Furniture Trends: Horse Before Cart
By Heather McLean Wiederhoeft
Published in the May 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Inresponse to the volatility of the current real estate climate,commercial buildings originally scheduled for sale are sitting on themarket longer and longer. Consequently, facilities professionals areforced to be even more “inventive” with their purchasing budgets,particularly if creative stretching measures make it possible tobreathe new life into buildings that may be obsolete, over (or under)sized, or just plain unsuitable for the current workforce.
Whenrevitalizing facilities or outfitting new spaces, facility managers(fms) should take a long hard look at the latest interior furnitureofferings designed to help outfit spaces in the most appropriate andappealing way. Furniture manufacturers have been taking the pulse ofthis audience for some time, and they have responded by introducing aselection of products that addresses the needs of fms based on theircollaboration, standards, and service requests.
Knowing The FM Customer
AtJasper, IN-based Kimball Office, the idea of addressing user needs istaken very seriously. Jeff Fenwick, Kimball’s vice president/generalmanager explains, “For the past three years, we conducted somecognitive studies where we watched behavior in the office environmentand looked at the way people organized their offices. This resulted insome really interesting information. Not only did we focus on userresearch, but we also lived in the world of fms to determine what theymay need.”
Over the past year, the HON Company of Muscatine,IA, has employed a new product development process called Voice of theCustomer (VOC) that helps the company identify very specific items anddetails that facility management (FM) customers may need.
“Likeany research, we began by talking to our customers, but then we tookwhat they told us, sketched drawings of what we heard, and then wentback to them for more feedback,” explains Betsy Hoye, advertising andpublic relations manager for HON. “We really felt that by interactingwith our customers to find out what they were specifically looking for(and what unmet needs they had), we could develop furniture solutionsthat would really work for them. We’ll be launching a whole line ofproducts that evolved out of the VOC process.”
The Need To Collaborate
From all appearances,the private office and work station are no longer shrinking as squarefootage of these spaces has remained a constant over the last fiveyears. However, according to Space and Project Management Benchmarks,Research Report #28, produced by the International Facility ManagementAssociation (IFMA), collaborative space is on the rise, with spacededicated to conference, training, and breakout areas increasing bymore than 17% since 2002.
Julie Robinson, CFM, facilityoperations manager for H&R Block in Kansas City, MO, reiteratesthis finding. “We greatly increased the quantity and variety ofcollaborative spaces when we built our new 530,000 square footheadquarters building. Most of these spaces have a dedicated purposebut are not owned by any one group. We have huddle rooms for two tothree people, meetings rooms with capacity ranging from six to 20people, and four large training rooms that have been furnished so theycan be reconfigured depending on the needs of the meeting.”
Naperville,IL-based OM Workspace, the contract furniture division of Office Max,has experienced an increase in customers not only needing collaborativespace furnishings but also looking for furnishings that are bothflexible and moveable. “Many of our FM customers are looking formulti-purpose furniture,” explains Samantha Swick, OM Workspace’smarketing, communications, and e-commerce content manager. “They wantconference room furniture that can be flipped into training roomfurniture that is easily moveable. For offices that are limited inspace, there’s a need for furniture that can be used for conference,training, and small meetings.”
“Wehave seen an increase in the need for public space furnishing,” addsKimball’s Fenwick. He points out that the creativity and innovationthat many companies strive for is developed in work environments thatsupport cognition best encouraged by collaborative, conducive spaces.
“I’malways looking for collaboration options such as contract furniturethat has a residential look and feel,” explains Charlene Happel,workspace design manager, interiors/facilities planning, for NikeCorporate in Portland, OR. “I want well designed pieces that areflexible enough to work in a variety of settings. My focus is onfurniture that the facilities people can feel good about and thatemployees will find cool or interesting.”
Get What You Need
Whetherformally developed or followed simply by practice, standards are amainstay of FM. However, meeting the needs of the multigenerationalworkforce or the specific requirements of different functions within aworkplace are challenging some long-time standards. Furnituremanufacturers are looking for ways to help facility professionals findsolutions to these new challenges.
“Historically, companieshave created standards and driven them all the way across theorganization,” says Brandon Sieben, vice president, marketing anddealer development at Allsteel of Muscatine, IA. “Fms often are lookingfor ways to create an effective setup for accounting that may have tobe different than it is for sales, customer service, or marketing.There are others who are working to meet the differing workplace needsof the 65-year-old versus the 25-year-old.”
“I don’t sense alot of product difference between Baby Boomers and Gen Y, but what theyare expecting or needing from a workplace is different,” observes BillBundy, president of Holland, MI-based Trendway. “I recently spoke withmy daughter to gauge what 20-something professionals are looking for.She wants to be connected to technology, have a place to make phonecalls, be able to access the Internet, and, occasionally, have somequiet time, but she’s not expecting this quiet from a private office.”
Sustainability Comes Standard
Thoughvoluntary, standards developed by the Grand Rapids, MI-based Businessand Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (BIFMA)International are often embraced—and conformed to—by the furnituremanufacturing industry. In late 2007, ANSI/BIFMA M7.1-2007, StandardTest Method for Determining VOC Emissions from Office FurnitureSystems, Components and Seating, and ANSI/BIFMA X7.1, Standards forFormaldehyde and TVOC Emissions of Low-Emitting Office FurnitureSystems and Seating, were released.
“To date, there have been no changes to thesestandards, and we don’t anticipate any updates for another year or so,”says Thomas Reardon, BIFMA’s executive director. “The standards areuseful in many ways. The U.S. Green Building Council has approved thesestandards as an option for the low-emitting product credit for the LEEDfor Commercial Interiors rating. There also are a few third-partycertification programs that use the standard as the underlyingtechnical method within their laboring program.”
For thosefurniture manufacturers who are committed to sustainability, anotherBIFMA standard will help them meet this goal. “We are in the process ofreleasing a sustainability standard by year’s end that will be astandardized method of evaluating the sustainable attributes offurniture products,” Reardon explains. “This standard is expected tocover a range of issues including material utilization, water usage,natural resources, wood certification, renewable wood certificationprograms, energy, CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases, toxicity ofmaterials, and social responsibility. It really will be a multiattribute evaluation tool.”
Like many furniture manufacturers,High Point, NC’s, Dar-Ran is working to meet the green needs of thefacility professional. “We’re often asked what we’re doing for theenvironment, particularly by our facility customers whose goals are toachieve LEED certification,” says Dar-Ran’s Jeff Hollingsworth. “Eventhough furniture may only play a small role in this certification, fmsstill want to know what it can contribute.”
It’s The Recession, Stupid
Nike’sHappel does not believe the current economic climate will alter herfurniture purchases for the remainder of 2008, while H&R Block’sRobinson does believe her spending on furniture will decline for thelast months of this year.
“We may consider options that aremore economical (for furniture purchases) but will not likely sacrificequality,” confesses Greg Buse, corporate director, purchasing, forGreat Wolf Resorts of Madison, WI.
“Some manufacturers are very positive, some arepessimistic,” says BIFMA’s Reardon. “Generally speaking, there’s somequestion and concern about the underlying economic fundamentals, butit’s certainly not a doom and gloom scenario. Our forecast has beenpredicting a flat spot for the last several quarters. We certainlydon’t anticipate the degree of decline that we saw five to eight yearsago.
“Our data for the first two months of the year ispositive in that orders and shipments are both still positive in the 1%to 2% range. I think from this vantage point, a flat year is certainlya realistic expectation,” he asserts.
Furniture manufacturersand distributors have different reactions to the economy. “We’re verywell positioned in this market,” explains Allsteel’s Sieben. “Certainlythe market is tight, but the bigger question is, ‘What is ourorganization going to do about it?’ We have a set of products for theseconditions as well as a business model that responds very well and iscompetitive from a price perspective.”
OM Workspace’s Swicksees many similarities to the economic environment from earlier in thisdecade. “The pulse on business for us now is pretty strong, with lotsof work and lots of project requests but some hesitancy to spend yet.Some customers are putting their toe in to see how much this is goingto cost and then are waiting to see what happens with the U.S.presidental election and the economy. So many factors are causing somefms to plan for what they need, but many consider putting the purchaseoff until the first quarter of 2009.”
Even with an economicdownturn, Kimball’s Fenwick refuses to be held back by it. “We’recertainly not naive, and we realize there are some very challengingconditions right now. However, having said that, there is opportunityas well. This is a chance for people to continue to recruit, retain,and attract the right kind of people for their businesses as variousorganizations go through downturns. If you have the right officeenvironment, this can be a really productive time for you.”
Service Matters Most
The quintessential chair, the newest twist on themultipurpose table, or a distinct approach to storage may catch theinterest of fms, but in the end, none of these products will make it tothe workplace without an amazing level of service from the manufacturerand dealer. “A quality manufacturer and local dealership stand behindtheir product and become a partner that you can depend on for years tocome, not just during the initial stages of the project,” explainsH&R Block’s Robinson.
Caryl Francis-Niedens ofFM-Extension in Overland Park, KS, agrees with the importance ofservice. “When I’m looking for a furniture manufacturer, I’m reallylooking toward customer service, especially from the end user dealer,”she says. “All of the large furniture manufacturers have greatproducts, but for me, what it really comes down to is the service andresponsiveness of the local dealership. This relationship has to bestrong in order for the corporate relationship to work.”
Embracing the demand for service is not lost on thefurniture manufacturers. “When I’m with an end user—and, oftentimes,this is an fm—I ask the question, ‘As it relates to office furniture,what are your priorities?’” explains Trendway’s Bundy. “What I found isthat, at least 75% of the time, the answer has nothing to do withproduct; it has to do with the service experience. For some fms,previous purchases have been a hassle, particularly when what waspromised was not delivered. That’s why Trendway is committed to askingthe questions, listening to the answers, and always focusing onservice.”
Clearly, the current climate has provided fms withan array of new products, services, and choices. Fortunately, there aremany furniture manufacturers out there who are making a concertedeffort to deliver products the 21st century fm has come to expect. It’sabout time, isn’t it?
McLean Wiederhoeft(firstname.lastname@example.org) is the owner of HMW Communications,where she provides clients with writing, editing, and marketingcommunication services. Her experience in facility managementcommunications includes spending eight years working for IFMA.
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