At Photo-Tech's sleek headquarters on Fruitville Road in Sarasota, womb-like workstations reminiscent of scenes from Cocoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien envelope employees in the graphic, video, photography and marketing departments. The futuristic pods, made of a mesh, stretch fabric, add a raw organic feel to the minimalist building. They also reflect an attitude about how workspaces may be designed and used in the future.

Initially Photo-Tech was going to use traditional cubicles, but that was scrapped once company founder Peter Turo discovered the pods, which were designed by a Tampa company during the dot-com era. Photo-Tech, a corporate event photography company, bought seven of the pods for its modernistic new building in 2004.

"It allows more flow through that whole area. People can communicate easier," says vice president Martin Turnau. "Besides encouraging teamwork, it allows people to reconfigure the space. It allows us a great deal of flexibility."

Modular workstations are just one of many ways corporate executives, small business owners, architects, furniture designers and futurists believe offices will look in the future. Already, office furniture is becoming less cluttered. Companies, too, are taking video communication to new levels and incorporating data security systems, such as retina scanners.

California-based OfficeTeam, the world's largest specialized temporary staffing service for administrative professionals with more than 300 offices-including in Sarasota-conducted a study called Office of the Future 2020. The company asked workplace experts and 150 Fortune 1000 executives about future trends and posted the results on its Web site, www.officeofthefuture2020.com.

Two key findings? Wireless technology will allow workers to do their jobs away from the office. Telecommuting and worker mobility are going to become even more popular. The downside is that it will be harder to get away from work. In the study, 86 percent of Fortune 1000 executives said in 10 to 15 years they will expect employees to stay more or less connected with the office while on vacation.

Other trends include more virtual conferencing with larger-and more-screens around the office, a workforce spread around the world because of technological capabilities, and wireless technology that will-thank goodness-reduce office clutter. And with wireless employees working from a variety of locations, security will become a bigger issue, causing greater use of finger and retina scanners to access information, according to OfficeTeam.

The Virtual Watercooler

Imagine being able to virtually walk into a boss's office from miles away. Video communications products already allow colleagues to approach a computer screen and chat with someone in a different office. The idea is referred to as a "virtual watercooler."

"You just pop in on people like you would in the same office building. They can be in Oslo, they can be in California," says Toni Lee Rudnicki, chief marketing officer of Tandberg, a global provider of video systems and services with dual headquarters in New York and Oslo, Norway. "It's amazing. It sounds kind of weird. It's very much like being there."

Standard voice phones may be replaced by videophones. Computer screens can double as a video conferencing device. "Everything is becoming so much more video-enabled. It will then become part of every communication," she says. "It changes the business process."

As today's teens enter the workforce, their demand for technology is expected to change dramatically how offices operate. Michael Brandofino, chief technology officer with New Jersey-based GlowPoint, an IP broadband video communications technology provider, recently connected two classrooms at his twin sons' school via video for a career day presentation. He expected the kids to be floored by the technology. Instead, they asked him whether this would be the end to snow days if schools and families had access to video conferencing and if they could talk to people in other countries. "The generation coming up expects this technology to be available," he says.

With their ubiquitous camera phones and other gadgets, teens accept being visually connected whereas in the past people didn't want to be seen on a screen. "I definitely think that they're going to expect the visual element to be part of everything they do," Rudnicki says.

The idea of video communication will continue to move out of the conference room and into employees' hands at their desks, on the road or working from home. The vision of companies like GlowPoint, which is working with Sony to develop this technology, is to personalize and streamline video communications by enabling it to exist on a desktop or laptop application. "We need to get it out of the conference room so that more people are comfortable with it," Brandofino says. "The home of the future and probably the office of the future are going to have these products embedded in something you already have."

The prices for video conferencing technology are still on the higher-end; a unit Rudnicki took with her on vacation was about $3,000. The expense will decrease, especially as video communication becomes connected with IP broadband technology and businesses don't have to pay for the cost of calls.

Tandberg's clients are high-end businesses in the manufacturing, financial, education and telemedicine industries. A bank in California is using Tandberg video conferencing equipment to provide loan officers the ability to talk to a client about a loan, even if the officers aren't located in the same branch. That way, the customer can immediately connect to an expert instead of walking out of the bank without getting help. Rudnicki says the ease of using video and its ability to connect with people around the world outweighs the cost of the equipment.

The Paperless Office

At Insurance and Risk Management Services (IRMS), which boasts more than 4,000 clients, including the city of Sarasota and county government, there are no filing cabinets bulging with contracts, no yellow Post-It notes or pink "while you were out" message slips. Instead, the Naples-based business has gotten rid of rows of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets and stacks of paper by storing data electronically.

Chief executive officer George C. Schmelzle envisions that one day being paperless will impact the delivery of snail mail: It will be scanned in and routed via e-mail to the appropriate person for follow-up instead of distributed to employees.

"I preach this system to everybody I talk to because so many operational problems are tied to dealing with information-organizing it, finding it, saving it," he says. "We were spending hours and hours and hours on filing."

IRMS, like other businesses around the country, went paperless because of a need for more space as it added employees. Schmelzle heard about a system called transactional filing and decided to start in a limited way on its personal insurance line. The system allows employees to organize all documentation and information relating to clients, vendors and companies-including a policy, fax, e-mail, image, spreadsheet or notes from a phone call or meeting-in an electronic filing system. The biggest cost was purchasing a $30,000 scanner. For a small agency that started from scratch and was investing in people, that was a big investment, Schmelzle says.

The challenges were creating the procedures for electronic filing and creating standards for all employees to follow, not to mention the psychological hurdle of giving up the paper. Employees could no longer keep files at their desk and all documents had to be filed in a timely manner so they would end up in chronological order. After expanding to its other lines and storing all documents electronically, they ultimately shredded the original paper documents.

Only one small fireproof and waterproof cabinet is used to hold work that isn't completed during the day; usually those are underwriting files in a temporary stage before becoming an electronic file. Another benefit is that the office looks clean and professional, Schmelzle says, because it's void of stacks of paper on desks and cabinets.

Office Couture

Companies such as Herman Miller are looking ahead to determine what capabilities and style businesses will want and need in the future. The office furniture company already has a line of sleek space-efficient workstations called the Resolve System. The desks and screens can be rearranged to encourage collaboration and teamwork.

The new designs provide architects and designers space for teamwork and multi-tasking, says Kay Riley with American Office Systems in Sarasota, the oldest Herman Miller dealership in Florida. Cost savings are derived from space being more flexible.

"The office is becoming much more interactive," she says. "Desks and credenzas are going to go away."

More traditional operations, such as law firms, may be a bit slower to change. "In a law firm, your partners are the owners of the firm. They occupy the corner offices that have the big desk and credenzas," she says. The minute one of those partners understands that space affects the bottom line operation of a firm, they'll change the space-wasting and rigid corner-office approach, she predicts.

Chris Kofler, president of Sarasota-based UniSource Group, says eventually "absolutely everything in the building" will have the capacity to be reconfigured and relocated, except the elevator and bathrooms. Companies will gravitate to moveable wall systems, lighter furniture, more glass and fewer private places in offices. "Workers like to see other workers and managers like to see their workers work," Kofler says.

Desks will have multiple uses. Kofler's kidney-shaped desk, for example, is on wheels, which allows him to rotate his desk and automatically have a conference table for a spur-of-the-moment team meeting.

Offices today typically have a suspended ceiling with tiles and lights hiding the plumbing and sprinklers. Kofler imagines more offices will start to use raised flooring systems with the heating, air conditioning, electrical voice and data cabling and more running under the floor. "All the stuff that used to be in the ceiling is migrating to the floor," he says. "Now you have ultimate flexibility."

Floor plans will be much more open with informal meeting spaces replacing today's big conference/meeting rooms and telephone booth-style areas for private phone calls. The office of the future will be a "touch-down space" that will allow employees who work out of the home or elsewhere to "dash in the front door and set up their laptops," Riley says.

"A really good way to think about the change is to think about what Starbucks has done to change the environment of America," she says, noting the different types of seating-comfy armchairs and couches for groups to chat and tables for individuals to plug in their laptops and work.

And if a company is concerned about space, suspending the desks from the ceiling may be the solution. Robert Bernstein's suspended environments are created by quarter-inch cables that can hold 8,000 to 9,000 pounds and keep the furniture from swaying or vibrating. Bernstein, who's based in Chicago, says the concept may attract companies interested in saving space, using fewer materials and sending a message to clients that they are thinking ahead of their competitors.

"I think it is something still to be done," he says. "If you walk into an office where everything's astonishing to you, you may say, 'This is a place that can come up with astonishing results for me.'"

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