When Tracie Stier-Johnson needs a bigger showroom for a special sales event at Broadway Paper, the 35-year-old Milwaukee entrepreneur does it with a push. That's all it takes to reconfigure the mobile work pods Stier-Johnson bought for her three-person design and administrative staff last year to turn their offices into sales areas. "We're able to squash all these pods together to gain extra square footage for sales," she says.
In the past several years, all sorts of office furniture has grown wheels. Desks, filing cabinets, tables and even walls can now be rolled around to make room, reconfigure spaces or set up temporary workgroups. "At this point," says Jeff Reuschel, a manager of Holland, Michigan, furniture maker Haworth Inc., "you can get just about everything on wheels."
Rolling office furniture helps entrepreneurs deal with challenges ranging from real estate costs to employee turnover. Being able to change a boardroom into a training room or an office into a showroom lets you rent less total space. And when you can quickly set up or dismantle a new workstation, it simplifies the task of integrating new workers.
Flexibility is a major advantage of wheeled furniture. Movable desks and file cabinets mean workers can set up a meeting space or screen off a private work area without having to call for the movers. "You can move things around more quickly to adapt to a changing marketplace," says Barbara Armstrong, a principal at Milwaukee's Kahler Slater Architects Inc.
Overall, the rising role of teams in business has probably provided the biggest boost to the mobility movement. That's why team-based organizations such as design, PR, advertising and product development firms were the first to embrace it.
If you're thinking about going mobile, consider that wheeled furniture generally costs more than stationary pieces. Stier-Johnson, for instance, spent approximately $25,000 on three workstations, despite obtaining a discount from the manufacturer because she was the first in her city to purchase the line. Don't count on getting a similar deal. "The ability to adapt costs money," says Armstrong. "You have to be careful about how you spend it."
Still interested? Think about whether you are actually going to ever move a piece before asking for wheels on it. And consider whether simply adding wheels will make the item truly mobile. Big, heavy filing cabinets may not be all that mobile even if you add wheels, says Reuschel. Armstrong recommends trying out a mobile design with a mock-up or a limited test before outfitting an entire office.
A test will also help you plumb your employees' attitudes toward mobile furniture. Some people prefer to have fixed boundaries delineating their own turf and are threatened by flexible work spaces. "I personally don't like the idea of my walls being mobile," says Reuschel.
Realize, too, that portable furniture is only part of the mobility puzzle. You also need mobile power and communications to make an office worker really ambulatory. Unless your space has raised floors or a wireless data network to allow relocation of electrical and communications hookups, you may find your wheeled pieces rendered stationary by their tethers to the utility grid. Wireless networks are becoming commonplace, and raised flooring, which allows easy access to power and data cables and is already popular in Europe, is becoming more widespread in the United States today, adds Reuschel. Another trend that will augment mobility is modular interior partitions instead of drywall construction for offices, he says.
At press time, Stier-Johnson's 12-person, 8-year-old enterprise was on track to notch 2003 sales of $750,000, up from $500,000 the year before. She credits the jump in part to her mobile office furniture, which features an eye-catching swooping design and orange accents that attract passersby who glimpse them through her office's floor-to-ceiling windows. She says, "The response has been really great."
Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.