IBM's office even Dilbert would love

Tired of your cubicle? Researchers at Steelcase and IBM are trying to improve the workspace by mixing architecture, furniture design, and technology.

COMMENTARY--I have an office problem. Depending on what type of work I'm doing, I find myself shuttling between a Manhattan office building (for reporting and meetings) and my home office (for writing and thinking).

My home office is ideal for solitary labor that requires contemplation. It's comfortable and quiet, and it gets great light. But if I spend more than a few days alone there, I start to bounce off the walls. So when I have meetings or need to do a lot of research -- or when I simply crave human contact -- I drag myself to my cubicle in the Time & Life Building, a lightless warren in midtown Manhattan.

Admittedly, my work habits are slightly unusual. But the fact that I opt to move around so much rather than staying put points to a failure of offices in general: They're typically designed only for one style of work. Yet a closer integration of technology, furniture design, and architecture would enable a single office setting to adapt to the varied types of work required to support an information-based economy.

A few months ago, I saw what such an office might look like when I visited BlueSpace, part of an IBM research facility in Hawthorne, N.Y. BlueSpace is a joint research project between IBM and Steelcase. Borrowing from disciplines as diverse as ergonomics, ethnography, and data management, BlueSpace is an attempt to create an utterly malleable, completely adaptable office. Like the Transformer toys that convert from vehicles to warrior robots, Steelcase research chief Mark Greiner says, "the office of the future will have to morph throughout the day."

At first glance, BlueSpace seems unexceptional -- a large cubicle with some fancy lighting and computer displays. But when you look closer, it becomes clear that the designers put a lot of thought into the details. The central feature is a set of twin flat-panel computer screens attached to a movable metal arm. One of the screens is touch-sensitive and has a grid of tiles that can be used to control the lighting, a fan that blows cool air, or a heater to warm your feet. The arm can swing around to create a "caving" effect when you need more privacy, or the screens can face outward if a group wants to gather around for a presentation.

Alternatively, a mirrored projection system can be used to display computer-screen images onto a desk, table, or wall. Most of the BlueSpace furniture is mounted on wheels, as are some of the wall panels, so the space can be rearranged to accommodate changing needs. The space also has synthetic light that changes throughout the day, mimicking the passage of natural light, which helps people pace their work.

The tiled screen also allows you to check the status of each of your colleagues, who are represented by icons that denote whether they're out of the office, on the phone, busy working, or available for chitchat. A worker's status is also indicated by a color-coded light above the door or cubical wall that functions as a "Do Not Disturb" sign. (I could really use one of those, although I doubt my editors would pay much attention.)

BlueSpace is really just a start. Other technologies that Steelcase is exploring could enhance the digital office even further. Thin, transparent materials could act as acoustic screens that capture sound but let light pass through. Audio spotlights that beam sound to specific points could allow you to listen to your MP3 collection all day without distracting your co-workers.

And one day, you'll be able to plug any surface into the Internet. Every wall, for instance, could have a display or act as an electronic whiteboard. "In effect, architecture becomes the technology," says Steelcase's Greiner. He imagines remote meetings taking place between groups of people in different locations, each of which has electronic whiteboard walls connected to the Internet. "If you write something," he explains, "it shows up on the walls in the other rooms. It's as if you're there, as a ghost."

In a sense, many information workers already are ghosts: We can be anywhere. But that's not necessarily a good thing, because it often feels as if we're nowhere. Technology and design should work hand in hand to let us reshape our offices for different purposes -- instead of making us want to escape them. And when we truly need to be on the move, it should make us feel as though our co-workers are just next door.

As an editor at large for Business 2.0, Erick Schonfeld contributes to the editorial development of the magazine, writes feature stories, and pens a weekly online column.