Week of October 4, 1999
  Editor's Choice Web Pick
   of the Week

The Future@Work Site:
A Look Forward or a Look Back?

Part of the Future@Work project based in Seattle, Wash., this workplace-centered site
(www.future-at-work.org) represents both a look forward and a look back. Whether the look back is intended, we can't say. Newcomers to the hot-button world of work space strategies may find this site endlessly fascinating.

On the other hand, if you've kept finger on the racing pulse of the today's ever-changing workplace scenario, this one may generate precious few jolts insight. You may find yourself humming that old Peggy Lee ditty, "Is That All There Is?"

A little background is in order: This site is a cyber-offshoot of "Future@Work: A Collaborative Exhibit to Improve Workplace Performance." That exhibit, which is housed in Seattle's Columbia Seafirst Center, is the product of a nonprofit consortium of more than 150 regional, national and international businesses.

One of the project's overriding goals, the Web site explains, is to answer this question: ". . . In an age of conservative budgeting and heavy consolidation, how can a company make sure its capital investments (on office space, employee education or communication technology) directly improve the bottom line?"

That's a good question, and one that goes to the heart of much of the pioneering work done in work-space configurations and alternative officing strategies.

The problem, at least for this reviewer, is that many of the answers this site delivers just don't seem very futuristic. That's due in part to the fact that Site Selection is the official publication of the International Development Research Council (IDRC), which has done some truly trailblazing research in looking at the workplace as a strategic corporate asset. That connection with IDRC is likely what makes part of this site look old-hat to this writer.

Major Players Back Project

To be sure, some major players are backing the project and the site. Judging from online content, the primary driving forces consist of AT&T Wireless Services, Axis Technologies, Callison Architecture, Columbia Seafirst Center, and a furniture consortium comprised of Barclay Dean Interiors, Metro and Steelcase.

So, why have those major-leaguers come together here? Future@Work Board President and Axis Technologies CEO Stephen Meade explains onsite, "Futuristic business theories have been around for years, but few companies have acted on them because they're untried and potentially costly. This exhibit does the homework for them. We're testing the theories, weaving them together and showing companies how the right mix of ideas can improve the bottom line. . . "

And you do have to give this site - and the project it represents - credit for adopting the broad-scale perspective that's necessary in integrating corporate infrastructure. As Meade says, "Future@Work is designed on the premise that successful businesses always look big-picture. Technology upgrades must be closely linked to employee productivity. Interior office design should carefully reflect desired corporate culture."

Humboldt Hardware, 1997

The Future@Work project is designed around "the imagined corporate headquarters of Humboldt Hardware, a well-established hardware retailer," the site explains.

In part one of the exhibit, Humboldt Hardware has just begun 1997's initial implementation of the 10-year plan of fictional CEO Don Humboldt, which includes market expansion, improved internal and external communications, redesigned corporate offices and several new human resources programs.

To reach those goals, the imagined Humboldt Hardware of 1997 has reconfigured its work space to include:

Conference rooms in which "the walls contain laptop computer hookups and a videoconferencing system . . . . [and] a small library supplying the room with quick-reference materials."

An open collaborative area is equipped with "mobile whiteboards, rolling supply carts and comfortable chairs" to promote employee brainstorming and idea exchange. Workstations come in three flavors:

(1) "The more common is a small, flexible area that honors each person's working style, even though no station belongs to any one person."

(2) "Personal harbors, [which] give employees room to concentrate on a task . . . include computer and modem hookups, telephone, white board, stereo, reference materials and room for one or two other people."

(3) "Executive offices" include "a rotating desk," plus "a 'soft-board,' multiple computer hookups" and other design elements that allow the room to serve as a conference area, a workstation or a collaborative area.

Humboldt Hardware, 2007

The second part of the exhibit "shows the results of Humboldt's 10-year plan." Those results include:

Increased worker mobility: "At the front desk, receptionists provide incoming employees with laptop computers, batteries, wireless phones and workstations if desired."

A more formalized employee interaction area: "The Village Green, in the center of the space, provides a cafe-like atmosphere and gives employees room to work, conference, exchange ideas and even review complex projects in a designated media area, which is right next to the juice bar.

"An electronic bulletin board lets employees post information via company intranet -- such as scanned vacation photos, rental announcements or job postings. A collaborative area off The Village Green includes a full range of research and communications tools for more intensive work."

'Seeing' the Exhibit

Real-life tours of the Future@Work project can only be arranged "by appointment," the site explains. But you can also get an online peek at the exhibit.

A number of pictures of various work areas are available, and some of them look pretty inviting. Overall, Humboldt Hardware seems to have come up with a workplace that's alternately classy and cozy, a bit like a mating of programmer-style décor with something a bit more formal.

For example, "The World Conference Room" is equipped with what look to be distant relatives of La-Z-Boy recliners, with laptops positioned in front of them atop wooden-topped trays. On the other hand, the pictured workstations appear to be made out of dark, burnished wood, a welcome visual relief from the seas of workplace pastels overloading our eyes.

You can only glean so much, though, from the online photos. Some users may find greater value - and more ideas about realigning their own workplaces -- in this site's "Case Studies" section. Only a few studies are listed, but they're fairly detailed.

Is the Workplace of The Future Already Here?

By now, users on the workplace's leading edge probably get the picture. That is, many of the workplace features that this site touts are already gaining rapid acceptance, and some could even be considered borderline-mainstream.

Granted, the first phase of the Humboldt Hardware's workplace configuration is listed as "circa 1997" - and that's about right for the strategies they're employing at that point. But Humboldt Hardware's phase II - which is supposed to be the office of 2007 - also seems a collection of strategies that are already gaining corporate currency.

Perhaps it's unfair to judge the exhibit only by its Web site (though reason would tell you that the Web site should mirror the real thing with a significant degree of accuracy).

In fairness, we should also note this clear observation from the site: "Although virtually all of the furnishings and technology in this model are available today, nowhere else have they been exhibited in one room, as one cohesive unit."

So, maybe the future workplace is really something as simple as gathering what's extant today in one setting. But we doubt that. Given technology's relentlessly transforming power, we suspect that quite a few of the features of the workplace of 2007 will be ones we hadn't even thought of yet - many of them simply because they weren't feasible in 1999.

Perhaps the best measure of whether anything truly groundbreaking comes out of the Future@Work project will materialize next year, after the exhibit closes. It will be interesting to see what the consortium does then in consolidating what it's learned -- and, hopefully, in sharing that with the rest of the world.



©1999 Conway Data, Inc. All rights reserved. Data is from many sources and is not warranted to be accurate or current.