6, 2008 in the COLORADO REAL ESTATE
Systems Furniture Stands Test of Time
by Katie Bisgard
WITH HARDLY A
CELEBRATORY NOTE, the office cubicle turned
forty this past March. You'd think that the concept
of "systems furniture" made infamous by Dilbert would
have garnered a bit more fanfare for its remarkable
utility across the decades. But you'd be wrong.
In fact, the cubicle has been widely scorned by critics both inside and outside of the industry for its restrictive, and even claustrophobic nature. That was news to me, especially given the variety in size, style and function of today's product lines. It's also a pretty harsh assessment of an invention that revolutionized the workplace more than any other single piece of equipment, except the personal computer.
It's easy to criticize the stereotypical "box" depicted in those Dilbert cartoons. But systems furniture has come a long way in its forty years in the marketplace. Today's products run the gamut in design, function and price. The challenge is to select the right blend of products to maximize productivity and employee comfort without sacrificing aesthetics in any given office culture.
HOW WILL IT BE USED?
Or more precisely, how will the employee use the workstation? How does the office function on a day to day basis? A call center, for example, typically has an open configuration with low partitions and smaller stations. A law firm might opt for upgraded finishes, larger stations and higher partitions. An advertising agency may require a combination of systems with ad hoc meeting spaces that promote interaction and creativity in a team environment.
Some jobs require an employee to stay seated for the majority of the work day. In this case, ergonomics has a direct effect on efficiency. That worker's critical equipment-telephone, computer, printers, files-must be easily accessible while minimizing physical strain.
Privacy and security may be an issue to this type of employee, as well. There may be sensitive or proprietary information being reviewed or transmitted that requires visual and/or acoustical privacy. Other jobs require very little space, in which the employee with a laptop is constantly on the fly, touching down in the office for only brief periods before getting back on the road. This type of workstation may offer little or no privacy and may even be shared by another employee with the same type of role.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
One particularly caustic reviewer said the workstation is "reviled by workers, demonized by designers" and, after four decades on the market, "we are still trying to get out of the box." Nothing could be further from the truth. Today's systems furniture innovations offer almost countless options in size, shape, color and design. There is no reason whatsoever for any company to sacrifice aesthetics when it comes to systems furniture.
Designs run the gamut from rich, traditional wood panels that are almost indistinguishable from casegoods to sharp, contemporary industrial styles with clean lines and lean profiles. Wood, metal and fabric can be incorporated to work with almost any design. Manufacturers today offer options with varying degrees of privacy, some of which resemble pods, capsules, even cockpits outfitted with self-contained lighting, power and even acoustical controls.
WHAT DOES IT COST?
You get what you pay for. Sure, it's a clich�, and if any given company is intent on staying "in the box," there are products that can very capably accommodate them. The fact is, however, that over a hundred system furniture variations have reached the market over the last forty years with price points to match virtually any budget. Almost all manufactures today offer low, mid-range and high-budget options. A typical U-shaped 8 x 8-foot, 54-inch high workstation with power, two pedestal storage spaces, keyboard tray and monolithic panels might cost between $2,500 and $2,700. The same basic configuration with all tiled panels could top out at $5,000 per station, or higher. There are always volume discounts, and prices can vary significantly based on the quantity and quality of optional features. Critics can bemoan the tragically impersonal "in the box" culture all they want. But according to a CNN.com feature story, the work station accounts for about $3 billion a year in sales-by far the largest share of the office furniture market. With numbers like that, don't expect systems furniture to disappear anytime soon.