This kind of radical thinking is typical of the UK office design industry. It is not only grappling with new kinds of psychological industrial illness, which make conventional physical health and safety measures adapted from manufacturing environments out of date and inappropriate, but also with European legislative pressure.
In May last year the European Community adopted a Directive on minimum health and safety requirements for work with display screen equipment. The Directive will be policed in the UK by existing health and safety legislation. It seeks to avoid a broad range of work-related problems, from eye strain induced by screen glare or poor definition, to back and neck ache and tenosynovitis caused by unergonomic office chairs and desks.
Understandably, the EC Directive has been closely studied by the UK office furnishings industry, which acknowledges that its stipulations do not exceed best practice but is mindful of its implications. Employers, naturally, scrutinise the small print. An increase in the maximum £2,000 fine for employers prosecuted in the magistrates' courts for health and safety violations to £20,000 is under consideration.
Meanwhile, architects and designers explore new concepts in office planning demanded by the drives for higher quality and cost efficiency. Chief among these is the Virtual Office, also known as Free Address. This system shares a single work station among six or seven staff. It is a concept enthusiastically welcomed by professional firms.
Philip Ross of Business Design Group, which has been researching the future of the office with Henley Centre for Forecasting, says that Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte discovered that only 50% of its professional work space was occupied at any one time. "The analogy is with a hotel. You arrive, check in, are allocated a room and given materials for your stay - telephone, pen, paper and personal computer. IBM and the Japanese financial company Shimizu are among the pioneers of the system, which depends on effective internal communications so that people can be located within the building."
He encountered the Virtual Office concept several years ago when he designed an office for Logica with three times as many people as work stations. Now, he says, the theme of flexibility is fast catching on: "Digital, for instance, has a standard work station all over the world so that a guy can fly in from California, sit down at a desk in Reading and feel at home."
Parallel with the move towards "shared" time and space in the office is a radical definition of the physical essence of the workplace. In particular, it is thought likely that offices will become more domestic in appearance and feel. That perception has prompted US furniture systems giant Herman Miller to launch its new Relay range, designed by British consultant Geoff Hollington, with an expected corporate emphasis on the twin qualities of "playfulness" and "ownership".
Francis Duffy, of architect and space planner DEGW, and the British guru of office futures, is meanwhile exploring the idea of the old Pall Mall club - a place to meet colleagues, eat, relax and work - as a model for tomorrow's workplace. One development which Duffy has had a firm hand in is a new range of office furniture called Facit made by Design Funktion, which reflects his belief that organisational problem solving is fast moving away from the fixed architectural elements of the building and into flexible office furnishings.
The Facit io range, designed by Knud Holscher of Denmark with Duffy and product consultancy T3, stores all office systems - cabling, air conditioning and so on - in thick movable partitions flared at the base. This self-contained approach to building service is one way to approach the ever changing calls on office space which will characterise the 1990s.
(Jeremy Myerson is a specialist writer on design in management. Wendy Smith is a journalist specialising in workplace issues.)