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Furniture Trends: Innovation In The Office – Tools For Collaboration

Written by Trends Contributor. Posted in In-Depth Articles, Interiors, Magazine, Topics, Trends

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Published on May 08, 2005 with No Comments

By Brian Kraemer
From the May 2005 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Office furniture is an early clue for prospective employees to see how a business operates. Old, rundown furniture paints as acute an image of the organization as sprawling private offices complete with massive desks and mahogany bookshelves. Both portray a picture of how an employee is treated and what is valued in a given company.

As retaining talent becomes a priority for business, facility managers are often given the task of creating a space that welcomes both innovative ideas and a comfortable working environment. With the shrinking size of the office footprint already well discussed, it’s time for employers and facility managers to channel smaller spaces into bigger ideas and employee comfort.

By creating space where employees can come together to exchange ideas outside the confines of cubicle walls, facility managers can relax the atmosphere of the office. This conducive environment will help fuse employees into a cohesive team which may have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Finding The We Space

In the past, offices have been comprised of cubicles with little privacy that encourage heads down work and awkward employee interaction. While this type of work environment may have been successful in the past, a shift is occurring in workplace dynamics.

“Attracting and retaining younger talent has recently regained prominence,” says Jan Fasse, research analyst for Muscatine, IA-based Allsteel. “The burden has fallen on the employer to attract top talent, and the workplace obviously has an impact on that.”

Oftentimes, top level employees preach this to potential recruits. However, the difference between what is said and the reality of what is done can be incongruous.

“The physical location says a lot about the organization,” Fasse continues. “Many times, organizations say, ‘yes, we’re very team oriented, highly collaborative, and creative.’ But the reality is when that future employee walks in and sees the same height beige panels with no areas for collaboration, a different image of the company is portrayed by the furniture.”

And who should a prospective employee believe? The people doing the hiring or the furniture that conveys its own message without spin? Chances are good that in a sterile, stereotypical office, talent that is in high demand will usually choose a different venue for employment.

The onus of conveying the philosophy of the company falls squarely on the shoulders of the facility manager. By entering into conversations with C-level executives, the manager can express the need to have office space match the ideals that the company holds. And in creating a space that honestly reflects the desire for innovation and creativity, the facility manager helps nurture ideas and contribute to the overall productivity of a business.

Randy Iles, vice president and general manager of Jasper, IN-based Kimball Office, agrees. “Creating an effective space for collaboration can improve worker productivity and yield high performance business results.”

In this particular case, the job of the facility manager is to revitalize office space after the economic downturn partially credited to 9/11. Iles continues, “Before the downturn, the office environment had become an essential ingredient in expressing a corporate culture and a brand. After the rapid and steep downturn in the economy, the needs of employees seemed to have been lost in the shuffle. Lowest cost of acquisition, particularly initial acquisition, became the driver. The employees’ needs were secondary considerations.”

But now that the recovery may be ramping up, that has changed. Employees have once again become the focal point of the office, and taking care of their creature comforts is being valued. Office furniture, Iles reiterates, is a great way to cater to those needs. “Furniture is one of the least expensive investments a corporation can make to protect and nurture its most expensive and important investment-its people.”

Building We Space

The concept of we space may be something new to facility managers. We space is a part of the office where co-workers can come together to work outside of individual offices or cubicles. It is important to note, however, that I space, or individual space, is not going away.

“The difference between I and we space is the space itself,” says James Ludwig, director of design for Grand Rapids, MI-based Steelcase. “The I space is the individual’s space. It is arranged and personalized by the individual working there. And it is still the main driver of most work that is done in the office.

“We space is something that has to be physically moved to. It’s not your permanent residence. The employee takes his or her work and moves there.”

The challenge for a facility manager now becomes determining what employees require and what they want in these group spaces.

“One central element to creating an effective we space is harboring the feeling of collaboration,” continues Ludwig. “These collaborative experiences have become more desired and are starting to drive planning.”

This could mean creating we space by designating empty corners and pairing comfortable, library style chairs with a table to set up a laptop. This kind of area will begin to facilitate the process of bringing employees out of their individual offices or cubes to share notes or compare ideas.

“This sort of space is of key interest,” says Fasse. “It’s not just teaming space meaning specific project rooms. It’s also informal teaming areas. You have to have spaces that foster both formal and informal collaboration in order to take advantage of the creative thoughts coming out of those sessions.”

Ludwig agrees and adds, “It’s about two people coming together. There’s a lot of subtle planning things in there, like how people work together around office furniture. We try to create the feeling of what we call ‘talking over the back fence.’”

The concept of talking over the back fence is a solid goal for a facility manager. Dave Burdakin, president of the HON Company, based in Muscatine, IA, agrees. “Investing in versatile office furniture that initiates face to face communication enables workers to streamline their workflow and interface with colleagues more effectively.”

These creative collaborations in the office have the ability to make immediate impact. Anything from new ideas to money saving strategies can be culled when two employees can get together and share strategies.

Working In My Space

Even though we spaces are beginning to emerge as an important factor in facility and furniture designs, the need for a comfortable private space will never disappear. It is just as crucial for an employee to shut out the rest of the office in order to get work done. After all, the majority of work will still be done in private offices or at individual desks.

And with office sizes constantly shrinking, facility managers have to come up with new ways to make smaller spaces feel more comfortable. One way a facility manager can foster individual work, just like collaborative work, is to make the space more amenable to getting the job done.

“Panel systems today offer a lot more than ‘Dilbert-like’ cubicles. They are more sophisticated than they’ve ever been,” says Burdakin. “There are more aesthetic features like decorative glass and metal top-tiers. All of these things afford greater customization and a work environment that looks and functions as well as a traditional office.”

Aesthetic features aside, customization of the personal workspace is taking on more importance in the life of the employee.

“What’s key is providing individual customization and control,” says Fasse. “That’s something workers really crave. That means you could have a workstation, accessories, and chairs that appropriately fit the worker. Or if they don’t fit the employee, give them accessories that can automatically be adjusted without having to bother the facility manager.”

Burdakin continues, saying, “No question-office space has shrunk. We’ve continued to meet the needs of the market by creating and expanding space saving flexible office furniture solutions that can be easily integrated into the system.”

Cycle Time

Compatible designs are beginning to make the life of the facility manager much easier. Instead of having to worry whether or not a particular article of office furniture will work in a space, the rise in multi-platform production is just beginning to take hold. And will change the way facility managers view furniture.

Fasse notes that by creating products with an eye toward cross pollination, manufacturers may be able to give facility managers even more flexibility.

“The fewer parts you have to move around, the easier it’s going to be. If a facility manager has furniture sitting around-either on the floor or in storage-wouldn’t it be great to put together a comfortable office out of existing parts?”

Those existing parts play a role not only in private offices, but in general office productivity. “Who isn’t affected by cycle time,” asks Fasse. “It’s not that churn rates are increasing, but churn is happening all the time. Corporations are make organizational structure changes in good times because of changes in strategy. And when the strategy changes, facility managers have to be ready to make the changes nearly instantaneously.”

With constant pressure being applied on facility managers to speed along reorganizations, furniture manufacturers have the opportunity to go to bat for facility managers.

“Historically, you’d design a discreet system and launch it,” says Ludwig. “Then there would be a recognized difference or need that would drive a new design. Those two systems would stand next to one another with very little shared amongst them.”

However, the thought of being able to mix and match parts to form functional office systems has to be appealing to facility managers. Instead of working in vacuums depending on which furniture system was installed on a particular floor, facility managers may be able to start reducing cycle time by creating hybrid systems.

“We look at fewer parts,” says Fasse. “Compatibility. Look at some of our current products, they are, or will soon be, compatible with multiple panel systems.”

Office furniture is a visible and recognizable vehicle for facility managers to have an impact on their company’s corporate climate.

Ludwig continues, “Collaboration becomes a prerequisite to remaining competitive. When the facility manager is seen as a strategic partner in helping an organization stay fit and competitive by keeping people effective at work, I think the adoption rate of new insights around the office will push the nature of work in new directions.”

By creating an effective office environment composed of both we and I spaces, a facility manager takes an active role in the company culture of innovation and creativity. “People will see the provider of an effective environment and the facility manager as the driver of how corporate culture meets the world of furniture,” Ludwig concludes. “That will be a real powerful advantage to the companies who get it.” And in order to understand, all they have to do is listen to their facility manager.

About Trends Contributor

Trends features take a detailed look at some of the significant product related news that will be shaping the selection process for facility managers in the future. To read more Trends articles, visit this link.

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