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This clever office furniture helps you hack your open plan office hell

Steelcase noticed that workers often take matters into their own hands to create privacy in their open offices–so it created a furniture line meant to help.

The nature of work is changing around us. With the rise of remote work and the cost savings associated with moving to an open plan office (despite employees’ grumblings), companies are using less office space–and less office furniture. That poses a problem for Steelcase, which is the biggest office furniture company by revenue in the world.

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While Steelcase has always focused on commercial office interiors, in recent years it’s focused its sales pitch around productivity and how design can enhance it–which echoes a common refrain in Silicon Valley and the tech industry in general. “We haven’t broken the productivity paradox–economic growth is not about more people,” says Steelcase CEO Jim Keane. “How do we help each person reach higher levels of effectiveness, not just by working harder but augmenting their performance?”

But if companies want to make workers more productive through design, there’s a big hurdle in the way: the ubiquitous open office, which makes people less productive in part because it doesn’t allow employees any privacy. Steelcase recently debuted a new collection that could alleviate some of the problems with open offices, creating spaces that are more collaborative and more productive, without sacrificing the privacy employees need to get things done.

[Photo: Steelcase]
Rather than teams sitting around one larger open table that’s exposed to the rest of an office, the collection, called Flex, includes large movable barriers that can be used to turn any open space into a more private conference room-like area that a team can use (the barriers are also designed for workers to tack on notes or hang whiteboards). Perhaps most importantly, the barriers provide some of that acoustic and visual privacy, and can be arranged however a team sees fit–giving more introverted employees–or people who just need to focus on something for a while–the space to do so without requiring an employer to invest in actual walls.

“We’ve had people whom we prototyped this with who really want privacy, and they’ll build cocoons,” Keane says. “People sometimes look at [the cocoon of screens] and say that’s what I want, even if it’s just for an hour or so.”

[Photo: Steelcase]
Flex also draws on research the company has done about how workers in creative and tech-focused teams work, finding that people on these kinds of teams tend to hack their existing office furniture to support their work–like building barriers around themselves or their teams with whiteboards and trash cans, or even taking a door off its hinges to transform into a communal table.

As a result, Steelcase’s designers created a hyper-flexible desk on wheels, but unlike the many other desks on wheels that already exist, this one uses a clever solution that doesn’t require workers to unlock caster wheels to make it move. Instead, the desk sits on wheels that are titled at a 45-degree angle. These wheels only roll diagonally, making it stable enough that no locking mechanisms are necessary. “People can move furniture around and do it in a way that they’re not thinking about it, it just happens naturally as work changes,” Keane says.

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To make it even easier to move desks around, Flex desks feature a single power cord, while all the electronics plug into an integrated power strip. These desks can also raise and lower based on how someone wants to work; privacy panels can be attached at different heights via magnets around the sides of the desks to indicate whether a worker wants to be approached or is in the middle of more intensive, individual work.

[Photo: Steelcase]
While none of these furniture designs are the first of their kind, Steelcase’s decision to release them as a collection indicates how the company is adapting to a changing era of work. When Keane joined the company 22 years ago, he says Steelcase thought of itself as purely an office furniture company. Since then, the company has gone through multiple reinventions in an attempt to keep up with the changing nature of work. Today, Keane says that Steelcase’s aim is to transform the way people work through the environment they’re in. Flex is designed to do just that. It’s also part of a larger shift away from the fixed nature of previous offices, and toward flexibility and informality. The company is betting that its thoughtful approach to designing office furniture that can support the way people actually work will help it keep pace with the rapid change that’s sweeping corporate office design.

While other retailers have reacted by debuting office furniture that looks like it’s straight out of the living room, Steelcase has doubled down on hyper-flexible desks rather than sofas. But the goal is the same: make offices that make going to work better for the people inside.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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