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Going mobile.

Flexibility is key in today's office furnishings.

That big, almost immovable mahogany desk, the matching chair - they may be history before long.

Companies want their office design and furnishings to deliver flexibility and efficiency. The result is streamlined tables and chairs that allow a company to respond quickly and easily to changing space needs while taking into consideration employees' needs as well.

"What people are looking for is a facility that is adaptable to change," says Ed Romary, president of Romary Associates, a Fort Wayne-based space-planning firm. "As we design space, we just try to prepare for the unexpected."

The versatility of today's office systems can mean the elimination of some traditional office elements. For example, rather than having a round conference table in a separate room, some companies are choosing to give certain employees a corner unit desk with a "run-off shape" that serves as a conference table. This allows a unit to double as personal office space and a conference room.

More variations on work surfaces and conference tables come from Nappanee-based Creative Dimensions and carry the brand name Byte Size, named for the bite-like cutouts that provide flexibility in configurations. These auxiliary tables are height-adjustable and can interlock with other Byte Size tables to form one large conference table or a group pattern for more intimate settings. The Byte Size tables also can be part of a work station, providing extra space, and can be detached to use as round meeting tables.

"Interlocking tables with wheels are becoming popular because the furniture can be individual or locked for group settings," says Rod Stump, general manager of Creative Dimensions. "It's something that's never been done before."

Bob Koehne, senior vice president of Business Furniture Corp. in Indianapolis, says many of the Steelcase tables that his company sells are coming with wheels. "Mobility is the key," Koehne says. "More and more products are becoming mobile."

For example, the Activity Products line from Steelcase Inc. features a variety of tables and accessories designed to work together or in combination with other modular office systems. The line includes tables in varying shapes and sizes, "Activity Carts" that ferry work tools and materials, dividers and the "Activity Post," which fits with other components and provides power and data connections.

Another table design that provides flexibility is the so-called desk base system, says David Weales, product manager of Jasper-based office-furnishings manufacturer Kimball International. These systems are component-based and can be used in a variety of configurations. With desk base systems, desks that formerly had two stationary pedestals are transformed into a free-standing desk, which provides more space and flexibility.

Weales says another innovation is Kimball's new Skate line, so named because of its mobility. The product is a series of movable tables and units that can be reconfigured easily in order to meet the changing needs of the office and the employee. "The idea is for the furniture to move around to meet the employees' needs and not move the employees to fit the furniture," Weales says.

The mobile tables in the Skate product line come in a variety of shapes including trapezoid, tear drop, crescent, hexagon and rectangle. All are designed to work together in a number of configurations along with other pieces such as storage units.

Such fundamental changes in the way office furniture is designed stem in part from the increasingly fast pace of business today. Companies now more than ever must be able to respond quickly to competition and technological change, and that response includes the need to move employees and alter their surroundings.

But the evolution of furnishings also reflects sweeping philosophical changes in corporate structure and its impact on office design. For decades, companies typically assigned work space by seniority and rank. Position within a company determined the size of a person's office, indeed whether the person rated an office at all.

Today, however, there is increased sensitivity to what employees' specific jobs require of them. "You can see the dilemma companies are facing," says Rick Mohr of office-furnishings maker Steelcase Inc. "Employees are familiar with the old system and unwilling to give up their corner offices."

Nevertheless, more and more companies are moving away from the traditional system of dividing the office spoils. Corner offices may still be reserved for the chief executive, but an accountant may get a small cubicle despite seniority while marketing team members may share a large work table that can be divided for individual work. This change in work space philosophy is having a ripple. effect on other aspects of office furniture, says Weales. "Manufacturers of office furniture are seeing a move toward a more open environment that are more functional than traditional offices."

Doug Cull, sales manager at Office Environments and Design in Bloomington, says today's emphasis on a more open floor plan is designed to foster a sense of camaraderie. "There has been a switch away from taller panels dividing desks to lower panels," Cull explains.

Dave Kebrdle, president of Domore Systems in Elkhart, has watched panel height drop from 96 inches to 42 inches in the last five years.

But if the aim is an open work environment, why have cubicles at all? For one thing, cubicle walls are designed to hide and direct the cumbersome tangle of wires from phones, faxes, computers and other office gadgets. The latest cubicle concepts have brought electrical outlets up to desk level rather than at the floor, again in hopes of keeping cords from snaring workers' feet.

Increased networking of computers within companies and through the Internet has made cord management all the more complicated. Numerous wires must run from the network hub into a company's cubicles, at least one wire for every few computers and in many cases a wire for each PC.

This kind of wiring can conflict with the much-touted office-furnishings goal of flexibility. A solution is known as the "modular data communications system." It enables companies to move panels and desk units without rewiring.

Accounting for computer wiring is just part of the challenge. Making room on work surfaces for the monitor, CPU and printer can be equally tricky. "Desks are changing to fit computers more comfortably," says Alan Jones, an account executive at Kern Brothers Office Systems in Evansville.

Corner units are made specifically to fit a computer, and have added benefits, he says. "With ergonomic desks people can have their drawers and computer exactly where they want them," says Jones. Corner units come in various styles, including the U-shape, the L-shape, crescent-shape and sail-shape.

Tables now have more softened edges to make them safer and more ergonomic and they also come with rounded fold-out shelves. A pull-out shelf for a computer keyboard, for instance, allows employees to position the keyboard to meet their own comfort needs.

Another ergonomic consideration is the height of the computer monitor, which needs to be eye level, about eight inches off the workstation. To accomplish this, Creative Dimensions sells computer platforms as part of its work stations.

Another change is a more bright and airy office, eschewing the dark wood walls and mahogany desks of the past. Veneer choices in the executive office are lightening and brightening up. The popularity of walnut and oak is giving way to cherry and maple. Wood also is being used away from executive offices to make the sterile environments of cubicles more warm and personal.

Outside the executive suite, wood typically is just an accent. But its presence means tables and chairs don't have to look cheap just because they're more mobile.

Aside from the wood trim, laminate tabletops remain. But furniture makers are supplementing solid gray with new colors. For example, making its way into the office is an old favorite hue from the kitchen. "We run about 20 to 25 years behind trends, but we are seeing an increase in the use of green harvest colors," says Kimball's Weales. "However, shades of gray will always be a staple color in offices."

Also new for office laminates are playful patterns, with a matrix or speckled pattern especially popular, says Jones of Kern Brothers. But Kebrdle warns buyers to choose patterns carefully. "Although the speckled patterns available for laminate desks are attractive on a color card, when you have a large panel, the pattern can plays tricks on your eyes."

Instead of patterns, some companies add variety with complementing colors. "Our company is using two-tone and even three-tone furniture. Each workspace is a different color. We developed the idea about a year ago and now others are following our lead," says Stump of Creative Dimensions.

Office-furniture buyers these days are paying particularly close attention to chairs. It's increasingly important to consider ergonomics, ensuring that chairs are designed to promote health and prevent injury. Doing so means buying chairs that fit the widely varying sizes, shapes and needs of individual employees.

Therefore, the key element of a good office chair is adaptability. Armrests today can move vertically and horizontally, and the lumbar support can be adjusted with the turn of a wheel. To accommodate different leg lengths, the seat itself can slide in and out. Plus, the chair can be adjusted depending on the height of the person sitting in the chair.

A good office chair, then, can truly fit all. Well, almost all. Ergonomic considerations have created the need for specialty chairs for those cases when a chair simply can't be adjusted to fit the user. "Companies are now offering a line of chairs for the big and tall," says Kebrdle of Domore.

Chairs also need to fit employees' functions. "If an individual is doing a more task-oriented job, then that person needs a more ergonomic chair," says Koehne of Business Furniture Corp. "If the person does a lot of different types of tasks, then it's a multitask chair that can adjust to fit the different aspects of the job."

As for the traditionally plush executive chair, Koehne says that's changing too. His company is targeting the busy CEO with a chair called Rapport. "Now you have executives who are behind their desks working at their laptops, so there are chairs that look upscale but still support function and have all the adjustments."

Ergonomic considerations aside, upholstery choices can vary dramatically. "Upholstery patterns depend on the geographic area and the business," says Cull of Office Environments and Design. At smaller companies and in smaller or more conservative locales, neutral colors remain the standard. In larger cities and at some bigger corporations, upholstery is becoming more daring. Subtle patterns are the latest trend, and manufacturers such as Kimball are offering fabrics blended from cotton, polyester and rayon to add a distinct texture.

The same is true with fabric for cubicle walls. "Companies are more daring," says Jones of Kern Brothers. Plain colors now are joined by subtle patterns in various color schemes to match just about anything.

Cubicle fabric typically is both decorative and acoustic, but in some settings companies abandon fabric altogether in favor of such materials as dry-erase boards for group-think meetings. The wall, then, becomes not just a divider but also a functional part of the desk, yet another trend fueled by the need for collaborative work environments.

Look for more teamwork-inspired changes in the years to come, those in the industry say. As Steelcase's Mohr observes, "Teamwork is here to stay."

RELATED ARTICLE: Scaling Paper Mountains

Document imaging can control the pile-up.

Conquering the paper pile-up. There's no easy way to begin, but according to Gary Gusher, president of Imaging Office Systems, it's becoming increasingly important to consider moving from a hard filing system to an electronic one.

"There are two reasons - competition and customer service," Gusher says. "If someone can look at a computer screen and give me, the customer, an immediate answer instead of spending time searching for a file that they may or may not find, they have satisfied me as a customer, saved money on the call back and saved the expense of looking for the paper."

Gusher's Fort Wayne-based company markets equipment that allows firms to scan paper documents into electronic form, then store them on such media as CD-ROMs. Document retrieval can be as easy as calling up files on a standard PC.

Once companies decide to implement an electronic imaging system, Gusher says they must assess and address the problems with the current filing system. Finding the root of the problem often helps determine the most effective means of creating new computerized index and access systems.

"You index the way you want to retrieve - alphabetically, by Social Security number, invoice number, keyword," Gusher says. "But the access system has to be easy. If it's not easy, people won't use it because the new system has to be better than what they were doing as far as savings and efficiency."

Using an independent organization to develop the software can help companies avoid making basic errors. Consultants will help companies customize imaging computer programs to specifically address clients' needs. According to Gusher, it is most efficient for users to adopt a "day forward" system when the software is complete and let another organization do the back filing.

But exactly how much does it cost to switch to an electronic-imaging filing system? "I hate to give a figure because it depends on the company and what they do and how much they want to scan," he explains. "You can spend $8,000 or $30,000 or $500,000. I've even known someone who spent $1 million for a top-notch system."

But despite any expense, the results will show quickly, according to Gusher. At a computer-literate company, he says, employees will be proficient within one week and be functioning at 100 percent within one month. "The system will make a world of difference," he says, "but you have to be willing to change, to do something differently."

- Holly Fricks
COPYRIGHT 1998 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:developments in Indiana's office furniture industry
Author:Morreale, Melissa A.
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Previous Article:The site-selection team.
Next Article:Western Indiana update.

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