Cubicle 2.0

Steelcase's cushy "Studio 53" cubicle is just one example of how office furniture companies are reaching out to Generations X and Y

Imagine transforming a standard 8-foot-square office cubicle into a plush, stylish, and private lounge, replete with velvety red cushioning that covers all vertical and horizontal surfaces. Throw in some overstuffed pillows and a swanky, contemporary chandelier. Sound comfy? Slightly outrageous? Or maybe even part of a strange dream sequence in a comedy about corporate life? In fact, office furniture giant Steelcase (SCS), which saw annual revenue for fiscal year 2007 increase 8%, to $3.1 billion dollars, makes and sells just such a fantasy.

The cushy cube, called Studio 53 (a nod to the intimate banquettes once found at the decadent 1970s Manhattan disco Studio 54), was initially intended as more of a provocative sculpture than a product. It was created as a concept piece that went on display at Steelcase's Chicago showroom during last year's NeoCon, a furniture trade show. But visitors were taken with Studio 53, asking if it was available for purchase. Executives from leading ad agency Leo Burnett even put in an order on the spot. (Steelcase doesn't disclose price, which varies depending on configuration.)

"We were surprised at the reaction at the show," says James Ludwig, Steelcase's director of design. "Not only were people connecting to its 'high concept' message of 'Don't Hate Me because I'm a Cubicle,' but architects and designers were unrolling blueprints at the show to discuss how we could either plan [to include] some of the workstations in a project they were working on or how the thought could influence their own planning ideas."

Defying the Stereotypes

"We wanted to challenge notions of cubicle clichés," Ludwig says, explaining why the company created such a head-turning and iconoclastic workstation, without even room for a desk or shelves. Instead, it can be used as a comfortable, informal meeting space that takes up the real estate of a traditional cubicle and doesn't require expensive, extensive construction.

Increasingly, many of the top-selling office furniture makers are experimenting with remakes of the boxy, boring cubicle to appeal to Generation X and Y workers who prefer collaborative working environments to isolating, generic-looking work spaces. Other companies such as Herman Miller (MLHR) and Knoll (KNL), are also pushing imaginative new designs that encourage teams to meet and work together rather than slog away alone. And many of these fresh reconfigurations also offer flexible, customizable features, such as doors that allow the workstations to transform from public to private space quickly. In addition, most conform to the small sizes of the traditional office cube to help companies maximize square footage in office spaces when workforces grow or, conversely, when a corporation has to downsize to smaller digs.

The new designs are influenced by research conducted by furniture manufacturers on the work habits of today's employees. Knoll, for example, in partnership with Danbury (Conn.) research firm DYG, published a white paper on Oct. 5 that reflected a yearlong national study of the workplace preferences of professionals of various ages, in a variety of industries from financial services to consulting and retail. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper supports design trends in Knoll's latest cubicle offerings as well as those from competitors such as Steelcase and Herman Miller, Haworth and even IKEA, which increasingly caters to small businesses seeking furniture for open-plan offices.

No Attachment to Assigned Cubicles

The data in the new Knoll study show that 44% of the time they are at work, employees are away from their assigned desks; 24% of the time they're working, they're in small conference rooms, away from the cubicle, or in a public space (such as a nearby Starbucks (SBUX), for informal meetings). When working in teams, only 14% of those surveyed said their groups met in the same place, suggesting that most employees don't feel an attachment to their assigned cubicles. The data also showed that of the corporations studied, 80% said that they supported group work.

The findings were "influential" on Knoll's design strategies, says Tracy Wymer, senior director of research, strategy, and media at Knoll, which saw its latest annual sales figures (for 2006) jump 21.6%, to $982 million. Wymer adds that the data gathered "will affect existing product enhancement and new product development" in years to come.

Knoll's most up-to-date workstation, Dividends Horizon, launched at the 2007 edition of NeoCon this spring. It reflects some of the concerns uncovered in the research. Featuring walls and boundaries made of translucent materials, the open design of a Dividends Horizon cubicle is meant to encourage employees to engage naturally in conversations and group tasks.

Rounded Corners Bring Coziness

Steelcase and Knoll aren't alone in revamping the cube to cater to workers in their twenties and thirties (and beyond) who are seeking more collaborative work environments. Herman Miller, for example, launched My Studio Environments, a makeover of the standard cubicle, in 2006 and has been conducting user-centered research in the last year for feedback on the design in order to improve it.

My Studio Environments spaces have unusual rounded corners instead of the sharp edges of the traditional boxy workstation. That's a detail its designer, Douglas Ball, says suggests a circle around the person in the center of it, adding a sense of iconoclastic style as well as a sense of coziness. As in Knoll's Dividends Horizon, My Studio Environments feature translucent materials to provide both literal and figurative suggestions of transparency and openness. The wall of the workstation that faces a cluster of desks is shorter than the wall facing the aisle, a deliberate reversal of standard cubicle configurations. And the taller aisle-side wall features a door that workers can close to achieve a sense of privacy as needed.

Herman Miller, whose overall fiscal 2007 revenues rose 10.5%, to $1.9 billion, has seen major corporations such as BP (BP) incorporate My Studio Environments workstations. The energy giant installed them in 2006 in a prototype office in Houston, where it is experimenting with more collaborative environments. But Herman Miller is still refining its design. For example, the company found that clients consistently asked for a shorter aisle door so they would be able to peer outside their cubicle without having to get up and open it. So Herman Miller's designers reworked their original styling. Today, doors in My Studio Environments cubicles measure 68 inches high, as opposed to the 81 inches of the first design.

It's too early to tell whether sales of such adventurous Cubicle 2.0 offerings will surpass those of more traditional workstations any time soon. But given the early corporate interest in these fresh new ideas as well as the data culled from the leading office furniture makers' research, the design strategy of giving the ho-hum cube an extreme makeover to appeal to the new generations of managers and employees is clearly a trend that's growing.

View the BusinessWeek slide show.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.