Offices are becoming more open, mobile and ergonomically correct.

Federal work environments are just beginning to reflect hierarchical changes brought on by recent downsizing and reengineering. As some agencies trade in traditional top-down management structures for work teams, office walls are coming down. Open design plans, which incorporate cubicles instead of private rooms, encourage interaction among employees. That interaction can help workers share information more easily and lead to faster decision-making.

In the same way that private offices are being interpreted by some as counterproductive, so are stationary offices. Open communications seems to hinge on the ability to congregate on a moment's notice. For this reason, the average new office contains multiple conference rooms instead of only one. In addition, leading furniture manufacturers such as Haworth, Herman Miller, Knoll and Steelcase are putting wheels on their desks and filing cabinets so people can assemble quickly. Cubicle walls even are being made mobile so they can be wheeled away for impromptu brainstorming sessions.

Mobility also is the goal behind the "hoteling" concept in which temporary offices are provided for field workers and telecommuters. Agencies save money by not having to maintain permanent space for these employees, yet people always have places to work when they are on-site.

Safety is another concern for modern-day office designers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics attributed about 400,000 U.S. illnesses and injuries last year to cumulative-trauma disorders such as eye strain, backaches and neck pain-thus totaling more than $2 billion in workers' compensation claims. Cumulative-trauma disorders are blamed on poorly designed furniture that fails to accommodate different body sizes and work styles. Manufacturers have started addressing ergonomic risks by offering flexible designs that keep workers comfortable and make them more productive. Examples include chairs with movable armrests and inflatable lumbar support, and height-adjustable desks that provide typing surfaces at desired levels.. That type of furniture, from companies such as BodyBilt and Corel, is particularly useful in office hoteling situations.

-Lisa Corbin

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