Occupant Needs Shape Systems Furniture Design
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: This PagePt. 2: Systems Furniture for Health CarePt. 3: Systems Furniture and Collaborative WorkspacesPt. 4: Furniture Product Showcase
Selecting systems furniture often represents a challenge for facility executives. A furniture renovation may seem daunting, even with the help of an interior designer. Options abound, but where to start sifting through the choices?
With so many options and so much innovation, however, comes an opportunity. “Systems furniture can get in the way of how people work,” says Melissa Mizell, senior associate and interior designer with Gensler, “or it can support how they work.”
Understanding and realizing the benefits of systems furniture requires examining the needs of the workers who are going to be using it as well as how the organization plans to benefit from its investment. Supporting how occupants work is the No. 1 priority.
There are many ways to gather information to determine the needs of workers. The goal is to identify worker preferences and requirements before any design or planning takes place.
The most direct way of gathering information is by communicating with the workers themselves. Facility executives can draw up a questionnaire or survey (in tandem with a designer, if one is being used). The survey should address whether work is most often heads-down or collaborative, what aspects of the current space workers don’t like and what would be the ideal workspace situation. It should include aspects of the workplace such as lighting, daylighting, thermal comfort, acoustics, storage and ergonomics, all of which are important considerations in choosing furniture.
Another way of assessing worker needs is by interviewing a representative from each department or group in the organization. Often, a team leader will bring the work group together and discuss common needs and objectives for the renovation. That can save facility executives the time it takes to gather all workers together and translate specific needs into common goals.
However information is gathered from workers, sometimes facility executives and designers still need to read between the lines, says Terri Spencer, associate, workplace solutions at Cubellis. “In the beginning of a project, we do a site survey and look at their space and even in their drawers,” she says. “What people ask for and what they need are sometimes two different things.”
To determine worker requirements, facility executives should balance the quantitative and the qualitative needs of the organization, says Mizell. Quantitative needs include the amount of square footage available to work with, how many workers need to fit in that space and their hierarchy, and which departments need to be adjacent, for example. Quantitative needs have always been evaluated for systems furniture and usually don’t have much room for leeway.
Qualitative aspects of an organization are usually gathered during a vision meeting with members of the organization, says Mizell. “We need to understand what their culture is, what their values are, what they hope to achieve with the renovation and where they see themselves in the future. Then we marry that info with how many people there are and the space needs to get a starting point,” she says.
One benefit of examining the qualitative aspect of systems furniture is that it can be a branding tool for the organization. A small Internet start-up company with many Generation X employees may opt for furniture with lots of metal for a techy look, while a large established law firm may opt for dark woods to portray an image of power. “In some ways, the height of the system panels speaks to how the company feels about transparency,” says Mizell. And the size of the workstations, whether they are all the same or varied depending on status, shows a company’s view of hierarchy, she says.
Well-selected systems furniture can also have an impact on employee morale, says Chris Vickery, senior interior designer/associate vice president with HGA. If the employees feel they have been provided with the tools to do their jobs and are well cared for, morale will increase, she says. There is also potential for the HR department to benefit from furniture, aiding in employee retention or possibly even displaying to potential new hires that the organization cares about its employees.
Once all needs have been determined, it’s time to come up with solutions. Instead of limiting the search to a single manufacturer, perhaps because previous furniture has come from them, be sure to look across the range of manufacturers. Elements of systems furniture, such as desks, storage, panels and wiring capability, will be pretty similar, says Mizell, but each manufacturer will have a different solution to specific needs. There may be a better solution available than what an organization currently is using.
Manufacturers are eager to show facility executives and designers how their products can address an organization’s furniture needs. Use this relationship advantageously and ask manufacturers for proposals for specific spaces. They’ll often return with drawings and photos to give facility executives a better idea of how their systems work. This feedback can only aid in the brainstorming process.
Instead of coming up with as many custom workstation configurations as there are employees, experts suggest designing furniture solutions around a few broad categories of workers. Heads-down workers may need higher panels and more desk space, for instance, while call center employees can have smaller cockpit-type workstations and lower panels. Usually, a hierarchy of three to five workstation types is defined for use in a facility, whether health care administration or general office space, says Vickery.