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Business Report

Smashing the Cubicles

By sketching future spaces around tablets, smart phones, and social technologies, companies can operate with far fewer desks.

  • by Tom Simonite
  • August 5, 2011
  • Designed for mobility: This conference table, from the design firm Steelcase, allows employees to dock their mobile devices and take turns sharing the displays at the ends of the table.

The quick expansion of social and mobile technologies is creating a widely distributed workforce. To better suit employees who come into offices more sporadically, some companies and design firms are testing radically new—and more efficient—configurations for physical offices, and betting that improved technology will make the experiment more successful than similar ones in the 1990s.

A project at the headquarters of Cisco Systems in San Jose, California, for example, overthrows decades-old conventions about office space. Called Connected Workplace, it replaces individual cubicles with open clusters of wheeled desks that belong to groups, not individuals; personal belongings are largely confined to lockers.

There are no PCs at the desks, because the employees who use the space use mobile technologies, including the Cius tablet, which Cisco recently began selling to businesses. Rick Hutley, a Cisco vice president, chooses his desk according to which colleagues are present and what’s on the day’s agenda. Then he docks his Cius to a port on the desk that includes a phone handset.  The tablet handles voice and video calls whether it’s docked or mobile, and it can be used to share documents at meetings.

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It can also be plugged into a monitor and keyboard to be used like a full PC. “You can walk around with your entire world with you in this device,” Hutley says. “My laptop would often stay on my desk, but the tablet never does.” If he needs to make a private voice or video call, he can step into one of the rooms at the edges of the cluster.

Employees can also participate in the company’s corporate social network, Quad, which is accessible on the Web or through the iPhone, iPad, or Cius. People can post meeting requests, give status updates on projects, and quickly get in touch via instant messages, voice calls, or e-mail.

Video phone: When the Cisco Cius tablet is docked, it becomes a desktop video phone, and can also be plugged into a monitor and keyboard to replace a PC.

Cisco’s vision is an example of a broader effort to reshape office technologies and environments. “We used to have boring stuff at work and more interesting technology at home,” says Prith Banerjee, leader of Hewlett-Packard’s research arm. “Now office technology will make use of the same cool experiences and interfaces.”

Among other things, Banerjee predicts that flexible, paperlike color displays will blur the boundary between phones and tablets in the next few years, creating mobile devices even better suited to serving as an entire office in your pocket.

Such changes could save a lot of money. Cisco’s project, for example, was launched after an internal study found that cubicles were vacant two-thirds of the time while people roamed the campus or worked remotely. Company calculations hold that the building used for the project can accommodate 140 employees, up from 88 in designs used in a traditional Cisco building, and that real estate costs would drop by 37 percent.

Over the long term, Cisco hopes to save on health costs, too, because people who move around more frequently are less likely to suffer ergonomic problems. The company is planning to study whether the more mature technology of today can conquer resistance that hobbled previous attempts by companies to create offices where no one has private space.

Meanwhile, office design firms are stepping in with complementary ideas. Steelcase, for example, is building office installations that allow for spontaneous meetings and collaboration in open areas. Mobile-device ports are integrated into conference tables or semiprivate pods, and some allow people to take turns projecting data on a common screen.

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