Category Update: The changing workplace realities

As the furniture industry adapts to the new realities of the modern office space, OPI uncovers several strong themes driving this sector forward.

Feedback from the furniture sector continues to impress, with several companies reporting strong performances and robust results this year.

At DAMS, a British manufacturer and wholesaler of office furniture, the prospects are looking good. According to Marketing & Communications Manager Simon Howorth, the company has achieved record sales in the past quarter: “Revenues are up some 25% compared to the previous two quarters, which is a great sign that our industry is performing well. We are now on target for £40 million ($51 million) in sales this financial year for the first time. UK manufacturing seems to be on a high in 2017.”

Travel across the pond to the US and you find a similar story. Steve Griego, Divisional Merchandise Manager at Office Depot, reports: “We’ve had very strong results in the furniture business with consistent year-over-year growth. Much of this has been driven through our retail stores, but more recently we’ve also seen rising sales in our digital business, with customers noticeably willing to spend a little more money for function and quality.”  

Asked what trends are fuelling this upswing and both manufacturers and resellers consistently mention three main factors that are having a major influence on this category. 

  1. Flexibility: Continuous shifts in technology and working culture mean that organisations are now creating workspaces with flexibility built in. Companies need furniture that can adapt as they change and allow for a multitude of different uses as they grow and expand.
  2. Activity-based design: This trend is fostered by two competing factors – the desire to promote collaboration, but with a need for increased privacy. Together, these needs can’t be met in the same space, so activity-based design creates separate areas with furniture suited to different work-styles dependent on the task.
  3. Well-being: Workplaces that aim to promote the health and fitness of employees through the layout and design of their offices are on the rise, with designers using furniture functionality and its placement to encourage movement throughout the day.

The adaptable space

Increasingly, businesses are moving away from dedicated single-employee workspaces towards more flexible working environments. At the same time there’s a growing demand for modular furniture and soft seating that can be endlessly reconfigured as the workplace adapts and spaces are created to offset the impact of a decreasing, per-employee footprint. As Bryan Leister, Merchandising Manager at US wholesaler SP Richards, explains: “With this diminishing workspace footprint comes an increased need for more personal storage areas as employees require additional space to store their personal items in places that can still provide a level of security.”

There’s also a sharp focus on the additional spaces that surround the main office area, says Michelle Boolton, Director of Design & Workplace Strategy at Staples Business Advantage: “While the breadth of furniture products available for ancillary spaces is vast, the items finally selected are chosen to perform a specific function. All need to be flexible, serve multiple uses and many now have integrated technology too. For instance, lounge seating today often requires power and USB ports, mobility and arms that are wide enough to serve as a place to perch a tablet. Tables need to be powered, height adjustable and often double as a writable surface. It’s all about finding the right curated solution for each client.”

 “More offices are now migrating to flexible work surfaces that can be modified as their business grows,” adds Griego. “Products such as our WorkPro Flex range are designed to meet this growing trend. The tables can be used in numerous different ways, from training stations to conference tables or as personal workstations. Their heavy duty construction means they can support a lot of equipment and the multiple leg options mean you can set them at different heights or add castors for mobility, making them highly adaptable.” 

Walls come tumbling

Walls are literally coming down in the modern workspace, with traditional divider panel heights decreasing or disappearing completely, giving way to a more open, collaborative office. However, as Leister explains: “Companies are struggling as they try to balance the open office with the right amount of seclusion that employees need to do their particular type of work. As such we’re seeing demand for more privacy panels, sound dampening and provision for an increased numbers of smaller conference areas.”

This tension between a need for quiet areas in an increasingly open-plan workspace is also mentioned by Vanessa Warne, Furniture Category Director at UK wholesaler VOW. She cites this as a huge driver for the growth in sales of acoustic high-backed seating and acoustic pods for workers who need to insulate themselves from rising office decibel levels.

At DAMS, meanwhile, the integration of technology within the design of modern furniture is now widespread, with its desking, social-space sofas and meeting pod ranges all incorporating integrated power management systems, with a selection of in-built power and data modules. 

As Howorth explains: “These multifunctional furniture systems are designed to enhance creativity in the workplace. They allow people to spend time away from their desks, bring their laptops and phones with them and escape the distractions. We are now planning to incorporate bluetooth speakers into our meeting pods so people can connect their phones to them while they work.”

He also reports great success with products aimed at corporate breakout areas. “While not every company is ready for Google-style slides and swings in the office or dedicated games zones, designing a workplace with social spaces that employees can use as informal work areas, meeting places, chill-out spaces and break-out zones is fundamental to creating a forward-focused and people-friendly office. We have big plans to expand this range in 2017.”

Health and happiness

Perhaps the biggest changes predicted this year are driven by the rapidly increasing focus on well-being in the office. “The importance placed on the ‘active office’ is huge,” says Leister. “It’s by far the hottest trend in the furniture category, with sit-stand products now the bestselling furniture items. This is coupled with tremendous interest in active seating, anti-fatigue accessories and, indeed, any product designed around wellness.”

It’s a rapidly expanding market according to Depot’s Griego. “Active furniture products have been on the market for years, but social awareness of their benefits is now spreading quickly. We’ve responded to this trend with the 2017 launch of our Realspace adjustable-height desks. The manual adjustment model has exceeded all forecasts and we expect to see similar results with the electric model that was launched in May.”   

VOW is also experiencing substantial interest in this area from its resellers. To cater for this surge in demand it’s launching a series of training sessions centred on this ‘ergonomic solutions’ sub-sector.

The growing adoption of the WELL Building Standard focused exclusively on human health and wellness is driving the demand for products that can be used outdoors. “These are not the metal benches or wrought-iron tables of yesterday,” say Boolton, “but highly-functional items that serve the needs of lounges, meeting spaces and even classrooms, all situated in the external environment. Pieces we are seeing now are solar-powered, technology-equipped and beautifully designed. This is an area we all need to watch.”