CHICAGO — After years of shifting between private spaces and open office floor plans, the office furniture industry seems to have settled on a happy medium.
Instead of providing a one-size-fits-all solution to its customers, office furniture manufacturers are offering a suite of products that balance collaboration with privacy. Moreover, their products are making office environments look more like residential settings than ever before.
The shift to residential-minded furniture — dubbed “resimercial” by executives — portends more similar products in the future, according to industry sources.
Proponents of the resimercial trend believe creating a warmer and more welcoming setting goes a long way toward attracting and retaining workers, as well as increases productivity.
“For a long time, corporate America found itself with employees going off site to have some of the most important meetings that should really be happening on site,” said Mark Kinsler, president of Holland-based Trendway Corp. “The question you’d have to ask yourself is: Why would that happen? Well, corporate America hadn’t designed spaces to accommodate those kinds of environments. It’s always attributed to the millennials, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I think all of us like to have comfortable spaces. And where are you the most comfortable? Typically at home.”
Therefore, the charge for office furniture manufacturers comes in answering the question: “Can you bring some of those elements into my space and make me feel like I’m not in an institutional setting but a residential-like setting,” Kinsler said.
Evidence of the resimerical trend spread throughout this year’s annual NeoCon office furniture trade show in Chicago. The show floor was full of products in warm pastel colors, as well as vibrant upholstery and carpeting. It also featured lounge furniture and conference tables that looked more fitting for a dining room than a corporate boardroom.
While major office furniture makers tend to avoid the term “resimercial,” Jim Keane, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc., likens the move to more residential-like furniture as part of a broader industry transition to support creative work.
“At Steelcase, we’ve tapped into our research and a lot of the work we’ve done ourselves to say it’s not just about residential furniture or coffee house furniture,” Keane said. “It’s really trying to move away from furniture that’s designed to support process work and moving to furniture that supports creative work.
“We really have a particular purpose in mind, and that is to support creative work. That’s where we see things going. We don’t think it’s just about the aesthetics of residential furniture because it’s really about productivity.”
Brian Walker, president and CEO of Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc., equates the focus on designing more welcoming office environments to a larger societal trend in North America that sees businesses fleeing the suburbs and moving back to city centers.
“In some ways, what we’re going through as a country and globally is a re-urbanization,” Walker said. “People want to live in cities. We’ve believed and have been headed here for 10 years. We thought offices would look more like urban cities and have a lot more variety, have a lot more texture, rather than looking like suburbia where everything is fairly similar and gridded out. You start to see a lot more variety and spontaneity. (T)here is a drive to how do I personalize those (products) for a particular company’s brand — personalize them for a particular use type.”
CALLING BACK REMOTE WORKERS
The office furniture industry’s push to more comforting and lively office environments comes as more workers are returning to their offices after working from home or remotely.
While remote working was touted as a way to attract workers and cut down on real estate costs, some firms are calling their workers back onsite.
In May, IBM issued orders compelling workers in its Watson, software development, digital marketing and design divisions to return to the office or risk losing their jobs, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
IBM was one of the first companies to pioneer the remote-work strategy, and at one time noted that up to 40 percent of its workforce worked remotely. However, that reliance on remote workers has changed as more companies encourage their employees to collaborate on projects and work face-to-face.
“For some, (remote work) is awesome, but for others, they have kids, they have parents, pets, who knows,” said Kinsler of Trendway. “There’s always challenges and I don’t think (companies) were getting the level of productivity that they were expecting, so they’re wondering why. That whole move to put people at home was a real estate cost-savings plan. I don’t think it was ever about innovation or collaboration.
“Technology was allowing people to interface easily. They were able to take them out of the office — or at least not give them dedicated space — and then their real estate bills went down dramatically. That’s changing dramatically. There are other options that are coming into the market that I think are going to make it easier for corporations.”
Office furniture executives aren’t sure what a trend of returning office workers could mean, but having more residential-themed furniture could soften the blow for people who are leaving behind their home environments.
Kinsler notes that remote work is unlikely to go away completely, although it will likely be reduced to encourage spontaneous collaboration and interactions.
“I don’t think you’ll see people say, ‘You can’t ever do that,’” he said. “They’re going to say that you can do it one or two days a week, but I want you to come into the office. I want you to know who your peers are and I want the things that aren’t necessarily planned to happen. That has to be face-to-face.”
SIDEBAR: Addressing Uncertainty
While office furniture executives generally displayed optimism during NeoCon, they have dealt with a period of order volatility in recent months.
Although he couldn’t point to one root cause of the volatility, Herman Miller Inc. President and CEO Brian Walker noted current geopolitical and other events have business leaders on edge.
“Certainly, if you get out of the U.S. and look at it on a global basis, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the business community,” Walker said. “The economy feels good but then we have a number of terrorist attacks, we have things like Brexit happening, we have the change in leadership in our country, you had the vote in France. There are a lot of external factors that have businesses unsure of how hard am I pressing on the gas and where am I going. I think that feels like it’s lurching. It feels like it’s an upward trajectory, but a bit of a lurching upward trajectory.”
Walker hopes that order volume will smooth out if the political environment calms down and reforms are made to the tax code under the Trump administration.
“I’m hopeful that with the work of the new administration, we can get moving on the agenda around regulation. If we could get some of the tax changes put in place, and we could get to a more positive news cycle, I think it would be helpful,” Walker said. “I think there are a lot of reasons to believe we are set up for a better period. We also have to make sure that we can help the administration and the government by business leaders saying, ‘We’re going to be the calming voice to say we have to move forward.’ … I’m hopeful we’ll see it smooth out, but I think it’s going to take some time.”
While Steelcase Inc. President and CEO Jim Keane declined to speak in specifics about the company’s outlook, he did note that many customers are holding out on placing orders.
“We have a lot of customers who are stepping back now and saying ‘OK, before we update our spaces using the same model we’ve always used, let’s take a minute to think about what’s right for us as we move forward,” Keane said. “We’re engaging with our clients around those discussions.”
— Reported by John Wiegand