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There is a secret language to office furniture. The design, the size, the placement — they all communicate something. In most cases it’s simply, “This work is sending me to sleep, please kill me.”

That situation seems unfair, given that modern jobs are often anything but boring. Yes, we have open floor plans, but does the environment reflect the creativity that exists in even the most mundane jobs (looking at you, accounting)?

Two companies, Steelcase and Microsoft, are collaborating to create some truly modern work spaces. You may not have heard of Steelcase, but it makes the functional furniture that fills millions of offices around the country. Microsoft, of course, is behind the operating system and office suite that power the majority of American business.

Microsoft also makes hardware, including the increasingly popular Surface line of Windows 10 computers. The partnership integrates Microsoft’s Surface Hub collaboration screen, and on Monday, the pair announced that Steelcase is now an official Surface Hub distributor.

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In its upper Manhattan WorkLife Center, just a few steps from the Columbus Circle turnabout, Steelcase is showcasing five distinct and striking workspace concepts.

“We are all makers at heart,” said Christine Congdon, Steelcase’s director of research communications and editor for the company’s 360 Magazine. The spaces we work in, she added during a tour of the hub, shape behavior. Steelcase and Microsoft hope to illustrate how the workplace can support the rapid shift to creative work.

In the Duo Studio, a space designed for two collaborators (it could be a leader and their apprentice), were two standing desks with, naturally, a Surface Studio atop each one. The desks converted from standing to sitting and vice versa with a single lever.

They faced a 55-inch Surface Hub, which is essentially a giant touch-screen Windows 10 machine with special collaboration capabilities. For instance, you can miracast one of the Surface Studio Desktops to it and control the desktop from the Surface Hub.


The Focus Studio is just for you. It even has a hidden mirror.

The Focus Studio is just for you. It even has a hidden mirror.

For individual workers who don’t want an open or shared spaces, there’s the Focus Studio. It featured another Surface Studio and convertible desk, but with helpful additions like a slide-out cubby that included a wide but only few-inches deep mirror to check your teeth for spinach before the next presentation.

Like several other office set-ups at Steelcase, this one featured sound-dampening glass in place of traditional walls and doors. When they slid the glass door closed, sealing me inside, I almost instantly felt shut-off and maybe a little claustrophobic. If people were still talking outside the little office, I couldn’t hear them.

Let's play and create in the Makers Commons.

Let’s play and create in the Makers Commons.

Steelcase and Microsoft are also trying to upgrade the open floor plan with a bit more function. The open Makers Commons was a mixture of socialization, play and ideation. In the center of a bar-height table and stools were trays full of tactile objects like a chain, a bit of rug, a crystal pencil and assorted 3D-printed objects.

Adjacent to the table was a massive 84-inch Surface Hub. It was there for casual ideation. Anyone could walk up to the board and start sketching out ideas, emailing them from there or saving them to an employee’s OneDrive account.


Meetings may feel less like meetings in the Ideation Hub

Meetings may feel less like meetings in the Ideation Hub

Instead of a conference room, Steelcase showed us the Ideation Hub, a bookable space with more bar-height tables and chairs and another Surface Hub.

The height of the furniture throughout these concepts was significant. When people are half-way to standing, Steelcase told us, they feel more empowered and less afraid to grab the Surface Hub stylus and start writing on the screen. The conference table design, they argued, shifts the meeting power structure.


This studio light will make everyone on camera in the meeting look a whole lot better.

This studio light will make everyone on camera in the meeting look a whole lot better.

Microsoft said the Surface Hub brings the added benefit of one click to start a meeting, presentation or video. Steelcase added a nice touch right above the Surface Hub, an LED color-balance bar, which basically puts the presenter in her best light. In other words, no more fluorescent light making you look like you just stumbled in from a bender.


You could easily fall asleep in the Respite Room.

You could easily fall asleep in the Respite Room.

The last space we saw was a little lower tech. It was called the Respite Room and, as the name suggests, it’s designed as a sort of get-away from the hubbub of the office. It’s a tiny, enclosed office (wrapped in more of that sound-proof glass).

Inside, there was an incredibly comfortable chair and ottoman, as well as outlets if you needed to plug in and keep working. The ottoman also opened, revealing storage space for charging cables and dongles or, maybe, a six-pack on ice.

Leaving aside the somewhat corny names, the spaces were, in a word, beautiful and will probably make you give a little side-eye to your own office. But it’s worth keeping in mind these office layouts are custom jobs, essentially concepts, probably costing thousands of dollars. Especially when you include the Surface Studios, which can start at $3,000, and the Surface Hubs, which start at around $20,000.

The future of work might be fun but it won’t be cheap.

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