Despite slowing national economic growth, U.S. demand for office space continues to rise above forecasts.
That’s according to a recent study from the research division of Virginia-based NAIOP Inc., a national commercial real estate development association. Increasingly, the market share of office space is driven by a growing focus among job-seekers on “office-using employment,” which has grown twice as fast as general employment, according to the research.
Jim Keane, president and CEO of Steelcase Inc., could feel the enthusiasm stemming from that growth in the vibe earlier this month at NeoCon, North America’s largest annual design exhibition and conference for commercial interiors.
“I feel even more energy this year than I’ve felt before,” he told MiBiz during a meeting in the company’s showroom at The Merchandise Mart in Chicago. “I feel really positive momentum.”
The products packed into this year’s NeoCon expo represented furniture and layout approaches that give teams, individuals and designers more choices and more control over their workspaces, according to Keane.
The increased demand for office space may be a partial reversal of a previous trend to decrease office square footage per employee, according to the NAIOP study. However, trends like shared workspaces — offered in West Michigan at The Bureau in Kalamazoo or Worklab by Custer in Grand Rapids — still have the potential to disrupt the traditional office environment.
Commercial furniture makers are responding to these changes in the way workers act individually, together and with their space through thoughtful design, Keane said. As curious observers of the way people flow intuitively throughout office spaces, designers and their research partners know that interior design can shape human behavior.
“If you watch people day in and day out, you find these patterns,” Keane said. “They persist.”
For example, he cited Steelcase’s pairing of whiteboards with standing-height table sets as the result of observed movement and behavior.
“We’ve learned that when you have people at stools, they’re far more likely to hop off the stool and go to the whiteboard than they will if they’re at seated height,” he said. “And if they do, they don’t feel the same obligation to go back to their chair right away, because they’re still roughly at the same orientation as before.”
As more offices are dedicated to open, collaborative spaces, commercial interior design may be rotating back toward its “primary purpose” of bringing people together, according to Keane.
“As offices became divided up into these thousands of cubicles, thousands of individual spaces, we kind of lost track of what the whole point was,” he said.
While technology advanced and made it possible for people to work individually from anywhere — including their homes — companies were faced with the challenge of designing an office that is worth the commute.
“Companies have begun to realize that if people can work anywhere, you have to give them a reason to want to come to the office,” Keane said. “It better be a great place to connect with your colleagues. It should be a great place where you feel like you’re more productive when you’re there, because that’s the whole reason people commute.”
The major shift of the past decade from cubicle walls, corner offices, and bullpens to open plans, long benches, and residential-style lounges is still on the way to finding a perfect balance.
That’s according to Mark Kinsler, the president of Holland-based Trendway Corp.
“I think the pendulum swung, as it typically does, way out with collaborative spaces and open spaces,” he told MiBiz inside Trendway’s riverfront showroom in Chicago. “There are certainly applications where that makes sense, but I’ve also been to a lot of (open) spaces where people still have earbuds in their ears, and that does not necessarily represent collaboration.”
Kinsler said the moveable wall business at Trendway has been “exploding” — growing 25 percent annually.
“We’re seeing the walls actually coming back up again,” he said.
Although Kinsler expects that rate of growth to slow in the coming years, he does not anticipate the company — which just celebrated its 50th anniversary — will stop manufacturing its flagship TrendWall product anytime soon.
“I still think you could be in the wall business for 50 more years and it’d still be a great business,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean new wall products will look like the gray, bulletin board cubicles of the past. Trendway’s Chicago showroom featured moveable glass walls that can be left transparent or covered with colorful plastic film to increase the visual barrier.
“We’re finding ways to use materials that just weren’t utilized before and apply different, new technologies that are now cost-effective,” Kinsler said.
Although some of the trends of the past may be making a comeback, it’s undeniable that innovative people and companies are working differently than ever before, according to Steelcase’s Keane.
In a tough labor market, office environment matters. According to research from NAIOP, nearly 70 percent of workers cite “happiness” as the key ingredient in their work experience and most people are happier and more productive when their offices are designed to meet their needs.
Lately, designers at Steelcase have been inspired by agile and creative teams that need to move from activity to activity throughout the day, Keane said.
“Particularly in these last couple of years, you definitely see this shift from (companies) simply being good at process to having to also be good at growth,” he said. “As they tried to grow their companies, they have to rediscover innovation. To be innovative, they’re finding that they have to adapt new processes.”
These new processes call for office spaces that are more “fluid,” he said, where furniture can be reconfigured easily by anyone and where the “energy and sense of pace in the space” allows individuals and teams move freely throughout the office.
“Teaming is nothing new and cooperation is nothing new, but today’s teams are far more dynamic compared to teams in the past that might’ve been organized around process,” he said. “There’s this need for the space to go from being relatively fixed or even flexible, where somebody could come in and reconfigure it for you, toward being really fluid, where it just moves with you and moves as you need it.”
The Steelcase Flex Collection, introduced this past April, won a Gold award in the Best of NeoCon competition presented by Contract Magazine. The collection includes moveable desks, tables, marker boards, carts, screens and accessories.
Wheels, directional rollers and glides make all the elements easy enough for anyone to swap its pieces and adjust boundaries and screens to provide the right amount of privacy for team and individual needs, Keane added.
“You’re not even thinking about it. You’re just moving things around, reconfiguring the space as you go,” he said. “There’s a vibrancy to the space.”
Steelcase also won a Gold award for its Roam Mobile Stand, which was designed in collaboration with Microsoft for the Surface Hub 2S digital “interactive” whiteboard. The battery-embedded Steelcase stand allows people to roll the device from one space to the next or temporarily mount the system to a wall.
“It’s an example of a systemic response toward this desire for people to have these more fluid work experiences,” he said.
Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. also came to NeoCon with new ideas on flexibility designed into its “Makerspace” collection. The products are inspired by a 2015 study by the company of 13 “maker, hacker, and coworking spaces” across the nation, including three sites in Michigan.
The research concluded that people “become innovators” through hands-on activities. Specifically, “makers innovate through tinkering,” the study found, and a space equipped with wide access to the tools needed to make things — like a computer, laser cutter and 3-D printer — opens tinkering, designing and prototyping to “the novice creative and budding innovator.”
The tools and activities available in makerspaces motivate people to try new projects and build new skills in a safe environment that supports failure, according to the study.
The Makerspace collection from Herman Miller includes products similar to Steelcase’s Flex collection, including modular and mobile tables that can be set up or rearranged in minutes and multipurpose chairs and stools that are designed to adapt and accommodate a diverse range of people and spaces.
Of course, what may work for one company or individual may not apply universally. For that reason, every June for 50 years, the floors of The Merchandise Mart flood with new commercial furniture designs and serve as a crowded launch pad — offering ideas and products that shape the built environment and work-life behaviors.
“We’re all different, so what re-energizes one person might be different than what re-energizes somebody else,” Keane said. “Today’s spaces have to somehow magically be able to solve all of that.”