Real work: Meet me in my mood zone

At last technology is being harnessed to make the office a kinder place. MEG CARTER reports

In many ways, the Nineties have not been kind to workers, and it would be easy to blame technology. Technological advance has allowed companies to downsize so we lost our jobs; the net facilitated homeworking so we lost the society of our colleagues; and for those still in the office, computer networking allowed hot-desking - so we lost our desks. Research from the University of Dundee has found that one fifth of us believe the environment where we work is "inadequate", while a quarter of us believe this is adversely affecting our morale and health. When you consider the advances in design and technology the past 10 years have brought, this is disgraceful.

But, at last, technology may be used to change all that and can benefit workers rather than their bosses. A new generation of designers is challenging accepted wisdom about what makes a "good" work environment and their focus is firmly on the individual, and nothing - not even the familiar office desk and chair - is safe.

Take "Crab Chair", a chair that moulds around your body, moving with you as you move - and that includes from an upright position down to horizontal to create what is, in effect, an office bed. Or "Book Dog", a mobile desk with pouches for pens, paper, wireless phone and coffee cup which you can take with from room to room. And if you need a meeting on the way to your next meeting, how about a modified people carrier that acts as mobile meeting room?

Workers whose nerves are frayed by excessive background noise could use a "sound curtain" - an electronic device that translates disruption into ambient, tuneable sound. Those who feel isolated working from home could plug in a "networked kettle" which illuminates a small light on other networked kettles used by fellow homeworkers. Everyone could take the same tea break and phone each other for a chat while sitting in what must be the ultimate piece of home office furniture: a chair styled like a giant, polystyrene cup. Or how about an office light that tackles the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder as you work?

Pie in the sky? Well, no. These product concepts shown by Royal College of Art post-graduates at the Workplace 99 exhibition in London last month may soon become reality as our physical and emotional well-being in the workplace is quickly moving up employers' agendas.

The environmental effects of where we work are finally being recognised. And in the US, the Clinton administration last month made America the first country to introduce legislation to help to protect workers from contracting Repetitive Strain Injury, or RSI. The move, which involves the introduction of "ergonomic protection" for those working in modern offices, is likely to have far-reaching implications in workplaces around the world.

Phil Hutchinson, a director of design consultancy BDG McColl, is one of a growing number of designers and architects eager to reinvent the office. "A feeling typical to many work spaces is that of being intruded upon," he says. "Technology has come to be seen as an enabler, or solver of problems. What's been forgotten is the importance of human response."

We need a more sophisticated understanding of how we relate to where we work, believes Jeremy Myerson, director of the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the RCA. "We're at the edge of the 21st century, yet people are still crawling around on their hands and knees adjusting plugs," he says. "We are still based in offices modelled on thinking that evolved in 1910, but we don't still drive Model T Fords."

Change is slow, but it is coming. Wireless technology is already a feature of many office innovations. Latest generation mobile phones combine PC, phone and internet in a single unit. And the time is not far off when you could have a real-time phone conversation with someone in a language you don't speak - your phone would simultaneously translate.

At the US headquarters of Monsanto, staff have been issued with personal, portable infra-red controllers allowing them to alter light or heat in any part of the building. In the future, others suggest, work environment will be controllable using a mobile communications device small enough to fit in the ear. This could be used for dealing with e-mail, managing bank accounts, even checking directions on an atlas.

"One factor will be the imbedding of technology in all things we currently take for granted, such as the desk and chair," says Alison Black who works on the human factors design team at design consultancy IDEO. "A computer will no longer just be something that sits on the desk. Walls or desktops could become tomorrow's computer screens."

There will be alternatives to physical walls dividing working areas, or open and shut doors signifying if someone wants to be disturbed, suggests Black, plus the evolution of "mood zones", with barriers of sound or light providing workplace cues. Japanese firms are already experimenting with subtler variations of the traditional office environment with the introduction of uplifting smells and white noise to reinvigorate frazzled employees.

Others, meanwhile, are thinking bigger as they attempt to re-define what "office" means. Canadian telecoms giant Nortel, for example, has created distinctive neighbourhoods within its new headquarters to build community spirit and individuality - staff (or "citizens") are free to decorate their work spaces as they choose.

The relevance of the corporate head office is also now in question. Once the ultimate business status symbol, now it is just as likely to be regarded as vulgar and passe as senior executives are expected to be on the move, not languishing behind giant desks. Shell UK, for example, recently relocated from its Shell Mex House headquarters in London and replaced it with a network of local, mini-corporate offices managed 24 hours a day at various satellite locations. The idea is that Shell's core operations staff, who now work at these and from home, are brought closer to Shell retailers and consumers.

The mid-Nineties vogue for designer offices with "touch down areas" rather than personal desks for workers and meeting rooms without chairs was all fine and well but, in retrospect, now seems a bit of a red herring, Myerson thinks.

"An interesting experiment, but there is already a backlash against it," he explains. US ad agency Chiat Day, one of the movement's pioneers, recently shifted tack again - with the re-introduction of personalised workstations for every member of staff, he points out. "Thinking has to go further than curvy desks and telling staff they only need come in on a Thursday."

IN YOUR DREAMS

The office bed - ideal for a mid-morning snooze to freshen you up before lunch. It may sound crazy, but the concept of power napping (the art of taking 40 winks at your desk) is catching on in some City firms where workers are encouraged to drop off for short periods to de- stress.

The home from home - where you have total control over office environmental conditions such as lighting, temperature, air freshness and even noise. Imagine being able to tune out the smell of that egg mayonnaise sarnie someone's brought for their lunch - at the US HQ of Monsanto, you already can.

The mobile office - in anticipation of a growing desire to be able to work any time, any place, expect the introduction of a new generation of lighter, more flexible and mobile office furniture you can take, well, anywhere. And that means out of the office, too - move it around your home, or even take it with you when you're on the road.

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