These days making big bucks in office furniture is all about coming up with new concepts. As the interior design and facilities management industry was enjoying its largest annual trade show in Chicago this week, Steelcase used the focus to launch its B Free Lounge line, which it claims supports the evolving needs of today’s office workers.
The B Free Lounge is a family of furniture that aims to transform traditional office "dead" zones including corridors, receptions, lobbies, cafeterias, break-out areas and hallways into spaces that support chance interactions and encourage "creative and strategic decision making". 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 UK, said that while more companies are thinking creatively in planning their offices, up to 30 percent of space in most companies is filled with inappropriate or superficial furniture, which merely looks nice but does not support the evolving needs of today’s office workers. "Our research showed for instance 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 the chance to exchange key information."
Simon Wilkinson, founder and partner of design consultancy CTEN, which has studied concepts of individual workspace for many years and which worked with Steelcase on the project, added to OPI+: "Over the last ten years we have seen a huge transition from the formal approach to being more team-based."
According to Gartner research, work done in the office is increasingly collaborative. In 1985, 70 percent of work was conducted by individuals working alone; by 2010 this figure would have dropped to an estimated 20 percent which suggests, so Steelcase claims, a heightened need for space for integrated groups.
And lots of office furniture manufacturers have been jumping on – or at least chasing – the bandwagon. Vitra, which also has a domestic furniture line, has also started putting domestic products in a work setting. Steelcase hopes that in this tough time for the mature office furniture industry, the new line will allow the company to diversify its customer base. "It’s hard to sell a task chair these days, because there are a lot of good ones out there on the market and it’s hard to differentiate," said Wilkinson. "This new direction for Steelcase will allow it to differentiate itself from competitors and prove to customers that Steelcase has a helicopter view of their business."
Janet Day-Strehlow, WPR design and construction manager for European and emerging markets at Cisco Systems, was at the launch to debate the concept of work collaboration and mobile infrastructure. "The way people work is changing," she said. "We have been working with Steelcase for a number of years to use a collaboration of office design and technology to support different work styles. You no longer need to be in one place to be productive."
Flexible working, a more distributed global workforce, and increased focus on outsourcing and a need to reduce infrastructure costs were also driving change in office dynamics, she added.
She cited a workplace effectiveness survey carried out at Cisco’s offices in San José, which changed areas that housed traditional individual workplace stations — Steelcase’s famous "dead zones" — into communal meetings areas. The results were extremely positive. Technology that allowed staff to choose where they worked throughout the day not only enhanced collaboration, but reduced real estate costs by 37 percent, as well as lowering infrastructure costs and increasing employee satisfaction.
An appealing concept indeed.