We’ve Seen the Future of Work and It Works, But Very Differently

How the visionaries in Grand Rapids are getting your papers to float, your desk to travel, and your office to multiply.

We’ve Seen the Future of Work and It Works, But Very Differently

When you fly into Grand Rapids, Michigan, you see it immediately: the control tower at the airport looms exactly like an oversized file cabinet. This is perfect for Grand rapids, the city that until very recently was David Letterman’s official home office, the place where the night’s top ten list originated. Did Letterman know how close to the truth he was?


Grand Rapids is the home office.

It is the source of the upholstered ergonomic chair, the lateral file, the credenza. The fabric-covered cubicle was invented here; in Grand Rapids you can still hear the argument that the cubicle, now almost 30 years old and the object of daily derision in “Dilbert,” represents a revolutionary advance for workers.

The nation’s three largest office furniture companies — Steelcase, Haworth, and Herman Miller — are all headquartered in Grand Rapids or within a few dozen miles. Together, they sell more than $5 billion worth of office furniture a year, about half the total market.


Grand Rapids is to office furniture what Silicon Valley is to computers — and changing just as fast.

In Grand Rapids, they are studying the quantum mechanics of work, confident that what they know will overturn the current physics — not just of furniture or even of the office, but of work itself. The new physics is about balance — juggling many things in many states of development — and about integration — with your colleagues and their projects. Information is available anywhere; people no longer are tethered to their desks. As a consequence, they go to the office for new reasons: to be with each other, to collaborate, to learn, to socialize. The people at Haworth, Steelcase, and Herman Miller are starting to design furniture according to this new set of rules.

As furniture changes, the Big Three furniture companies are changing — reinventing everything from their own offices to the definition of the business they’re in. Furniture, it turns out, may be a by-product of their real mission: to answer the question, What is the future of work?


According to Haworth’s Jeff Reuschel and Brian Alexander, the future of work is about defying gravity.

According to Herman Miller’s Betty Hase, the future of work is about chaos theory.

According to Steelcase’s Christine Albertini and Kathy Woronko, the future of work is about accepting the end of control.


And according to Steelcase’s Bill Miller, there is a single, grand unifying theory, a General Theory of the Future of Work, which will change everything.

Stuff That Floats! Up in the Air! In a Cloud!

Jeff Reuschel and Brian Alexander seem at first like the Siskel and Ebert of office furniture — different styles, different approaches, different attitudes. Reuschel is button-down, his hair neatly trimmed, pants pleated, desk a matrix of perfect stacks. Reuschel talks easily, in complete sentences and well-ordered paragraphs.

Alexander is quieter, more circumspect. He wears a pullover shirt and sports a ponytail and graying beard. His desk is a melange of experimental pieces. In fact, his desk is an experimental piece — he’s built it out of chunks of whiteboard, which he writes on with a green marker


. But Reuschel and Alexander, who work for Haworth, think enough alike to finish each other’s sentences

. “I don’t want to have to deal with horizontal surfaces,” says Reuschel. “I’d like to have the stuff all floating around and be able to almost turn it off and on. I’d like to have it gone when I want it gone…”

“…to be able to walk through it,” says Alexander.


Reuschel and Alexander are part of an eight-person team at Haworth called the Industrial Design Group, a kind of furniture think tank. What they think about is stuff.

Stuff like stacks of paper, folders, newspapers, clippings, Post-its, magazines, memos, notes from meetings, computer printouts. Stacks of stuff that become a source of constant, low-grade dissatisfaction — a reproach. Still haven’t dealt with that.

Office furniture, Reuschel and Alexander know, has always held out the whispered promise of control. With just the right number of baskets, slots, and drawers, with a four-drawer lateral file — all that stuff would disappear.


But what Reuschel and Alexander also understand is that the new physics of work turns that thinking upside down: making all that stuff disappear is the problem, not the solution. People need to see their stuff.

“We’re all dealing with items that are in process,” says Alexander. “It either goes in boxes called file cabinets or it sits out. Once it’s in a box, it’s gone. We’ve got one thing that’s going on for a year, two things that are going on for the next three months, five things that may happen this week. You’ve got all this stuff floating around, all this stuff in a cloud. To hide it all in a box is a bad thing. And if I put it in stacks, it congeals. There isn’t a good way to allow all this stuff to float, to be in process.”

To demonstrate the way work really is, Alexander picks up a sheet of paper. “What would be ideal would be to take this document,” he says, “and put it here” — at arm’s length, about head high — “and have it just stay there. Then there is a cloud of stuff around where I am, at arm’s reach. I know where it is, because where my hand left it is where it is.”


Stuff that floats! Up in the air! In a cloud! Meet Project Bottle Brush, Reuschel and Alexander’s furniture-in-process designed for work-in-process — a workspace that defies the laws of gravity, that allows stuff to float.

The Bottle Brush resulted from two minds thinking about different problems — and reaching the same conclusion. “We were sitting down together one day,” says Reuschel, “and in five minutes, we realized that what we’re really dealing with is a layer of organization somewhere between the active — right in front of me, that I’m working on now — and what goes in a file. It’s work-in-process.”

Reuschel and Alexander have constructed a working prototype of the Bottle Brush — renamed The Wake for its upcoming launch because, says Alexander, “It keeps evolving, churning over, making changes in the workspace visible rather than hidden.” The model has a horizontal axis off of which come a handful of platforms for stuff — a way of creating a holding pattern for paper stacks in the air. There are several music stands bolted to goosenecks: you put a stack on each and position it where you want it. There are some clips — the kind you can use to reclose bags of chips — also on goosenecks: you can clip up a memo or a To Do list and keep it in visual range. There are some boxes and half-boxes for holding things: a place to put your lunch, your coffee mug, your phone directory.


“We called it the Bottle Brush because it has a center spine, with things coming off it,” says Reuschel.

“It allows people to organize things just the way they want them,” says Alexander. “It’s a product that’s intended for everyone, but you can still make it special to the way you work.”

“This is trying to emulate the way your brain functions,” says Reuschel. “Brian described it once as the orthographic projection of the inside of your skull.”


Why shouldn’t your workspace work the same way your brain works? Reuschel and Alexander figure that if your space mirrors your brain, you aren’t wasting time keeping track of how two different spaces are organized.

What Reuschel and Alexander and their group are on to is something called cognitive ergonomics — the relationship between your surroundings and the way you think, the connection between your physical environment and your ability to be creative. Imagine: office space designed to maximize communication, interaction, and creativity; space to accommodate noisy collaborative work and private concentrated work. Old economy factories were designed to maximize standardized production. Why shouldn’t new economy offices be designed to maximize individual creativity?

“We believe work settings do a lot more than just put things conveniently at reach,” says Reuschel. “Work surfaces can communicate; they have knowledge embedded in them.”


It all comes from an epiphany about the new physics of work — the recognition that chaos theory does a better job of explaining the way we work than the old assembly line. “The way the universe works is not the way we try to do things,” says Reuschel. “Structure is a bad thing in many respects. It’s solid, any disruption breaks it down. Better to have an environment that’s fluid, that’s readily adaptable. Nature works that way.”

Order and Chaos, Order and Chaos

Over at Herman Miller, only a few miles away, there’s another furniture person grappling with the implications of chaos theory, decoding the new physics of work. Think of Betty Hase as Herman Miller’s archaeologist of work. As a manager in the company’s Advanced Applications group, Hase unearths what’s going on in the workplace, pieces it together, then presents it as a coherent whole. Her approach, says Hase, is intentionally eclectic. “I read widely,” she says, “including obscure books, like The Intelligence of Dogs, and books on American Indian culture. I come up with what I see happening, and then I relate it back to Herman Miller, to figure out the directions business environments are headed in.”

But for all her own digging, Hase recently found herself so perplexed by the changes going on in the world of work that she scheduled a formal appointment with her husband, a physical chemist, so he could explain chaos theory to her. “I kept hearing from people, there’s order and chaos, order and chaos,” says Hase. “I said, I need to understand this.” Her aim: to connect what’s going on in the new physics with what’s happening in the new economy.


After the tutorial, Hase sketched out a chart that she says captures the evolution of the two fields. On one side is the progression of learning in physics: molecular systems, molecules, atoms, energy, transition, new order. On the other side is the progression of working in the office: whole organization, departments, individuals, strategic change, chaos, new order. Quantum physics and quantum work both arrive at “new order.”

As a second step, Hase designed a poster that portrays a cartoon tour of this century’s work life. In a spiral of “progress,” the poster advances from the agrarian farmer and village worker of 1900, where home life and work life were thoroughly integrated; to the 1930s and the factory, the efficiency expert, and “scientific management,” where home and work life became separated; to the year 2000 and the emergence of the “nomad worker” — where home and work once again are integrated.

Hase’s poster captures the history of Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids calls itself “The Furniture Capital of the World,” and its story is on display in a vivid city museum downtown on the west bank of the Grand River. Almost all of the museum’s second floor is devoted to the evolution of the city’s furniture business; you walk through the exhibit as if through a three-dimensional time line. Walking by 1890, you see an early version of the much-beloved in-box. In the 1920s, factories operated as just-in-time producers — they made nothing that hadn’t been ordered — never suspecting that it was a revolutionary management technique. After World War II, the factory-look of the 1920s became the office-look of the modern corporation: well-ordered, open, efficient, desks lined up in long, even rows, the papers on the desk lined up as well.

What Hase’s poster demonstrates and the museum displays is that each era gets the furniture it deserves. The rules of work and the furnishings of work have gone hand-in-hand. Only now the rules of work have changed — and the furniture has yet to catch up. Hase herself makes the point. She has an office in her home near Detroit, another office at the Herman Miller showroom in Detroit, a third office at a Herman Miller building in Grand Rapids, and another office at her home in New Mexico. Her business card has three phone numbers on it — it should have at least five. Hase moves her stuff from place to place in a trolley of her own creation that she calls a “work wagon”: a red plastic bin on a little set of luggage wheels. The contraption is strapped together with bungee cords.

It’s like trying to make a Model T fly. The physics of work has been turned inside-out – only the furniture remains the same. But not for long.

“People are so resistant to change,” says Hase, “but we’ve always changed. Change is what we do.”

All Work, All the Time

At Steelcase — On the Road, Christine Albertini and Kathy Woronko are working to solve the mobility problem. Albertini is vice president and general manager of the Steelcase — On the Road group, Woronko is her marketing communications manager. Their job is to figure out how to furnish the whole world so you can work in it, effortlessly, seamlessly, continuously.

“Kathy and I always say, ‘We are our customers,'” says Albertini. “I’m a worker in the work world. I have children, day care, a husband, learning commitments. A cell-phone? Oh yeah. A laptop? Sure. I work in the car, home, office, airplane, hotel room, on the street corner.”

Says Woronko, “I work at volleyball practice, hockey games, gymnastics.”

Volleyball practice?

“Absolutely,” says Woronko. “I took my laptop. I think I was working on a dealer letter about the status of some of our products. I had time in the car with my child on the way to practice and on the way back. As for volleyball practice, I didn’t actually have to watch. It was something about me being there. So I sat in the gym stands and worked on the letter.” “In Kathy’s case,” says Albertini, “it was a question of: Could she go to her daughter’s practice and do some work there, or would she have to miss the practice entirely?”

That question captures the pivotal problem of work in the new economy. Tension doesn’t come from what goes on at work or what goes on at home. It comes from the relationship between work and home. In most two-parent families, both parents work. People are fighting to keep work from taking over their lives — and losing ground briskly.

Christine Albertini’s advice: Relax. Don’t fight it. Go with it.

Albertini is trained as an anthropologist; in college she studied culture contact and change — what happens when two cultures come together. It was good preparation for her current role at Steelcase. Operating like cultural anthropologists observing a tribe’s behavior, her group watches people as they try to work in hotels and airports. In one project, they mapped people’s behavior in hotel rooms, then used the observations to define five “zones” in the typical hotel room: the unload zone, the hygiene zone, the working/dining zone, the entertainment/relax zone, the rest zone.

That research lead to a partnership with Marriott Hotels and a hotel room that’s designed for work. It features a desk with both a movable surface and a fixed surface, outlets for power, a phone jack for a modem, a good work light, an ergonomic chair. Marriott calls it The Room That Works; it has already installed the redesigned desk and chair in 9,000 hotel rooms and expects to offer them in 20,000 rooms by year’s end. “It’s become like the free shampoo in the bathroom,” says Albertini. “Everybody wants one.”

Next up is a chair called Migrations, created by Brayton International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Steelcase, and marketed by Steelcase — On the Road. Migrations, says Albertini, is furniture for working in the “work-relaxed mode — with a business book, to go through notes of a meeting, in an airport lounge to write an outline for a presentation.” Migrations is a barrel-shaped chair with some unusual features: a shelf beneath the seat for stuff, a moving tablet like the fold-up arm on chairs in college lecture halls, and a power column to allow you to plug in.

Albertini and her group are pushing a whole range of people to provide better, more intuitive, easier to use workspace. “We’re working with five industries that are already interfacing with you as a user,” she says. They’re talking with computer and phone companies about a universal plug, to provide power and data in a single outlet. They’re talking with hotel companies about turning the hotel TV into a combination TV-computer, so you won’t have to travel with your computer. They’re working with the airlines so the airplane seat does a better job of supporting work. They’re designing an “envelope” for the stuff that you carry with you. “We’re imagining a way of carrying stuff that is absolutely yours personally,” Albertini says.

Albertini herself continues to confront the central dilemma of a world where work knows no boundaries. Not long before the creation of her group, Albertini and her husband adopted two Russian children. They were Albertini’s first kids, and when she went to Russia, she got them both at the same time. “I kept saying, ‘I got two dogs at once, I got two cats at once.’ I thought they would want to crawl up on my lap and be petted,” Albertini jokes. The joke, she says, was on her.

“Life has a thing or two to teach you,” she says. “I’ve been brought to my knees.”

Between being a mother, a wife, and a vice president of Steelcase, Albertini has given up the fight for control.

Her new approach: “You need to be out of control.” She laughs heartily. “You have to come to peace with this. Predictability, order, control — they are not the end-all, be-all.”

The Grand Unified Theory of Work

“Lots of people think work is chaos,” says Bill Miller, “but I don’t have that problem, because I know what’s going on. There’s science behind this. Just like, if I know the laws of physics and quantum mechanics, I can explain everything that’s going on in the physical world.”

From his post as head of research and development for Steelcase, Miller has, perhaps, the clearest view of the emerging laws of work of anyone in Grand Rapids. To see it the way he does, you have to come to terms with Miller’s home-office system. Miller has seven offices at home, including two in the kitchen.

Miller has a desk in an upstairs office for investments, financial management, and computer development; a desk in the kitchen for Steelcase business; another desk in the kitchen area for career development, bills, and mail; an archival storage area; a bedroom work area; a desk for travel and vacation; and a desk for health management. Several are actual offices, others are parts of a room equipped with a desk, bookcases, and always a dedicated chair or sofa.

As Miller talks, the seven-desk system moves from the scheme of a mad scientist to an architectural expression of basic principles of work in the new economy. “I do it to minimize context switching,” he says. When he needs to pay bills, he doesn’t go to the Steelcase desk — “just like I don’t walk into the living room and try to cook.” People who do everything at one desk, Miller says, “lose things. And then you have to do a lot of work to find them. I don’t waste that time.” The stuff that goes with each task is confined to each desk.

Viewed in this light, the modern office seems antique, even clunky. One desk, one person, one room, all day, all tasks done in the same setting. Bill Miller’s house — that’s the direction the office is headed in. Within a decade, Miller is convinced, people will spend their time in project rooms or project clusters, working with team members on one project, then moving on to another cluster to work with a different group on a different project. Miller’s home is a rough approximation of this notion — you go where you need to be, and there’s no presumption that anyone will spend the entire day in the living room or the kitchen.

For Miller, this vision of the office is not a guess or a prediction. It is a certainty, a direct result of two irresistible forces Miller says are rapidly reshaping work — and all of life — at the turn of the millennium: knowledge aggregation and infrastructure disaggregation — “Miller’s Yin-Yang Principles,” as he calls them. “You can understand all of human history with these two principles,” says Miller.

Knowledge aggregation is just what it sounds like — accumulating knowledge. It’s libraries, teams, war rooms, the computer chip. It’s why people want a place to hang their flip charts: learning takes time, and there’s no point in having to learn things over and over again. Information persistence, says Miller, is a principle that most companies have yet to grasp — leave stuff up on the wall, so you see it all the time, and you’ll absorb its meaning more completely and more rapidly.

Infrastructure disaggregation is the distribution of the tools to accomplish things. It’s the railroad supplanting the Pony Express, the car supplanting the railroad. It’s network computers supplanting mainframes, it’s laptops instead of desktops, cell-phone networks instead of wires. In Miller’s view, the whole arc of human achievement is bound up with knowledge accumulation — tribes, cities, corporations, research universities — and infrastructure disaggregation — the highway, the copy machine, the suburb. When the principles overlap, the combined impact can transform whole nations.

The Internet, says Miller, is a stunning combination of knowledge aggregation and infrastructure disaggregation. At its core, the new economy is all about gathering and archiving more and more information, information that is available to more people, more quickly, with less effort. While this superficially increases our independence from particular places and people, it ultimately increases our dependence on each other. There is far more data than any one person can grasp, manage, make sense of. That’s why cross-functional teams are the crossroads of the knowledge economy.

“It turns out,” says Miller, “you need other people to know things. You have to share with other people. Two people, working together, learn things faster than individuals alone. Pairs solve problems faster than individuals can. The organization of the office has never understood that. “That’s why the office will persist and grow. Because knowledge aggregation is faster in groups. The office has shifted from a place to work as an individual to a place to work as a group.”

Miller is convinced that the changes going on now are “a 100-year event. Work and home will be indistinguishable,” he says. “Both environments will be designed with exactly the same criteria. The fundamentals of life are fun, learning, work, living, and visiting. Right now, these things are separated. We have Disney for fun, we have schools, offices, homes, and hotels. In the future, all spaces will have all attributes — just the emphasis will be different. There will be a lot of the home at the office, and a lot of the office at the home.”

Computers will be ubiquitous but transparent; they will be redesigned for simultaneous group work rather than for individual work. Video screens will cover whole walls, both at home and at the office, and viewers will be able to control how many channels they want to watch simultaneously – 1 or 15. The era of the cubicle will wither — rooms will become easily changeable, even rooms at home. “You’ll want the room to switch between fun and a project,” says Miller. “It will be the equivalent of convertible beds.”

With learning — what people think of as training now — increasingly important at the office, offices will have theaters. “Information is effectively presented in different ways,” says Miller. “Think of a business simulation of a competitive market that’s like a ride at Disney World. You’d learn like crazy.” Already, companies are using virtual reality theaters for training and presentations.

And the furniture?

The furniture, says Miller, will be smart. “Everything will be smart,” he says. “Nicholas Negroponte, from MIT, said in his book Being Digital that atoms are over, it’s all bits now, because bits are smart and atoms aren’t. But that’s not true. Are atoms smart? What’s the smartest atom? DNA, which created life! The right metaphor is, everything is smart. There will be smart furniture. Envision a table that knows who you are, that can talk to you, give you directions. Why do objects have to be dumb? “The answer,” says Bill Miller, “is in the furniture.”

Charles Fishman ( is a journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Sidebar: Bob Propst Is Not the Father of the Cubicle

In the history of furniture, no design concept has suffered such an ignominious perversion. What started as an expression of freedom and individuality has today become a badge of barren organizations and mindless management: The Cubicle.

Bob Propst knows the whole story. Because Bob Propst is the man who invented what became the cubicle. “The last thing on the planet we’d ever have called it was the cubicle,” he says. “What we wanted to control was relative enclosure. Over-cubiclized organizations were characterized by terrible communications, miserable relationships. And open space, with wild, bizarre intrusions on people, was also not satisfactory. We became interested in how you control privacy — privacy part of the time and access to each other part of the time.”

Propst, now 74 and running his own consulting and design firm in Redmond, Washington, was working with Herman Miller when he came up with the world’s first office system in the 1960s; he dubbed it the “Action Office.”

Today, however, the cubicle has become an object of derision, and Propst himself is openly contemptuous of the way hives of cubicles have taken over the office landscape. “We’ve always been alarmed at the tendency to containerize people, to put them away never to be seen again,” he says. “Why would anyone choose to live or work in other than a stimulating, revitalizing environment? But organizations get what they deserve.”

Propst, who is currently studying how successful people manage the flood of information that comes at them each day, says some workplaces have been able to achieve a distinct aesthetic — particularly the romantic associations attached to cowboys, “with their horse and saddle,” and construction workers, with their hard hats on job sites.

“The knowledge worker hasn’t achieved that kind of aesthetic,” says Propst. “If anything, he looks alienated from any aesthetic at all, surrounded by an artificial environment, dictated by some remote design effect. He appears to be the victim of the environment.”

Sidebar: How to Talk Furniture

The language of furniture is no longer the lexicon of surface finishes or fabric textures – it is the words of work. Here’s a glossary to help you understand the thinking behind the furniture.

Cognitive ergonomics. The relationship between your physical environment and your ability to think. Cognitive ergonomics assumes that your physical setting affects your ability to think, to be creative, to make connections.

Information persistence. The opportunity to keep important information on display for as long as it is useful. Information persistence assumes that constant visual reminders of what you’re working on operate as a reinforcer of creativity. Information is embedded where you work; “cleaning it up” means losing the information. (Related term: embedded knowledge)

Work-relaxed mode. Operating at less than full intensity — reviewing a memo, organizing notes, returning phone calls, reading e-mail. As work blends into what used to be downtime, knowledge workers need furniture that fits an intermediate style — working with feet up or sitting on the bed in a hotel room.

Layered performance. Furniture that can do more than one thing; a table with wheels that can be used as an individual work space then pushed together with other wheeled tables to form a conference space.

Churn. The number of times people change work stations during the year; in a company with 400% churn, people change desks four times a year. The goal: furniture for continuous churn.

Context-switching. Moving from doing one thing to doing another. Context-switching may be physical; it is always psychological. Among the challenges: creating the right kind of “luggage” to allow people to move their stuff from one context to another; providing workspaces that permit easy switching from individual to team work.

About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.