No Place To Hide Stuff

MOST OF THE WORKERS AT Gould Evans Goodman Associates, a Kansas City, Mo., architectural firm, have normal, everyday desks. But in one corner sits an experimental workstation so special it has a name: the Space Buck. Gone is the familiar rectangula r slab. The Space Buck wraps around you, and it's riddled with holes, like Swiss cheese. Stuck in the holes are attachments that look like music stands. Some of these stands hold files of paper, stacked flat. Others are tilted up at an angle, so their co ntents are constantly in your face. Architect Greg Hugeback enjoyed his ride in the newfangled furniture, which let him juggle as much paperwork as three normal desks, he says. ""It really makes you organize your stuff.''

Don't get too comfy in your cubicle. The country's office-furniture giants are working hard to find a new kind of hive for worker bees. They have to find something new to keep sales going: they've nearly finished selling Corporate America those $1, 000 adjust-anything chairs that keep typists' wrists from falling off. And they're almost through tinkering with office floor plans to add lots of communal spaces, meant to make teams dizzyingly efficient. Now they're turning their attention to the Next Big Thing: revamping the old-fashioned desk. Until the computer came along, desks hadn't changed much since Louis XVI. Now we have adjustable spaces for screens and keyboards, but productivity experts say most screen-starers are still surrounded by stack s of clutter. There's a race on to eliminate it. This week a concept desk from Haworth, the company behind the Space Buck, will be a contender for a top design award. Next month the firms head to a convention to show off their latest concepts. Says San F rancisco designer Susan Burdick: ""We've got to get people to rethink the way they work, to convince them they can improve it.''

The science driving the search for Dilbert's new home is called ""cognitive ergonomics.'' It's a discipline that's old news to the Silicon Valley crowd, who've used it for years to make interfaces on computers more user-friendly. Now the furniture folks are using the approach to make a physical environment that better accommodates the way your brain works. Different companies are taking different approaches. At furniture peddlers Herman Miller and Steelcase, researchers envision offices filled wit h flat-panel computer displays, so workers can view information that would fill a half dozen of today's screens. One Steelcase prototype, dubbed The Q, features three flat-panel screens hooked up to a dentist's office- style chair. Comfort counts, but it 's all the data that's key. Says Steelcase researcher Mark Baloga: ""People need to be saturated by the information that makes them click.''

No one preaches that message more passionately than Haworth designers Brian Alexander and Jeff Reuschel. Forget all the hype about paperless offices and telecommuting, they say. Despite our reliance on computers, most of us still work in an 8-foot-by-8-foot office at a desk littered with half-organized stacks of paper. Obliterating those piles is their mission, and eliminating flat spaces is their method. The Space Buck, a prototype they're trying out on guinea pigs at Gould Evans, is just one approach. More radical still is a concept called The Wake. It contains a tiny, flat workspace - think of your grade-school desk surrounded by a semicircle of metal piping adorned with huge clips, pedestals and binders. There's literally no place to stack papers - so you have to sort them, clip them and keep them constantly in your face. The theory: the 3-D storage system works as a visual to-do list, and prevents workers from forgetting that folder at the bottom of the in-box. Says Alexander: ""It's good to force people to think about their stuff and the fact that it should churn.''

Proving that theory is no easy trick. Decades ago efficiency was measured by researchers like Frederick Taylor, who tracked factory workers' motions with a stopwatch. But train a video camera on the workspace of today's knowledge workers - something the furniture researchers spend time doing - and you'll record hours spent reading, e-mailing, phoning and just plain thinking. There's not much that's measurable, and it's difficult to demonstrate that a better desk might help the process. But the office futurists are convinced there's a better way to work-- especially as today's workers become even more overburdened. ""Several years ago an engineer might be working on two projects, or a customer-service employee might handle one type of phone call,' ' says Herman Miller research chief Jim Long. ""Now those individuals are handling many more things, and current workstations inhibit keeping track of them.''

Selling this no-place-to-pile philosophy as the solution won't be easy. ""Desks have been flat for thousands of years, and it's not viewed as being a problem,'' Reuschel says sadly. At their test site at Gould Evans, where workers each spent a week in the Space Buck, not everyone's a fan. ""I felt like I was a conductor,'' complains architect Greg Nook, who disliked the desk's ""disjointed feel.'' But pushing the envelope a tad too far is nothing new in this business. ""There's a long history of p eople coming up with something that sounds clever, but it violates what people are used to and it fails,'' says Steve Wilcox of Design Science. Just ask Robert Propst, a 75-year-old former Herman Miller researcher. Years ago he designed a pedal-equipped desk meant to combine work with working out. It went nowhere. But don't write his colleagues off as mere dreamers just yet. While Propst's exer-desk flopped, another of his once radical ideas has done rather well. He calls it the ""open office system.'' Most of us know it by another name: the cubicle.