Can Steelcase’s Office Of The Future Make Corporate America Rethink The Drab Modern Workplace?

The company’s new Creative Spaces offers a model for companies to give their employees spaces–and the freedom–to collaborate, think, and relax as they see fit.

There may be days you dread going to the office. Your 8-by-10-foot cubicle is starting to feel cramped. Your Instagram filters all look beige, and no matter how you adjust your lumbar support, your neck feels like that of a sick crane’s. Scenes from Office Space seem achingly poignant, not for their satirical bite, but their verisimilitude. You feel about as creative as a brick wall.


But imagine, for a moment, a different option: You’re seated on the plush fabric of a high stool in a richly colored room Eero Saarinen might admire. It is called the Ideation Hub. It registers as a conference room, but there is no straight-grained rectangular table, no one fumbling with a laptop to pull up their PowerPoint presentation, or smiling awkwardly in an out-of-sync video conference. Instead, your colleague is marking up a book-length document with a stylus on an 84-inch-wide, wall-mounted Microsoft Surface Hub collaboration device; all of her annotations are saved in the Cloud and linked to your laptop.  You can see the whole spread; the budget, the notes from the legal team, everything. So can your colleagues in Munich who are making their own notes and suggestions. People aren’t sitting quietly and staring at their thumbs. They’re openly sharing ideas.

“You can’t keep working the same way you’re used to in your cubicle, with your head down buried in your computer.” [Photo: courtesy Steelcase]
This scenario isn’t merely speculative. Office design company Steelcase has created a new off model, which it calls Creative Spaces, a suite of five Microsoft Surface-enabled workspaces (called, respectively, Ideation Hub, Maker Commons, Focus Studio, and Respite Room) designed to promote creative thinking, improve collaboration, and foster a more fluid, egalitarian work environment. “You can’t keep working the same way you’re used to in your cubicle, with your head down buried in your computer,” says Chris Congdon, director of Global Research Communications for Steelcase, as we angle through throngs of smartly dressed interior designers in the company’s showroom at NeoCon 2017, an annual trade show where the spaces co-developed by Steelcase and Microsoft are on display.

“Historically, we’ve thought we design one space for people to work in that’s going to meet all their needs.” [Photo: courtesy Steelcase ]
She explains how the nature of work has shifted over the past two decades, demanding more creativity and collaboration. Where offices were once inspired by Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management, “the whole Ford assembly-line model of individual specialization,” represented architecturally in segmented cubicle grids and offices scaled and located according to rank and hierarchy, the Creative Spaces model operates as a more fluid, interdependent ecosystem.


Definitions and models of creativity differ, Congdon says, referencing a Steelcase study called Creativity, Work, and The Physical Environment, but most researchers concur that creativity is associated with both divergent thinking (generating many ideas or alternative solutions to a problem) and convergent thinking (assessing several possibilities and selecting the best solution). Although design thinking has understood this ebb and flow for decades, it has been slow to materialize in office design. Broad, open vistas and high ceilings can give people the mental space they need to generate abstract ideas. So can an informal seat in the back of a conference room. At the same time, an enclosed solitary space encased by sound-proofed glass can create a better atmosphere for intense, head-down focus. But one office setting is not better than the other. Both are important.

“It’s about a fluid, iterative process, spaces for focused work, idea incubation, and ideation as a team.”[Photo: courtesy Steelcase]
“Historically, we’ve thought we design one space for people to work in that’s going to meet all their needs,” Congdon says. “But creative work doesn’t look like this at all. It’s about a fluid, iterative process, spaces for focused work, idea incubation, and ideation as a team.”

She leads me to the Duo Studio, where large-scale, side-by-side Microsoft Surface Studio computing devices rest on adjustable height desks. The 28-inch display screens rotate into 20-degree drafting tables; they can be drawn on with a stylus or manipulated as touch screens. Surface Dial, a wireless rotational device that looks and functions a bit like the spinner in an arcade game, replaces floating windows and drop-down menus with scroll-through shortcuts. There’s a cozy–but not too cozy–area with a chaise lounge facing a large wall-mounted computer monitor. Here, someone can come in to review creative concepts, but focused work can resume quickly: privacy and focus are kept in balance with collaboration and distraction.


The nearby Maker Commons looks more like a mid-century living room. One side has upholstered chairs, potted plants, and low-slung sofas arranged around a coffee table. The other, a desk the height of a bar stool illuminated by pendant lights and providing a view of the Surface Hub screen. You could comfortably drink a cup of coffee here. The idea is to encourage informal, serendipitous exchanges where ideas can be shared among employees.

“Our attitude is, ‘You’re an adult, you can choose the best space for you to do whatever work you need to do.'”[Photo: courtesy Steelcase]
The claim that features of the physical environment can be linked to creative thinking is supported by a handful of neurological studies, internal qualitative research, and Steelcase’s decades-long collaborations with IDEO, the IIT Institute of Design, and the Two cited studies in Creativity, Work, and The Physical Environment are particularly intriguing, one a 2012 University of Pittsburgh experiment led by Joel Chan, now a research fellow at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, which found that, in larger rooms, people find more novel uses for everyday objects.

One task asked study participants to generate as many uses for a shoe as possible; it was scored on fluency, the number of responses, and novelty. A low-novelty response would be to “use shoe to protect feet.” A high-novelty response would be to “use shoe as a boat for termites.” Participants in the larger room arrived at responses like “termite boat” more often.


One explanation for the results lies in direct priming, a psychological theory related to the way the human brain evolved to enable people to move about the world, find food, and stay alive. “Our more abstract thinking might be primed by physical features of our environment that are associated with abundant or ‘clumpy’ distribution of resources: for example, if we are in a tight space, we might be primed to think more narrowly, just as we might spend a long time digging in one spot for food in such an environment,” Chan wrote in an email.

The second study, “Thinking on your back: Solving anagrams faster when supine than standing,” led by Darren Lipnicki, a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is more brain-based. It theorizes that the locus coeruleus, a small center in the brain stem, may be less active when lying down than when standing. The locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system has important roles in many physiologic processes, including pain perception and the sleep-wake cycle, and research suggests low activity in this region, as in REM sleep, may boost creativity. “If the results can be replicated and generalized,” Lipnicki wrote in an email, “then organizations looking to inspire insight or creative thinking may like to consider reclining chairs or couches.”

Creative work requires vacillation among brain states. [Photo: courtesy Steelcase]
Part of how Creative Spaces might manifest in future offices is, indeed, a change in furniture and the interior grid: a shift from assigned offices and workstations with desktops to an interconnected and acoustically diverse range of private and collaborative spaces, many with embedded, large-scale computing devices. Your colleagues in Munich (or accounting)  will feel closer because of sharper video conferencing tools and greater connectivity. Sit-down desks will be complimented by comfortable low stools, tall circular tables, couches, and reclining chairs. A Steelcase personal assistant app will let you check the availability of rooms and reserve them on the fly, down to selecting the right mood lighting.


But how deeply Creative Spaces will penetrate the corporate landscape, Congdon says, will hinge less on individual furniture and technology choices than the willingness of executives to embrace a shift from a segmented, worker bee office structure to one that gives employees greater autonomy over where and how they choose to work.

Our final stop is the Respite Room, which consists of a yellow, woven-fiber chaise lounge resting on live turf grass. The room is enveloped in the privacy and solitude of a fabric accordion screen. Lying down, I can’t help thinking of the Mad Men‘s Don Draper awakening from an afternoon nap to land on a brilliant insight, and I ask Congdon about the likelihood of Fortune 500 company embracing such a space, or Creative Spaces more broadly.

Lying down herself, she explains that creative work requires vacillation among brain states; the need to balance group work and intense, head-down focus with privacy and think time. It’s a topic she and her colleagues write about extensively in a Harvard Business Review article, which asserts that office design benefits from a proper understanding of modes of attention: “controlled attention: working on a task that requires intense focus, such as writing or thinking deeply;” “stimulus-driven attention: switching focus when something catches our attention;” and  “rejuvenation—the periodic respites from concentration that we take throughout the day.”


The ideal creative office, she says, is one that provides spaces for all three, balancing the comfortable headspace and good vibes of, say, working at a library or coffee shop, with technologically evolved rooms that offer more opportunities for co-creating with colleagues. For some companies, this will be a big cultural leap, but Congdon sees it as the way forward. “Our attitude is, ‘You’re an adult, you can choose the best space for you to do whatever work you need to do.’ You’re held accountable for results, not whether I can see you at your computer. That’s a big culture shift for a lot of organizations because it’s about trust,” Congdon says.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the computers in the prototype office are, officially, Microsoft Surface Hub collaboration devices.


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