Office workers seek a communal life



Your average office has come a long way in the last five years. Gone – or at least going – are the days when companies tried to fill the floor with as many individual work stations as possible. These days, it’s all about communal areas, designed to foster creative thinking and decision-making.
Never one to miss a trend, Steelcase used its London conference last month to launch the B Free lounge, a new range of furniture designed to transform traditional office "dead" zones such as corridors, receptions, lobbies, cafeterias, break-out areas and hallways into veritable plazas for 21st century mind work. At present, the line contains 15 products, but there are plans to expand the range depending on customer reaction.
Mark Spragg, managing director of Steelcase for the UK and Benelux, explained to OPI: "Five to six years ago, it was all about real estate costs and max-packing buildings. Now the trend is moving away towards more informal areas, which means the style of products we take to market is changing. It’s all about tables and chairs designed for comfort, their ability to support technology and their flexibility."
But despite this trend, up to 30 percent of space in most companies is still filled with inappropriate or superficial furniture, says Spragg, which may look nice but doesn’t support the evolving needs of today’s office workers. "Our research showed people struggling with laptops and papers while trying to conduct an impromptu meeting in a corridor during a hectic working day," he said. "It may sound trite, but missing the opportunity to have that conversation because of inconvenience may mean missing the key chance to exchange information."
Spragg estimates that high demand in the industry for products such as these will give Steelcase’s bottom line an immediate boost. "We are expecting a bottom line impact to come through quickly due to the shift we can see in the way the market is buying," he said.
Steelcase is not the only company to jump on the "communal area" bandwagon. Vitra, which also has a domestic furniture line, has started putting domestic furniture products in an office setting. And Herman Miller has for a long time pushed an open plan office model that encourages informal interaction. A few years ago, the company introduced the Intersect portfolio of products specifically geared towards this task, including mobile easels and flip chart holders, screens, soft seating on casters and low storage work tables.
"Work is no longer constrained by time or place," Betty Hase, area workspace strategist at Herman Miller, told OPI. "This does not mean that corporate facilities are no longer needed, they are just needed for different reasons and represent an opportunity for workers to connect in real time face to face."
Only a year ago, Herman Miller launched its very successful Sonare range, sound management technology that allows people to have private conversations over the phone or face to face, even if they are just a few metres from others. The Sonare device works by recording the tones and phonemes in a voice and then playing parts of the voice through a speaker that appears to people just a short distance away as a mere cloud of sound. The devices, which at present can be attached to desks or clothing, will soon be built into laptops and mobiles. Herman Miller is also working on other technology to support voice data and energy.
The drift away from the so-called dead zones has been driven by a variety of factors: an increase in mobile working; a more distributed global workforce; a need to reduce infrastructure costs; an increased focus on outsourcing; and the realisation by many offices that, socially, the balance of the offices where people spent long periods of time at individual work stations didn’t really work.
The trend of going communal was also on clear display at NeoCon 2006, the largest annual trade show for the interior design and facilities management industry, which took place in Chicago in June. Mike Reagan, manager of statistical information at the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), explained to OPI: "Communal spaces and conference room equipment were heavily represented at NeoCon this year. It is obvious that the industry is witnessing a clear trend in the direction of more team-based work."
Official figures back up the evidence. According to Gartner research, work carried out in the office is increasingly collaborative. In 1985, 70 percent of work was conducted by individuals working alone; by 2010 this figure will have dropped to an estimated 20 percent which suggests –  as the manufacturers claim – a heightened need for space for integrated groups.
So where does this leave the office furniture industry five to ten years from now? Will we get sick of all this teamwork and revert back to the privacy of our work station enclosure? Spragg believes not. "We foresee this trend to carry on into the future, there is no reason to expect it to stop. Buyers are getting smarter about how they equip their office space and we are supplying to the demand."
Herman Miller’s Hase agrees that in the future, more and more organisations will renew their facility strategies with environments that attract workers. "Corporate facilities will be cultural gathering places," she said. "[Companies will ask]: How can workers have a healthy, safe, meaningful work experience for themselves and share it with others-