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After the Layoff, the Redesign

So many empty cubicles, such low morale. Let's call in the interior decorators

Ten thousand layoffs here, twelve hundred there: There's a lot of anxiety in the workplace, and a lot of empty offices, too. As the recession takes hold, there is likely to be more of both. So here come the interior designers trying to persuade executives to do something—anything—with the space where employees used to be. "It's kind of an exciting time because we consider ourselves change managers," says Jo Heinz, the president of office design firm Staffelbach Design Associates in Dallas. "Downsizing is often essential, and of course no one looks forward to it. But if it's handled well, it can help the company become more efficient and effective."

It's pretty obvious why leaving employees surrounded by suddenly vacated offices isn't a great idea: It's depressing. "I feel unstable. Who knows when more layoffs will come?" says a woman who sits in a row of eight cubes, only four of which are occupied after job cuts at the automotive company where she works. As all manner of consultants do, designers see opportunity amid all this uncertainty, and not just for themselves, of course. "It's a business imperative to transform the physical space quickly to send a clear message to the remaining employees, to say we value you and we're a viable, healthy company," says James Ludwig, vice-president of design for office furniture maker Steelcase (SCS).