Monday 2 February 2015 7:49 pm

Four of the least useful inventions for workplaces

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From extreme open-plan to an office diving bell, they all have issues.

In the week after a Swedish company made the controversial decision to microchip its staff in a bid to speed up menial tasks like photocopying, City A.M. looks at a selection of the inventions that have annoyed, terrified or just got in the way in the office.


In recent years, businesses of all sizes have striven to make the office environment more appealing. From your average foosball table to Google’s beach hut meeting rooms, the line between work and play can quickly blur – and that’s often the idea. But can these designs go too far?
The 1,100 foot sharing superdesk installed by marketing firm Barbarian Group last year, for example, was hailed as a collaboration and innovation catalyst. But not everyone was convinced. Aside from obvious distraction fears, The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen pointed out that hierarchies don’t disappear when you place everyone on the same massive desk; they just persist in more subtle forms. Moreover, 2014 research commissioned by Expert Market found that 54 per cent of workers would actually prefer to work in separate offices. And some went further, reporting that the open-plan design of many workplaces encouraged a negative sense of competition between staff. 


Nowadays, once at our desks, most of us navigate around competently and unaided. That hasn’t always been the case. Keen to aid people’s transition into the Windows world, Microsoft’s introduction of Clippy the paper clip was arguably the low-water mark of its hand-holding. You’d barely begun, and Clippy was hypothesising your next move: “it looks like you’re typing a letter… would you like help with that?” In a 2003 thesis entitled Why People Hate the Paperclip, Stanford University’s Luke Swartz drew the conclusion that developing effective user interface agents like Clippy is incredibly difficult. Agents that are human-like but don’t always follow accepted human etiquette may be doomed to failure, his research suggested.


While the office cubicle, first introduced in 1964, has frequently received bad press, other (slightly zanier) inventions have also aimed to shut off the individual and heighten productivity in the workplace. 
One of the most peculiar, the Isolator, came onto the market in 1925. The brainchild of science fiction writer Hugo Gernsback, the baleful metal helmet (think old-fashioned diving suit) was intended to improve concentration by rendering the worker deaf and limiting their vision to a tiny horizontal slit. To cap it off, the wearer had to have oxygen piped in. 
And 90 years on, the most modern office inventions are offering similar solutions. The Orrb, launched last month, is a womb-like pod which allows you to curl up like a foetus. Styled as a “corporate wellness facility,” it has a noise-cancellation system and filters oxygen. But it’s not all peace and quiet. Once you’re settled, the wellness routines, under the banners of relax, learn, test and boost, can be played in 10, 20 and 30 minute installments. The Orrb starts at $10,000 – not including monthly subscription costs.

Making life simpler

If you’re after an app that can connect up all the threads of your work life, consider EasilyDo. The award-winning virtual assistant brings together your email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Evernote accounts, spring cleaning them and removing duplicates and dud email addresses. It then organises and informs you of meetings and events in your diary. Email and to-do list alerts come as standard, and it’ll even give you travel information ahead of any meetings you have planned.