With an increasingly mobile workforce and an ever greater need for technology investments, companies and entrepreneurs continue to seek out new designs for their offices.
Among designers and the OEMs, different schools of thought continue to play out on the topic, including embracing open layouts, closed offices or a blend of the two.
To that end, Grand Rapids-based office furniture distributor Custer Inc. has found success with its WorkLab “coworking” division that combines diverse environments with a flexible business model.
In response to continued demand, the company is currently expanding the three-year-old WorkLab space located in the 99 Monroe Ave. NW office building in downtown Grand Rapids. The project will grow by nearly 1,900 square feet, or about 20 percent.
“There’s less risk up front and not the need for a complete buildout,” President Todd Custer said of the attributes that continue to draw small businesses, startup companies and mobile workers to the spaces. “A lot more people are starting to understand that, and you don’t have to meet at coffee shops or in basements. It’s getting more of those startups around each other, sharing ideas, collaborating. There’s a certain buzz that happens when you work in it and you start to become addicted to it.”
Coworking in general has experienced rapid growth throughout the United States in recent years.
A 2016 report from national real estate brokerage firm Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. found coworking now encompasses nearly 30 million square feet of space in the United States.
“The shared office sector will continue to grow over the next two to three years as small businesses and freelancers seek more convenience, collaboration and perks in the workplace. However, as the industry grows, so too does its exposure to market fluctuations,” according to the JLL report. “The success of this industry through a downturn is unknown, but its appeal in an increasingly millennial and entrepreneurial workforce is undeniable.”
As a dealer primarily aligned with Steelcase Inc., Custer is able to provide modern office furnishings and technology to smaller companies who in turn pay rent for their space without investing thousands of dollars in furniture.
Custer is among a growing number of stakeholders getting in on the trend locally. Around the same that Custer opened WorkLab, Holland-based office furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. and Rockford Construction Co. Inc. teamed up to launch Blue35, a downtown Grand Rapids coworking facility at 35 Oakes St. SW. It offers users access to modern Haworth furnishings and technology.
“I see it growing and it just depends on how much need is out there,” Custer said of the trend toward office furniture companies offering coworking space. “We certainly see that need more and more. With less risk-averse entrepreneurs coming up, why not have us provide that space? You don’t have to go through that whole process. You are going to see that grow.”
While coworking may generally be about providing flexibility to a variety of workers and companies, the trend has also caught on with organizations building out their own spaces.
Take for example the upcoming buildout of a new 21,000-square-foot space for West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology (WMCAT), a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that offers career and technical training and programming for both teenagers and adults. The organization hopes to move into the top floor of a new office building being built and developed by Rockford Construction near the corner of Bridge Street and Seward Avenue by fall 2018.
“It’s about flexibility for us,” said Daniel Williams, WMCAT’s executive director. “We don’t know what the trends are going to be. All of our workforce development is based on hiring trends. We don’t train in a particular area unless there’s a job on the other side. We don’t know in 10 or 15 years what those trends will be. Our spaces need to be flexible to flow with the hiring trends.”
That need for flexibility in office space rings true for Custer, who believes that the open office trend that was so popular throughout much of the 2000s is now largely over.
Rather, companies and organizations need to embrace a variety of working environments.
“I think companies are rethinking a little bit,” Custer said. “If I’m going to go completely open, then you’ve got to have some other diverse spaces where people can go to get work done and get privacy. It can’t just be wide-open — all wide-open doesn’t work. So it’s interesting times.”
Research presented earlier this month at the annual NeoCon office furniture trade show in Chicago backs up Custer’s assertion.
Increasingly, workers need to spend more time on “focus work,” according to Dr. Gabor Nagy, a research program manager in Haworth’s San Francisco office. However, given the amount of office distractions ranging from email to social media to coworkers, it’s becoming ever harder to focus on just one task.
It’s also costly, according to Nagy, who said that on average, workers lose up to two hours per day to distractions and other fruitless attempts to multi-task.
“As the old adage goes, just focus and get it done is actually pretty smart business,” Nagy said. “Allocating individual focus time for one single task is the way to go.”