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Furnishings can help break down barriers, shift office's focus toward teamwork


CHICAGO -- At most offices, the sight of a co-worker waving at a television set might stir up some concerns and a little gossip.

But it's perfectly natural in the break rooms of Xerox Corp.'s research operation in Palo Alto, Calif. Now that the company has linked lounges in departments and buildings through video conference hardware, researchers frequently chat with colleagues they have never met or haven't seen in person in months.

"You can walk by and wave to people," said Mark Weiser, head of the computer science laboratory in Palo Alto. "Some of the most productive work occurs at the coffee pot or when bumping into people in the hallway. In such a casual atmosphere, it's created a lot more chances for interaction and creativity."

It's the next best thing to a quick walk to a colleague's desk, and it's one example of the changing atmosphere of American companies, according to Jon Ryburg, president of Facility Performance Group, a management and office-design consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"You want people to bump into others for the 'aha, that reminds me' effect," Mr. Ryburg said recently at NeoCon 92, the annual contract furnishings show in Chicago.

"People just don't use the phone [to call co-workers in the same office]," Mr. Ryburg said. "People would much rather look up and seek someone out."

But in most cases, not even a quick scan of the office is possible. Even when they stand, employees often cannot see others because they work in cubicles surrounded by high panels. As a result, employees feel isolated from each other, he said.

The consequences have been costly for Americans who are up against cultures -- such as the Japanese -- that encourage teamwork and impromptu exchanges among co-workers.

Some of the changes Mr. Ryburg believes are needed are more meeting rooms -- Mazda has 32.5 square feet of meeting space per person, compared with General Motors' 6 square feet -- shared work spaces, lower panels and an overall "bullpen" atmosphere.

As businesses become more integrated and barriers between divisions become less distinct, "there's a tremendous need for people to talk to each other," Mr. Ryburg said.

Signs of this move toward greater openness and sharing in the office can be seen at the show.

Stephen Barlow-Lawson, president of I.D./Design, a product and graphic design firm in New York, has come up with a concept design for office furniture, called Biomorph, that incorporates some of the ideas.

His crescent-shaped desks, which have no corners or straight lines, include small shelves that can swing in and out and provide an impromptu writing table for a boss or co-worker.

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