It wasn't so long ago that standards for office furniture were inevitably based on company hierarchy. Top management got large offices and plush furniture; the interns shared office space and made do with furniture that employees didn't use. A company could very well have as many standards as there were levels of employees.
Today, a new model has emerged, one that has all employees — from top management down to the interns — using the same size and type of cubicle and furniture. That approach does more than increase flexibility and make it easier for companies to respond to business changes. The strategy also sends a powerful signal that the old hierarchical management model — with nicer workspaces a perk of status — has been thrown out the window. The new goal is functionality.
Most companies today fall in between those two extremes. Many have reduced the number of standards, even if they haven't reached the point of having only one standard for all employees. And experts say that companies are better served by having fewer systems furniture standards. The question is, how many standards should a company have?
That isn't a question that gets considered in isolation. Facility managers are rethinking not only furniture standards, but also how much space is allocated to individuals, collaborative space and circulation space.
Individual workspaces have been getting smaller and smaller over the past two decades, an evolution that is tied to real-estate costs, the integration of technology and generational experiences and expectations, says Angie Lee, director of the SmithGroup's workplace practice. It used to be that one-third of an organization's space was allocated to personal space, such as private offices and workstations, one-third to collaborative spaces like conference rooms and one-third to circulation, Lee says. With the migration toward a smaller share of personal space, collaborative space is often allocated 40 to 45 percent of total workspace and personal space 25 percent to 30 percent, with the rest devoted to circulation.
"My office space will decrease in footprint, whereas the space we share will increase," Lee says. "The change in allocation suggests that people are no longer tethered to their workstations."
There's little functional need for a multitude of furniture standards. A majority of people in an organization can function in the same size workstation because so many daily activities are conducted on computer networks, says Catherine Haley, director of interiors for HOK in Washington, D.C. If an employee's job entails functions that most other employees don't have, a second workstation, a larger one, might be necessary, she says. If more than one size workstation is needed, the "sharing" of one wall size can make space more efficient, Haley says. If a standard space is 6-by-8 feet in size, the next size workstation could utilize the 8-foot wall for an 8-by-10-foot workstation.
"If you have two standards and they share common dimensions, it's easy for planning," Haley says.
At the architectural firm Little, the last few projects that the interiors team has completed averaged two open office space standards and no more than two enclosed office standards, says Rebecca Sistruck, a senior associate with the firm. Although there are some exceptions, the firm has seen a "flattening of hierarchy" in organizations and upper levels of leadership having smaller offices or being closer to their specific teams, she says.
"Having fewer furniture standards helps level the playing field between employees," Sistruck says. "The focus becomes more on the functionality and productivity of the workspace and less about the hierarchy of an organization. From a dollars perspective, reducing space standards has a direct link to reducing real estate costs and employee churn costs."
For facility managers, furniture standards are clearly a case of less being more. Having fewer standards allows a facility manager to manage a space in a much more "fluid and dynamic" manner, says Lee. The fewer standards a company chooses to have, the more flexibility it gains with nearly every aspect of its office space, right down to the signage, she says.
Fewer standards also mean lower costs. "Having one standard means moving people and not reconfiguring workstations, so there are fewer costs," Haley says. What's more, fewer standards also give a facility manager better leverage when it comes to furniture-buying agreements, as well as "stronger brand communication across various buildings in a variety of locations," says Sistruck.
Any decision to reduce the number of standards should start with a strategic look at office space. Even experts who believe that it's best to have the fewest standards possible know that it's important to make sure that the number of standards is dictated by what is best functionally and culturally.
Development of a new set of furniture standards should focus on the goal of those standards, says Christopher Liu, interior design studio director for Nelson. He asks why the company wants the standards, how rigid the standards will be and how closely a company will follow the standards.
The goal could be driven by real estate or functionality, Liu says. "It could be to reduce the amount of square feet," he says. "That tends to be a project driven from the top down. It could be that the workspace isn't functional. Maybe it was a heads-down company, but now it's more of a collaborative company. They may need team space adjacent to individual working areas or the expansion of the lunch room."
When fewer standards produce better space utilization, facility managers — in tandem with human resources — have a strong case to present to top management. With labor being the most expensive cost a business has, employee productivity should be leveraged as much as possible, says Mark Hirons, design director, corporate interiors at Cannon Design.
"So instead of looking at a negative cost model, you look at what the opportunity cost is for not having people the most productive they can be," he says. "You need to make sure you're leveraging the best way for people to work together and grow and be innovative."
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