Flexible, Creative Designs Emphasized for New-Age Office Furniture
Getting employees to willingly return to the office requires facility executives to rethink how their workspaces feel, look and function.
As employers across the country attempt to pull people back into the office, they’re encountering no small measure of resistance from employees who have fully embraced remote working and who are pushing back against the idea that they need to show up in person to get their jobs done.
This dynamic, coupled with the still-ongoing Great Resignation, has put workplaces in unfamiliar territory. In addition to establishing hybrid schedules, among the strategies they’re exploring to woo these reluctant workers is creating spaces people actually want to be in, says Beth Ralston, architectural products specialist for Henricksen, a contract furniture dealer specializing in systems furniture, seating and conference furnishings, as well as architectural solutions like modular walls. As such, Ralston says, facility executives are turning to workplace designers, dealers and furniture manufacturers for help in creating functional and appealing workspaces.
This assistance is becoming even more vital as occupancy rates have dwindled and offices sit empty. Figures provided by Challie Stillman, vice president of sales and design for Resource Furniture, have placed this rate at 43.2 percent when last surveyed by Kastle Systems — causing many corporations to rethink their real estate needs and ponder how to make the most of less space. Resource specializes in multi-functional, space-maximizing furniture like transforming tables, seating and storage.
“A common plan for the future is relocating into much smaller offices to allow for flexible, hybrid working,” says Stillman. “(Consequently), flexibility is a major priority for employees returning to the office. Having the ability to return is key — even if the office has been downsized.
“These smaller offices can’t afford workstations that take up so much valuable space when it’s only used a fraction of the time,” she continues. “(So, for example), instead of using a traditional freestanding desk, a fold-away desk that disappears into the wall creates office flexibility. With transforming tables, an office can have a slim, decorative console table, ideal as a single-person desk. This same table is then capable of extending for 12-person conferences.”
If offices are going to entice workers to willingly return, they also must become more inclusive, says Dennis Cheng, senior industrial designer for Teknion, which designs furniture for collaborative workspaces and for those where people work alone.
“(This) is critical for valuing workers’ autonomy and welcoming people to perform at their highest level,” Cheng says. “Our office spaces must offer choices that are influenced by how and where individuals work their best. As designers, we must view our environments and the furnishings in them as one of many tools that people use throughout their day to help achieve their work goals.”
What workers want
As people return to the office after working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, they want a space that is their own. One that feels safe, collaborative (or private, when desired) and personal, says Laura Barski, vice president of marketing and product design for Inscape, a designer of office products and services.
“Personalized storage has been a major priority,” she says. “Especially in a hybrid model, employees need a space to keep their work supplies, documents and more. There is an increased need for storage for both personal items and to keep a clutter-free workspace. And the rotating work schedule has demonstrated how essential personalized and customizable lockers, especially with e-locks, are to the workplace.”
As office space tightens, furniture needs to become more multifunctional and flexible, and spaces more easily configurable in order to make the best use of the available square-footage, Barski says. Cheng agrees, saying that flexible solutions are a necessity if workplaces are going to adapt to the “new norms,” not only elevating the workspace but the workers’ experience as well.
“For example,” Cheng says. “Digital equity has become increasingly important to ensure all workers, whether remote or in-person, can fully engage with shared content and each other. A primary screen for content and a secondary screen for remote participation enables workers to direct their attention to what matters most.”
Designing office environments that support teamwork is important, since inspiring collaboration is a big reason why employers want staff to return to the workplace, says Ryan Esche, principal and vice president of Henricksen. Because people have gotten used to working from home, focusing on creating similarly comfortable office surroundings, such as providing ergonomic furniture and flexible workspaces, is a tactic worth exploring.
“Spaces should support an active, open plan that includes solo workstations, collaboration zones, huddle spaces and reflection areas, enabling work to be done daily in a free-flowing oasis of productivity,” Esche says. “Flexibility is paramount as workers want to move in and out of collaborative and individual work as needed.”
In today’s evolving workplaces, it’s not a matter of if offices will need to reconfigure, but rather how fast they can reconfigure, says Ralston. Consequently, facility executives should consider utilizing solutions like modular free-standing walls, acoustic panels and dividers, among other options, to create spaces that can change with little notice or effort and do so in economical ways.
Cheng advises seeking employee input when it comes to selecting furniture solutions that can scale up, down, or easily reconfigure.
“By offering individuals the opportunity to choose their tools and environments, businesses respect their autonomy and welcome them back to do their best work,” he says.
Matching need, design
Fine-tuning is still needed when it comes to matching furniture and office design to the needs of today’s workforce, says Brian Homiak, project manager and account manager, architectural solutions for Henricksen. Nevertheless, he sees more utilization of flexible, adaptable options that accommodate reconfiguring of workspace layouts. Among these are architectural wall systems that can be quickly reassembled, and multi-use furnishings that can be easily moved and repositioned to create space separations or open spaces.
Esche advises facility executives and managers to think ahead about what their teams may require in the future, exploring layout and furniture options that have greater adaptability.
“Offering solutions with multifunctional uses, such as wall systems with built-in shelving or dry-erase boards will go a long way in creating a functional and purposeful space,” he says. “Facility managers should also determine how their employees feel about returning to the office and which critical decisions in seating, lighting, layout, materials, etc., will be the most welcoming and inclusive.”
Easy configuration is key, says Barski. Although it’s difficult to plan for every business condition, the one certainty is that office and employee needs will change, requiring that furnishings, layout and so on have the ability to flex.
“An increased need for flexibility has led to office furniture that can be reused, meaning more sustainable, adaptable design,” says Barski, adding the company is committed to Level 3 certification. “Utilizing a simple kit of existing components enables reuse rather than disposing of products in landfills or recycling depots.”
Taking a deliberate approach to office design and furnishings affords the ability to use every square inch purposefully, says Stillman. It’s also more cost-effective and environmentally responsible.
“This eliminates the needs to build, heat, cool and power excessive office footprints. In turn, we drastically minimize our environmental impact,” she says.
“It is becoming increasingly important for facility executives to prioritize eco-friendly furniture choices,” Stillman continues. “By investing in quality, well-made furniture, the need to replace pieces down the line is almost eliminated.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, California.