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Sunday, 22 June 2014 22:00

Too Open? Office furniture companies look for balance of open, private spaces to meet workers’ needs

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Steelcase believes its new “Susan Cain Quiet Spaces by Steelcase” brand will help workers better engage with their work. Steelcase believes its new “Susan Cain Quiet Spaces by Steelcase” brand will help workers better engage with their work. COURTESY PHOTO

The same industry that popularized the cubicle concept has been working in recent years to tear down office walls to give workers open spaces to collaborate and foster teamwork.

While the open-plan offices help companies maximize their real estate and encourage interaction among office workers, there’s just one problem, according to a growing number of office furniture executives.

“People can’t focus,” said Bill Bundy, president of Trendway Corp. in Holland. “There’s too many distractions, both audio and visual” in an open-plan office.

Bundy is among those within the industry who say the transition to open-plan offices in the past decade may have gone a bit too far. The executives now think the designs need to swing back toward creating options for privacy as well.
“It’s not working,” Bundy said of open-plan offices. “There needs to be a balance.”

As evidenced by new products on display at the NeoCon trade show earlier this month in Chicago, office furniture manufacturers seem to be taking note of the need to strike more of a balance between private spaces and open plans that maximize floor space and facilitate collaboration.

Among West Michigan-based firms, Steelcase Inc. showed off a new product that provides a quiet, private setting within an open plan where introverts in the office can concentrate on their work for a while. On the other hand, Haworth Inc. debuted a collection of furnishings called “The Openest Collection” where teams or individuals can work in a setting that at least offers visual privacy.

Haworth also unveiled a new product named “Suite” that aims to take the flexibility of an open plan into the private office and allows users to quickly and easily adapt the space for a conference or team meeting.

Finding a happy medium

Executives and designers that MiBiz interviewed at NeoCon say the industry needs to advance and evolve the open office concept to accommodate privacy concerns that are beginning to arise.

Office furniture makers have learned from the early adopters of products designed for open plans and are starting to adjust accordingly, said Steffen Lipsky, a principal designer at Haworth.

“Right now, our industry and businesses are still trying to find that happy medium,” Lipsky said. While companies had been focused on trying to buy one system to emulate open plans in other organizations, they’re now realizing that “the way my company moves isn’t like that company so I shouldn’t try to copy that.”

Clients are now asking for variations of open office designs that have multiple settings that accommodate both collaboration and privacy, Lipsky said. The issue illustrates the persistent challenges that come when any new or emerging design concept gets introduced to the market, he said.

While companies may have thought that getting rid of private offices and cubicles in favor of an open office concept would translate into happy, collaborative employees, they’re starting to realize “people don’t work as effectively anymore because they can’t focus,” Lipsky said.

“It’s a way-finding process. Usually you experiment and you push and push and push (with a new design), and then you take it too far and you bring it back a little bit,” he said.

Seeking balance

Surveys show that office workers are not enthused about open office designs and that the concept has affected productivity.

In a 2013 workplace survey commissioned by San Francisco-based architecture and design firm Gensler that involved more than 2,000 workers, just 25 percent of respondents said they worked in a setting they considered optimal.

“The rest are struggling to work effectively, resulting in lost productivity, innovation and worker engagement,” states Gensler’s 2013 report that indicates workplace effectiveness declined since 2008.

“Extended workdays, new distractions and downward pressure on real estate costs are compromising the effectiveness of the U.S. workplace,” the report states. “Strategies to improve collaboration proved ineffective if the ability to focus was not also considered. When focus is compromised in pursuit of collaboration, neither works well.”

The need for an office setting that balances privacy and collaboration was among the key findings of the 2013 Gensler survey, which found companies can drive performance and innovation by providing workers a choice of where they work and a variety of settings in the office.

While an airy, bright, open-plan design may look hip and inviting upon first glance, it’s only after working in one that office workers begin to realize the issues of privacy and distractions that can result, said Don Heeringa, chairman of Trendway.

“They like the image and they like the space, but then they find out they have to work there,” Heeringa said.

Continued evolution

In offering a new product line in response to privacy issues in open offices, Steelcase cites statistics from an October 2013 Gallup poll that says just 13 percent of office workers worldwide — or 29 percent in the U.S. and Canada — are engaged with their work.

Steelcase believes its new “Susan Cain Quiet Spaces by Steelcase” brand, developed with the author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” can help to address the issue. The collection consists of five different workspaces where introverts — one-third to one-half of the office population — can work in private for part of the day to focus and rejuvenate.

Quiet Spaces is predicated on the idea of giving people choice and control over the type of setting in which they work, said Chris Congdon, global director of research communications at Steelcase.

“The open plan is not the problem,” Congdon said. “The problem is a lot of organizations have not been thoughtful about giving people the full range of options to choose from.

“We think it’s about giving people freedom and being able to choose what work setting best suits them.”

Executives say the open-plan office concept is here to stay, although it will continue to evolve so a modern office design can meet a variety of needs and uses.

“I don’t think you’ll see (open offices) going away, (but) I think you’re seeing way more variety in space,” said Herman Miller President and CEO Brian Walker, whose own work area sits within an open area for the executive leadership team at the company’s corporate headquarters in Holland.

The space includes nearby private offices where executives can quickly move when they need seclusion and privacy.

“We have executive private offices. We don’t sit in those all day long, but we have them to go to,” Walker said. “I think those kinds of settings are appropriate for particular types of encounters.”

Creating options

More than ever before, office furniture companies today need to make a “very broad offering” of products and office designs — from private offices, traditional work stations and open-plan bench systems — that fit with clients’ corporate cultures, said Haworth Chairman Matthew Haworth.

“To me, the mix is what does the client need in the personality (of their office) to reflect who they are and what is the mission of the day and of the team,” Haworth said. “We’re intending to create a wardrobe for them that allows them to clothe their real estate appropriately. We have to participate in more product lines.”

And for those who like the old days, rest assured. Traditional work stations, modular walls, cubicles and private offices “aren’t going away” and still have a place in today’s modern office, Haworth said.

Kevin Kuske, president and CEO of Spring Lake-based Izzy+, and other executives liken the present design push to the proverbial pendulum swinging back and forth. Kuske, who ran the Turnstone division at Steelcase before joining Izzy+ in January, sees the present design environment as a “progression” and “an evolution” of the open office concept.

“It’s learn/adjust, learn/adjust,” Kuske said. “The middle road that it will swing back to is about well-designed spaces that have a mix of collaborative spaces, private spaces and open spaces. It’s about having the right mix that works for that company and the kind of work that company does.”

Yet even as the industry constantly adjusts to changing design demands and tastes, Trendway’s Heeringa believes that chances are that no one will ever develop a perfect office. An industry veteran of more than four decades, Heeringa said he’s seen design trends come and go.

Right now, Trendway is experiencing an increased demand for its floor-to-ceiling modular walls — a product that dates back more than 40 years for the company — that are used to create private areas within an open office, he said.
Heeringa said the optimal office design is a constantly moving target that ebbs and flows with the times, industry trends and corporate cultures.

“Everybody’s always asking, ‘What is the office of the future going to look like,’” Heeringa said. “Nobody’s got a great answer.”

MiBiz Staff Writer Nick Manes contributed to this report.


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