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Sunday, 11 November 2012 11:57

Office furniture makers redefine the workspace in an era of technology, millennials and collaboration

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Office furniture makers redefine the workspace in an era of technology, millennials and collaboration PHOTO: Jeff Hage
WEST MICHIGAN — Researchers and designers at the Big Three office furniture companies are very deliberate in the words they use to describe the changing workspace. Some of their favorites include “open,” “casual” and “collaborative.”

A couple of other words slip into the conversation at times, too: “smaller” and “coffee shop.”

After generations of cubicles, and a technology revolution that has produced a tech-savvy and highly mobile workforce, today’s modern office has become a new world that reflects how the business itself is changing.

Office furniture makers are increasingly responding to client demands for workspaces that are much more open, mobile and conducive to teamwork. The trend, which represents a major stride away from designs of the past, is being driven by technology and changed management attitudes about work, as well as how a younger generation of workers views the workplace. It’s also being prompted by the tough economic climate of the past few years, as employers looked to do more in their office space with less square footage.

Nowadays, offices are designed much more around how people do their work in an age of wireless technologies that keep employees connected and productive from almost anywhere, including the local coffee shop. The cubicle walls are coming down, replaced by open floor plans designed to encourage staff interaction, build culture and maybe even inspire people.

“There’s a growing awareness of space as a business tool,” said Lori Gee, vice president of applied insight at Herman Miller Inc.

Gee and others say the change occurring today took root about a decade ago and now is pushed by a collision of multiple forces in the business world: technology, economics, demographics and culture.

The wireless world that keeps people constantly connected has made workers far more mobile than ever before. At the same time, corporations now value collaboration and teamwork more than ever to solve problems and innovate.

“This is a big period of change for our industry and for our future,” said Chuck Saylor, founder and CEO of Spring Lake-based office furniture maker Izzy+.

“For the first time, people are starting to understand that they can transition into creating spaces where people are much more productive and can grow better,” Saylor said. “Within our culture, we are moving much more to a desire to have a communal, collaborative environment to work in. It’s a cultural shift that’s occurring.”

The change began a decade ago and received a major push forward by the recession as corporate clients began looking for ways to quickly cut costs following the financial meltdown of four years ago.

A corporation, for instance, that rented five floors of a large building decided to cut real estate costs and consolidate staff onto four floors. They needed an office that put more people together but without overcrowding the space.

That need for corporate clients to trim real estate budgets coincided with a cultural shift.

Young workers entering the workplace today are more attuned to the kind of collaboration that employers want and need. In general, young workers — the millennials, in particular — don’t really go for the office environment created by cubicles. They prefer open office layouts with natural light, no cubes and areas where people can gather and work with colleagues in a relaxed setting.

Small “nodes” where a few colleagues can gather are a common element in the new design scheme, as are small meeting and conference rooms and areas with individual stations that are dedicated for mobile workers who spend little time in the office and don’t even have a desk of their own. They’re complemented with small, informal areas such as a space at Herman Miller’s headquarters that’s decked out with couches and tables.

The new design style clearly plays into a younger generation of talent.

“The folks that are going through our colleges and universities and entering the workforce are used to plugging and playing, pulling up, working in a small area while they are having their cup of coffee,” said Trish Foster, senior managing director for commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis in Grand Rapids and Lansing.

The change is only accelerating, Foster and others say.

“The recent financial crisis lent itself to corporate America saying, ‘Hey, we don’t need to spend more money for our real estate. We can contract. It makes good business sense and oh, by the way, the culture is shifting, too, so we can accommodate our financial needs while making sure we are taking care of our employees’ needs,’” Foster said. “The financial crisis … allowed us to right size and not spend more money for our space and to make our spaces fun, collaborative and allow our employees to work in an alternative fashion that makes them happy. And when we have happy employees, guess what? They produce more.”

Those early adopters that changed their offices are now coming back to the drawing board in a much more deliberative fashion. Their goal now isn’t to quickly cut real estate costs but rather to drive creativity and innovation, Herman Miller’s Gee said.

“They survived. They continued on, but they didn’t look at everything employees today are looking at,” she said. “They’re coming with harder strategic questions.”

Therein sits a key business opportunity for the office furniture industry in a post-recession world, as corporations adapt further to the trend and as a younger generation that views work much differently than their predecessors moves into and matures in the workforce.

“The expectation of workspace is shifting, which is changing what everybody expects of us,” said John Malnor, vice president for growth initiatives at Steelcase Inc.

“It’s shifting a bit from a sense that it’s all about the product toward a sense that it’s really more about the experience and the outcome,” Malnor said. “It’s shifting from a very narrow view of product and work to a more holistic view of the work experience tied to your life.”

In other words: The office design can help a company with issues such as productivity or in retaining and attracting talent. That’s particularly important as research and survey data shows more people today are overlapping their work life and home life and no longer view their job as what they do between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

In an online surveyed conducted in September by WIRED magazine and Marriott Hotels & Resorts, 42 percent of respondents said the lines between work and home “are increasingly blending on their lives.”

“Work is no longer a place where activity is a timed event. That’s always been a flawed theory,” said David Fik, a research strategist at Haworth Inc. “It’s a timeless event.”

The changing workplace culture in turn is changing office designs, which has become increasingly important in recruiting and retaining employees in the future.

“Because of the combination of technology, social acceptance and leadership philosophies, people in many roles can choose to work in different places. That’s a big shift from 20 years ago or even 10 years ago for many companies,” Steelcase’s Malnor said. “And with that shift comes a very subtle thing, but I think it’s an important point: People are going to more and more choose where they work based on the productivity those choices afford them and the way they feel when they are working there.

“I use the term ‘working spaces now have to be charismatic.’ We have to create a space experience that actually draws people to it.”

The change in how offices are designed is also reallocating floor space to different purposes.Space set aside for collaboration and teamwork is taking up more of the footprint. A decade ago, only 10 percent of the space was for collaborative areas, said Gee of Herman Miller. Today, the typical office has 30 percent to 50 percent of the footprint outfitted in a way where small teams of employees can work together to prepare that client presentation or proposal or put their minds together on a problem.

As a result, individual work stations that were once commonly eight-by-eight feet are shrinking. Six-by-six is now the common footprint and some companies are asking for smaller work stations.

Anything larger is essentially considered wasted space anymore, Haworth’s Fik said.

While private offices will always remain for executives and people in the corporate office who require privacy, such as HR managers and legal staff, experts expect the modern office to continue evolving along the present path, particularly as workplace demographics change.

Modern offices will increasingly become “this very diverse kind of place with lots and lots of places,” said Saylor of Izzy+.

“People will say, ‘If we are going to attract and retain the next generation of professional people, we are going to have to change the built space,’” he said.

Read 6442 times Last modified on Sunday, 11 November 2012 20:50