The workspace and the way we interact with it has altered considerably over the last decade, and the pace of change continues to accelerate. The need for a flexible, adaptable office environment has indeed thrown down a challenge to the office furniture sector, but it’s stepped up to the plate with manufacturers delivering some innovative solutions. Improvements in the global economy also mean that many companies are now spending more in this sector, with most manufacturers and resellers OPI spoke to reporting strong upswings in sales.
Martin Weedall, National Sales Director at UK wholesaler VOW, is in no doubt: “The figures speak for themselves. In 2014 we’ve already seen a 25% increase in furniture sales to our VOW+ partners.” Brian Banks, VOW’s Furniture Business Development Manager (South), agrees: “SMEs in particular are now ordering in the way they were before the economic downturn, with customers upgrading their offices to reflect new ways of working and to attract the best people.” The story is similar in the US. Dennis Arnold, VP Furniture at SP Richards, reports: “We’ve seen a nice mid single digit percentage rise in sales this year, despite the slow start caused by the awful weather. We anticipate momentum will continue as the year progresses.”
The versatile office
The need to configure the office space to suit multiple needs is a key driver of furniture design. An excellent example of this is the recent winner of the North American Office Product Award (NAOPA) for furniture. The MooreCo Shapes Desk Configurable Desking System, aimed predominantly at the education market, demonstrates a clever, multifunctional design that enables a huge variety of set-ups for efficient use of space MooreCo’s CEO Greg Moore sees the development of “products allowing flexibility to meet the needs of multiple end users in the constantly changing work environment” as the key to success. And he’s adamant that the workspace must accommodate rapidly changing needs. “Common rooms set up with flexible furniture to enable multiple uses are not just best practice, but are key to long-term survival. Manufacturers and distributors that can fulfil these needs are becoming the new leaders” he says.
This requirement to produce furniture that fits in with new work practices is a central theme. Nat Porter, VP of LDI Spaces and General Manager at its subsidiary Safco, says: “Current drivers are the changes in both how and where people are working, and we also see potential in products that help people stay healthy. Our fastest growing product lines stem from people working in smaller, more informal spaces which has spurred our product development.” Safco launched a new furniture line at NeoCon this year called the Kalyde Collection. It supports ‘third’ or ‘in-between’ spaces and transforms unused areas into collaboration zones that invite people to work, meet or have a casual conversation (see also fact box).
Matt Allanby, VOW’s Furniture Business Development Manger (North), notes: “Changes in computing devices, increase in BYOD, mobile working and the expectations of Generation Y are all having a significant impact on furniture design. “Furniture is becoming more colourful, coordinated and streamlined and personalisation is key,” he adds.
Levent Çaglar, Chief Ergonomist at the Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA) in the UK, echoes this: “Work areas need to change to respond to the demands of the millennials. A new ergonomics approach is needed to allow people to collaborate in a softer, more home-like environment”. He sees settings that encourage socialisation, collaboration and learning as vital, with spaces that encourage a variety of postures – standing, sitting, perching, walking and relaxing – as important for well-being. Zones that support quiet concentration convey a sense that employees are valued, can also engender a much happier workforce.
The importance of wellness is also picked up by SP Richards’ Arnold. “The trend for adjustable height work surfaces is increasing, particularly now the American Medical Association recommends changing positions throughout the day. Electric height sit-stand work surfaces are very popular, as is integrating adjustability into a worker’s current desk configuration.”
The impact of technological changes has also had an effect on the way office furniture is used, but the rapid rate of change presents its very own problems. “Technology changes faster than people buy new furniture”, says Safco’s Porter, “so integrating it within products is tricky. The biggest impact it has is creating the freedom to roam, producing new requirements for furniture used in open areas”. Arnold concurs, saying that “you are no longer tied to your desk and the need for large storage cabinets and filing has changed significantly”. He adds: “New storage is [often] designed for personal items requiring additional security. We don’t see much technology integrated into the actual design yet, but we do see furniture designed to facilitate the use of technology.” Moore regards technology no longer as just a tool, but as part of the human experience. “Rapid technological advances mean products built for today’s technology will be obsolete within two years. As such furniture designed today must be able to accommodate the swift and unpredictable changes of the future.”
Vow’s Banks believes that younger employees used to working in pod-like environments at universities increasingly expect to see something similar in the workplace. “Pod systems mix flexibility with privacy and are quick to install or relocate. Many are acoustically insulated and contain touchscreen technology for beaming images and presentations from wireless devices.” FIRA’s Çaglar goes further. “With the technology now available we can truly work anywhere, anytime. Soon we may not need offices at all,” he says.