Today I spoke with Jim Keane, president of the Steelcase group, about two new chairs (see them later in this post) designed for better office collaborations. “Collaboration is a hot topic. Nearly all of our customers put it high on their list as they modify and create new spaces,” Keane says. “Companies are seeing collaboration as key to innovation and global business.”
What struck me as most interesting about our conversation today was the topic of building a better workplace that is designed for more informal and face-to-face, physical contact among employees. After all, in the age of IMs and teleconferencing, the main advantage of having an office is to maintain those in-person brainstorming sessions, to pick up on spontaneous spoken nuances and hand gestures.
Keane says that Steelcase has been researching how to help companies create these types of environments—to rethink the office, the cubicle, the conference room, and even the open-plan space. Buying new chairs might even make sense—as oposed to remodeling an office—when budgets are tight.
The furniture maker will release these two chairs in early 2009, but they were on view at NeoCon World’s Trade Fair, the furnishings industry’s biggest convention, earlier this week. One chair, the cobi (see below), looks a lot like a familiar desk chair.
That's intentional, says Keane. It's meant to work well at table settings, and not seem intimidating in any way. But what's new is that it intuitively adjusts as a person moves in it to turn and talk to her neighbor, beside or behind her, thanks to its design. The top of the back of the chair is made from a plastic that slightly bends with the pressure of an arm, making such a movement more comfortable.
And the entire seat is soft, as opposed to only the center of the seat, as most desk chairs are. This is to allow a sitter to occupy any part of the seat--even if moving more toward the right or left, to move closer to a collaborator during a conversation.
The other chair, the i2i (below), is meant to encourage more, er, eye-to-eye contact. The seat swivels independently from its back to, at least in theory, allow people to feel less constrained, both literally and figuratively. Keane says he watched people at NeoCon twist in it playfully. "When furniture can bring out people's fun side, it gives them permission to do what they don't usually do"—he says, meaning they might be encouraged to be more creative in the workplace. Could it become a more grown-up alternative to those outdated symbols of creative thinking found in offices today, the foosball table and the Nerf basketball set?
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.