus VR. What worked for the design studio, it turned out, also suited the Irvine (Calif.) tech startup, which was growing at hyperspeed after raising $2.4 million on Kickstarter to develop the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality gaming headset. The staff had doubled in size in less than six months, and the company wanted to retain the collaborative spirit that was critical to its initial success; Facebook acquired the company for $2 billion in March.
Before their office was outfitted with Public, employees typically spoke to each other quickly—for two or three minutes—while standing up. With the Social chairs in place, conversations tended to last longer and others were brought in to inform the discussion.
Public’s easy assembly and disassembly made it a perfect fit for a company in transition. The system was installed in the original office and traveled with the staff to a temporary space before they could relocate to their new headquarters, which would house 100 employees. “It literally takes five seconds to pop a panel out and move it to a different place,” Béhar says. The interchangeable parts also allow a high degree of personalization: Employees can choose among storage units and screens of various heights for more or less privacy, which has become a coveted feature in the age of the open-plan office.
But mixing and matching the pieces won’t compromise the overall aesthetic. The system, designed as a kit of parts, can expand and contract without sacrificing the transparent, curated feel of a considered environment. “Layouts need to be adapted to different needs and styles of work even in the same department,” Béhar says. “But at the same time, you don’t want something that looks unintentional or unorganized.” The only thing that should look chaotic is a resident creative’s messy desk.