CHICAGO -- At most offices, the sight of a co-worker waving at a television set might stir up some concerns and a little gossip.
But it's perfectly natural in the break rooms of Xerox Corp.'s research operation in Palo Alto, Calif. Now that the company has linked lounges in departments and buildings through video conference hardware, researchers frequently chat with colleagues they have never met or haven't seen in person for months.
"You can walk by and wave to people," said Mark Weiser, head of the computer science laboratory in Palo Alto. "Some of the most productive work occurs at the coffee pot or when bumping into people in the hallway. In such a casual atmosphere, it's created a lot more chances for interaction and creativity."
It's the next best thing to a quick walk to a colleague's desk, and it's one example of the changing atmosphere of U.S. companies, according to Jon Ryburg, president of Facility Performance Group, a management and office-design consulting firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"You want people to bump into others for the 'Aha, that reminds me' effect," Mr. Ryburg said recently at NeoCon 92, the annual contract furnishings show in Chicago.
"People just don't use the phone [to call co-workers in the same office]," Mr. Ryburg said. "People would much rather look up and seek someone out."
But in most cases, not even a quick scan of the office is possible. Even when they stand, employees often cannot see others because they work in cubicles surrounded by high panels. As a result, employees feel isolated from each other, he said.
The consequences have been costly for Americans who are up against cultures -- such as the Japanese -- that encourage teamwork and impromptu exchanges among co-workers.
Some of the changes Mr. Ryburg believes are needed are more meeting rooms -- Mazda has 32.5 square feet of meeting space per person, compared with General Motors' 6 square feet -- shared work spaces, lower panels and an overall "bullpen" atmosphere.
"It's like the old bullpen from 40 to 50 years ago," he said.
As firms become more integrated and barriers between divisions become less distinct, "there's a tremendous need for people to talk to each other," Mr. Ryburg said.
Signs of this move toward greater openness and sharing in the office can be seen at the show, from creative storage spaces for computers to the design of desks.
Though important changes already are occurring in the workplace, Mr. Ryburg said it could take nearly 15 years for some of these approaches to become commonplace.
Part of the problem is that many of the concepts, such as working in teams, are contrary to what Americans have been taught about working and managing.
American, German and British workers tend to act independently from each other, are easily distracted and need information to be spelled out, Mr. Ryburg said.
In contrast, the Japanese, French and Italians work well in groups and aren't easily distracted "because they live in a sea of information," he said.
"They don't expect things to be structured."