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Tear down that cubicle wall, office furniture designers say
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Tear down that cubicle wall, office furniture designers say

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CHICAGO | Office workers have often found themselves lined up in uniform rows of utilitarian cubicles under a steady fluorescent glare.

They have gathered in large conference rooms, and trekked off to the break room whenever they needed to stretch their legs.

Millennials, mobile devices and knowledge worker jobs are, however, becoming more prevalent in corporate America and reshaping the way workplaces are laid out. KI Furniture and other business furniture makers displayed how they have been reinventing the office for the next generation at the NeoCon office design expo at Merchandise Mart near downtown Chicago last week.

Picture it: brainstorming workers jot magic marker notes on writable walls in wide-open areas that are not divided into private offices. Movable walls, including glass partitions, can be slid around to create meeting spaces or impromptu privacy for group projects. Sleek modern seats have built-in charging stations, foldable arms for tablet computers and storage slots where technological devices can be stashed away. Pods can block out distractions when workers need to concentrate, and conference tables with built-in plugs can let them toggle between their laptop displays on the big projection screen.

"They're creating more 'we' spaces for collaboration and engagement," said Jonathan Webb, vice president of business markets for Green Bay, Wisc.-based KI Furniture. "So they're cutting down on the amount of individual workspace because, quite frankly, knowledge workers don't need as much. They come to their workspace; they have a computer; they go (ear) buds in; they get their stuff done. When it comes time to interact and engage with other employees, other spaces are being created."

More than 700 exhibitors showcased their visions for transforming the office into a more flexible space that will improve employee morale and productivity at NeoCon, which is the world's largest commercial design tradeshow. Many of their new designs for "the office of the future" integrated more technology, encouraged more mobility away from the desk and promoted employee well-being.

"Finally, baby boomers and millennials have found a passionate meeting of the mind on a topic that is also very personal: health and wellness," said Priyanka Agrawala, of New York-based design firm Mancini Duffy.

New design concepts do not anchor workers to desks, and instead liberate them to move from an individual work station if they need to focus to "interaction zones" with rearrangable tables if they need to meet or collaborate with with a group. They could also relocate to ergonomic lounge seats, where they could work with tablet computers or other mobile devices.

Increasingly popular sit-stand desks can be adjusted from a traditional sitting position to an elevated standing position so workers can stretch their legs without having to walk away from their computers, Webb said. They can be more productive if they can alternate over the course of a day.

A Miami of Ohio University study compared workers with sit-stand desks and traditional desks, and found those in traditional desks took 56 percent more breaks during their workday and went on breaks that were 47 percent longer.

Office workers would get more options for where and how they work in the open-concept workspaces showcased by KI and other office manufacturers.

"The theme of our showroom this year is all about adaptation to different work styles," Webb said. "Whether it's focus work or interactive work, regenerative spaces or spaces for ideation, we've made it a point to put together applications that clearly illustrate how our clients can adapt to different spaces and different work styles."

Individual desks, meeting rooms and break areas do not have to be walled off in separate wings of an office building, Webb said. They can be mixed together to make corporate environments more dynamic and creative, which can be a selling point to attract and retain the millennials who will eventually account for a majority of the workforce.

Newly hired graduates often are lost when making the transition from college to a corporate environment that is foreign to them, Webb said.

"Think back to your days in college," he said. "Where did you work – the cafe, the commons, the library, the park bench, the grassy knoll. At no point were you escorted into a 6-by-8 cubicle and told to work there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of your life."

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Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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