CHICAGO — After several years of vacillating between open office concepts and private spaces, the so-called “pendulum shift” in office furniture seems to have settled into a new normal.
Instead of assigning workstations to employees in a one-size-fits-all approach, office furniture manufacturers say that employers need to provide their workers with the freedom to choose where and how to work, based on the task at hand.
“That one-size-fits-all doesn’t always work and sometimes specialized spaces are better,” Kevin Kuske, president of Spring Lake-based Izzy+, a division of Grand Haven-based JSJ Corp., told MiBiz at the NeoCon trade show in Chicago earlier this month. “The idea that everyone needs privacy to have a private phone conversation, well maybe not.”
The thinking goes that employees are the most productive and engaged when they can choose the best place to accomplish their work, whether that’s at a standing desk or in a lounge area, cafe or private booth.
This shift toward employee choice has created opportunities for office furniture companies as well. Allowing employees to work in more locations other than their desks plays into the “sweet spot” for Izzy+ since the company specializes in making furniture geared toward a variety of settings with cafe, library and classroom-type spaces, Kuske said.
“If people are getting up from their desks, where are the places they go and how do you create some spaces that are standing, some that are sitting (and) all that? A lot of it is rethinking the spaces,” he said. “That is driving the growth for us.”
Creating an engaged workforce is one of the primary drivers for office furniture manufacturers’ push for workstations that favor employee choice.
At a time when companies spanning multiple industries are reporting challenges with attracting and retaining talent, office furniture manufacturers argue that having more options for where employees work helps spur employee engagement, productivity and company loyalty.
“I’d say that in our industry, trends and fads tend to come and go,” said Jim Keane, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase Inc. “I liken it to the days … of 1999 when everyone had to have a foosball or ping pong table. I think the value that we try to bring to clients is to help them sort through what’s the force behind the trend that is going to be more universal versus just trying to chase this year’s fad.
“We think (employee engagement) is a universal force.”
Keane breaks down employee engagement into several different categories, including workers’ ability to focus, their capability to handle the emotional ups and downs of the working day, and their physical comfort.
All three of those elements can be enhanced by giving workers the choice of where they want to work, he said.
In a recent survey of 12,500 people in 17 countries, Steelcase found that 88 percent of employees who said they were highly engaged had the freedom to choose where they worked in their office.
The company partnered with Ipsos, a global research firm with headquarters in New York City and Paris, to conduct the survey.
A MOVE TO RESIDENTIAL
In addition to offering freedom of choice in the workplace, employee engagement also hinges on making the office as physically comfortable as possible for workers, sources said. To do that, office furniture manufacturers are integrating design principles and materials from residential furniture into their products.
“I don’t know whoever decided long ago that when we go to work it should be so different from home, when the most comfortable we are is at home,” said Kuske of Izzy+.
At Trendway Corp., the shift to more residential furniture has opened up a new market for the Holland-based manufacturer and should serve as a main driver in an expected 11-percent increase in sales this year, according to President Mark Kinsler.
“It’s as much a design statement as it is to create a more casual work environment,” Kinsler said.
The challenge in offering more residential options for corporate settings stems from durability issues. Simply put, residential furniture just doesn’t hold up in an office setting where it is used more frequently, sources said.
In the past, that’s led companies to use hard foam or other tough materials, making even couches and lounge furniture uncomfortable. Now companies such as Izzy+ are fusing hard backers to soft foam that allow for more comfortable and durable seating, Kuske said.
“The challenge is durability,” he said. “(Office furniture) will never go (fully) residential, but there’s no reason why (it has to be) cold and grey. I’m exaggerating, but where in this industry did (someone) decide that couches needed to be uncomfortable?”
As more residential-inspired designs creep into office furniture, manufacturers have also begun to offer more customizable options for their products.
This year, office furniture makers unveiled products such as Steelcase’s Turnstone Bassline table and Trendway’s Feek 18 lounge seating system, both of which give customers access to numerous color palettes, patterns, materials and finishes.
When it comes to employee attraction and retention, companies should consider customizable furniture to convey the right message to potential workers about the work environment and the corporate culture, Kinsler said.
“People want to connect with the culture and values of the company and the space they bring,” he said. “If I walk in as a worker, it gives me some impression of what it’s like to work at this company.”
THE RISE OF THE OFFICE NOMAD
From a broad perspective, the push for companies to offer employees more choice in their workstations and the move to more residential-type furniture corresponds with the rise of the so-called “office nomad.”
Increasingly, workers are embracing a philosophy that “the office is everywhere” and choosing to work outside of traditional spaces. In those cases, coffee shops, airport lounges and homes can become the offices of choice for workers, according to sources. That trend has led to a blurring of the lines for traditional office spaces, which have begun to resemble cafes and lounges more than in the past.
Even large retail stores such as Staples Inc. are beginning to cater to a more mobile workforce. The office products supplier recently partnered with Boston-based Workbar LLC to open communal workspaces in several stores around the Boston area, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Staples executives hope the spaces, which will range between 2,500 square feet and 3,500 square feet, will drive additional revenue and traffic into the stores.
Still, Keane of Steelcase acknowledges that some workers remain uncomfortable with the office nomad approach.
“At the extreme level, the nomad has no place to call their own,” Keane said. “But there are people who would like to have their own grounded space. Even nomads who are unassigned will just sit in the same chair to start and end their day.
“When you free people up and allow them to make their own choices, over time, they find their own best way of working. Each of us is better at figuring that out than any company would be. If the company goes, ‘We’ve done all this research and here is your workstation and you all (will) work the same way,’ that’s what’s disappearing.”