From the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Think of your office space as a canvas in need of painting. You don't have to approach it haphazardly like Jackson Pollack, splattering a hodgepodge of desks and furniture all over the place. However, you also don't have to approach it aesthetically like a "traditional" painter, hiring an interior designer to give it all a sense of cohesion. Simply investing in modular office furniture will give your office a uniform appearance and offer flexibility for future rearrangement or expansion.

Buying components from a modular office furniture line is like picking from a restaurant menu where you know everything will taste good together. The hutch will match and fit the desk; the file cabinet will go snugly alongside; the peninsula will be perfectly proportioned-and you can always move the hutch to another desk or add a peninsula a year down the line when one of your employees needs more space.

With all that in mind, let's now consider your options individually:

Desks: The anchor for any modular setup is the workstation. At its most basic, it's just a desk. Likely, this is where employees will park their computers, peripherals and individual office supplies (as well as themselves). Some workstations come as more complex packages. They may include a CPU cabinet, a file drawer or media storage. If a particular piece doesn't come standard, it's probably available separately. Put several workstations together, and you can construct a homogenous workgroup space. If everybody has the same furniture, there certainly won't be any "desk envy."

Desks are often available in various sizes. In the Sauder Office Works Series 3000, for example, you have your choice of 36-, 48-, 60- or 72-inch desks, with prices ranging from $190 to $370. Some are also designed to fit into a corner. The Bush Mod 4000 collection includes a $149 (all prices street) corner desk.

Components: The main options you'll find to complement your workstation are hutches, peninsulas, file cabinets and storage drawers. You can mix and match on a desk-by-desk basis to make the most efficient use of space. We'll look at the Bush Mod 4000 collection to get an idea of a typical pricing structure.

Hutches offer vertical space without sacrificing desk area. Adding a short hutch to a 40-inch Mod 4000 desk will set you back about $99. Adding a corner hutch to a corner desk costs about $79. A peninsula attached to the main desk is the quickest way to expand working space. One peninsula will get you an ample L-shaped working area. Two peninsulas can create an even larger U-shaped configuration. The Mod 4000 collection expands by attaching desks together with a $49 corner connector.

A three-door Mod 4000 file cabinet costs $140. Like many of the model lines in our chart, it comes with casters and lockable drawers and easily fits beneath the desk. In the miscellaneous storage department, a CPU or printer shelf costs $30.

The more expensive Sauder Office Works Series 3000 offers even more customizable options. The product line includes matching bookcases, storage armoires, keyboard drawers and pencil drawers. Those options are ideal for outfitting well-synchronized executive offices.

Panels: To divide up a large space into smaller working spaces, you'll want to check into panels. They may conjure up images of the dreaded '90s cubicle phenomenon, but they're still the most affordable way to create privacy among multiple work spaces in the same room. The Knoll Equity line offers a flexible panel system that can be paired with a wide range of work surfaces. The Kimball Interworks series is a similar system.

Panel systems are more than just glorified dividers. When you're installing lots of desks in one room, you have to deal with getting power to all the individual computers and peripherals. Running extension cords all over the floor is just asking for trouble. Look for a panel system that's designed to help corral the cables. The Knoll Equity panels, for example, sport built-in raceways for power or communications wiring and come with a lifetime warranty.

Other features to look for include the stackability and acoustical nature of the panels. Stackability involves adding extensions to the top of the panels to vary their height. Acoustical panels will absorb sound to help keep conversations and phone calls from floating all over the room. These are a good ways to increase privacy.

Making It Work

Choosing a line of furniture can be as simple as picking a style. Most office furniture manufacturers offer a variety of modular lines. You'll find everything from modern to mission styles. If you run a tech company, a modern look with metal legs might be appropriate. The Bush Mod 4000, for instance, would give your office a contemporary appearance. If, on the other hand, you want your office to project a more traditional image, the Sauder line would suit.

Solid wood is pretty much a thing of the past when it comes to new office furniture. A variety of laminates, consisting of wood covered in plastic, have taken over. But not all laminates are created equal. Cheap desk laminates bubble up and pucker when they come in contact with water-that's a good argument for not buying your office furniture at a cheap discount store. Look for something along the lines of the Sauder Office Works Series' durable "short-cycle melamine laminate" and a 10-year warranty.

You'll also want to consider the future availability of the products. Find out whether the particular furniture line you're interested in will be discontinued soon. Most lines stick around for quite a while, but eventually the manufacturer will quit making them. Some companies design certain lines to work interchangeably, however. The Knoll Equity panel and work-space line includes a nonobsolescence commitment, so you can be assured of finding a suitable furniture addition down the line.

Before you buy, sketch out a rough layout of your work space. This is especially important if you're outfitting your entire office, but even arranging one room will be much smoother if you plan ahead. Get some graph paper and a measuring tape to make sure the furniture will fit. You don't want to find out after you've ordered and assembled a desk that it hogs up every square inch of your office or that you can only fit four-and-a-half cubicles where you thought you could fit five.

Researching manufacturers online is handy, but, as with most major purchases, it helps to see the products in person. Visit a Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot or local business furniture reseller to get a first-hand impression. Is the desk sturdy or flimsy? Do the drawers work smoothly? Is the computer monitor position adjustable? Are the file cabinet casters strong?

If you do order online or have the furniture shipped directly to you, it will most likely be ready-to-assemble. That translates to putting it together yourself. When you're up against an office full of desks in pieces, you might have to either draft some employees or seek assistance from the manufacturer. Sauder, for one, offers assembly tips via streaming videos on its Web site. Just log on and view the instructions with either Windows Media Player or QuickTime.

You're more likely to get knowledgeable one-on-one customer service through a local dealership, however. Check with a manufacturer's Web site to find a listing. Many even offer design, project management and installation if you're not comfortable tackling a floor plan yourself. These services aren't cheap, but they'll save you time and headaches. It also doesn't hurt to compare prices online.

While investing in modular furniture may be on the low end of your to-do list, the payoff comes in the form of a professional-looking work space, flexible arrangements and positive employee morale. A comfortable, well-designed, ergonomic and functional desk area helps workers perform at their highest level with fewer distractions. Modular furniture ensures you'll be able to accommodate your business's evolution and future growth.

In Plain English
Laminates: wood covered in plastic; what most modular office furniture is made from; lower maintenance than solid wood
Modular: office furniture sold in compatible and coordinated mix-and-match pieces
Panels: system of arrangeable room space dividers
Peninsula: modular desk add-on that adds working space; projects like a peninsula
RTA: ready-to-assemble; refers to furniture that ships in pieces that you put together yourself
Workstation: main work area, consisting of a desk and any extra components

Shopping List

Scroll down to see the Shopping List


FEATURES
Bestar
inSpace II
(888) 823-7827
www.bestar.ca
workstation components, hutch includes a CD rack, monitor platform available, five-year warranty
Bush
Mod 4000
(800) 727-BUSH
www.bushfurniture.com
workstation components, corner desk and hutch available
Hon
Bevis Ultraworx
(800) 336-8398
www.honcompany.com
workstation components, built-in wire-management system, limited lifetime warranty
Kimball
Interworks
(800) 482-1616
www.furniture.kimball.com
steel-skin panel system; free-standing desks; compatible with Kimball Cetra/Footprint, Reasons and Traxx lines; 10-year warranty
Knoll
Equity
(877) 61-KNOLL
www.knoll.com
accoustical, tackable panel system; built-in cord raceways; lifetime warranty; nonobsolescence commitment
Sauder
Office Works Series 3000
(800) 523-3987
www.sauderofficeworks.com
workstation components, bookcases, armoires, conference centers, built-in cord raceways, storage casters, key locks on drawers, 10-year warranty