Economists are predicting that by 2009, the long-anticipated labor shortage will have arrived, a shortfall projected to be most severe among knowledge workers. As the "War for Talent, Part Deux" heats up, companies will be looking for a recruiting edge. One lure: a more appealing workspace. "There's big angst in companies now about creating a caricature of a cube farm," says Todd DeGarmo, managing partner at STUDIOS Architecture, a New York- based architectural firm with clients like Bloomberg LP and Barry Diller.
Enter Douglas Ball, a Canadian office-furniture designer—and one of the early advocates of what the industry calls "systems furniture" (and what wage slaves call cubicles). This spring, as the designer behind Herman Miller's biggest launch since 1999 (code- named "NT"), Ball will have a chance to make amends for that youthful misstep. NT is meant to undo the problems that bedevil workers consigned to open-plan systems, creating a sense of territory and privacy while maintaining the potential for collaboration. And it's designed to feel as appealing as the cockpit of a sports car—and almost as snug. (For now, details on the next-gen cube are under wraps.)
For Ball, seeing his new system replace the old will represent a karmic restoration. "I told the steering committee the first time I met them: 'We've seen what's happened in the workplace. So much has been taken away from people—the office, the door, their privacy, and space. What we want to do here is give back.'"
Makers of systems furniture, which represents more than 50% of the office-furniture business, will be watching Herman Miller closely. If NT takes off, expect a ripple effect through the industry as competitors scramble to create knock-offs, and companies jockey to win persnickety gen-Xers.