Good office design blends mix of settings, execs say
Inside Chicago’s Merchandise Mart at NeoCon earlier this month, office furniture manufacturers displayed new products that both showcased and contradicted the renewed shift to more private office spaces.
In many ways, that dichotomy indicates where the pendulum may be swinging next.
To some extent, industry execs argue that there’s no wrong or right option when it comes to what office furniture manufacturers should be building and offering to customers these days.
According to Steelcase Inc. (NYSE: SCS) President Jim Keane, it can be a combination of both public and private spaces.
“We sell a lot of furniture that goes in the private office, and lots of furniture that goes in the open office,” Keane told MiBiz. “As the pendulum swings one direction, it’s tempting for us to think it’s swinging back to where it was before. And I think that’s the difference: It never actually goes back to the old thing, it goes forward to some new thing. That’s where the pendulum sort of breaks down.”
Herman Miller Inc. (Nasdaq: MLHR) President Brian Walker appears to agree with Keane, noting that customers and manufacturers have a tendency to get binary in creating spaces — either “it’s all closed, (or) it’s all open” — a situation he described as presenting “false choices.”
“I think you have to constantly be asking: What is the right mix of those levers to pull? And that depends on the kind of work a company does, the kind of work the individual does, the personality of the company,” Walker said. “I think our job is to work with our customers to say we have a portfolio that can do all of those things.”
While it’s interesting to watch the push and pull from private offices and individual workspaces to more of an open plan and back again, Haworth Inc.’s Paul Nemschoff said the shift proves manufacturers must offer a range of options for consumers.
Nemschoff, vice president of global strategy and marketing at the Holland-based furniture maker, cited the company’s new Cultivate table as an example.
“That is a play right into (how) we need easy and simple collaborative spaces for people,” he told MiBiz. “At the same time, when we look at private offices, we’re looking at opportunities — whether on the phone booth side or other areas — so that people can have an impromptu area to work.”
Despite some optimism from office furniture execs, industry research indicates that the overall office footprint is shrinking.
According to a report from the Mortgage Bankers Association, a national organization that represents the real estate finance industry, office occupancy reached 165 million square feet over the last six years, “well below the average in previous recoveries.”
The MBA notes tenants are leasing far less space per employee in a move to save costs, with the “preference for many people — particularly millennials — to work in more open, albeit tighter, work spaces.”
With the office footprint shrinking in the United States, Todd Custer is changing the way office furniture dealer Custer Inc. approaches its clients amid the whole private-versus-open space conversation.
“Let’s not just focus on the workstation and the private office — let’s focus on all of those other areas,” said Custer, president and CEO of Custer Inc., a Steelcase authorized dealer. “What kind of work is your client doing — are they collaborating or communicating? It really flips the conversation where we are really talking about these other spaces first — the lounge, the work cafe, the fun, cool areas where people want to spend time. … It’s a different communication strategy with your clients and having them think differently in how to use their spaces.”
With the industry the way it is, designers and salespeople have to be “really intelligent on those spaces,” from how they are being used to what products work best in a certain setting, Custer said.
“It’s really a different kind of sell than we are used to,” he said. “(Clients) want to make their mark. They want to bring their values, culture, colors — whatever it is — into a space. So you are seeing a little bit more creativity in the office space (design).”
While Walker acknowledges that some companies are moving away from the open-office design in favor of pop-up or third-party spaces, he believes they are doing so because their current spaces are “not good.”
“I think of the companies (like) General Motors, who we’ve helped — I look at their spaces and their people aren’t going to third spaces,” Walker said. “They want to be in the space. The problem is not this question of open or closed. The question is: How good is the space? If the third space is better and you have mobility, you’ll choose to go to the third space.”
Walker said progressive companies such as tech giant Apple Inc. encourage their employees to work in collaborative spaces to enable them to solve problems faster, which puts the burden on employers to provide spaces that fit the bill.
“That’s not to say that the third-place spaces aren’t important,” he said. “Even we will have our own third-place spaces, either within Herman Miller or for our remote people. I don’t think it’s an either/or (question). We also are going to serve those third-place spaces.”
Also catering to the third-place market space is Steelcase via its WorkCafé, a workspace that offers some of the amenities found in a diner, as well as lounge furniture, Wi-Fi and other experiences conducive to working.
According to Julie Barnhart-Hoffman, a design principal with Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures Group, “WorkCafé or other corporate third places … can be more productive and efficient because they have the tools (workers) need.”
“There’s no uncomfortable seating, there’s the right technology. But it’s the vibe that’s the pull. It connects people with colleagues, their work and the organization,” Barnhart-Hoffman said on Steelcase’s website.
When Haworth added JANUS et Cie to its portfolio in 2016, the company was looking for different ways to broaden its capabilities. At the time, one particular segment stuck out: the outdoor furniture arena.
“We’re always looking at different opportunities out there, both on our commercial furniture side as well as on our lifestyle design side, which is really more focused on residential,” Nemschoff said. “The whole ‘resimmercial’ piece that people talk about — it’s kind of the combination of the two. We think, because of our portfolio, we have as much opportunity to succeed in that as anyone.”
When MiBiz reported on the acquisition in 2016, the company noted it gained a “global leadership position” in the outdoor furniture sector.
Recent deals from Steelcase are having a similar effect on the company’s product portfolio, including its partnership this month with Extremis, a Belgium-based designer of outdoor furniture.
“Our momentum continued to build as our new products, partnerships, and updated showrooms helped our order rates grow faster than the market during recent months,” Keane said in a statement. “We further strengthened our growth potential by launching a number of innovative products (and) expanding our offerings through additional partnerships.”