Furniture Trends: Working The System

By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the May 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

facility management furniture trends

Being prepared for change is part of the daily routine these days. What may have been a top priority yesterday can drop down the list of importance in a split second. People working and learning in facilities have increasingly become accustomed to adapting to the tasks at hand throughout their daily routine. Meanwhile, the fast pace of operations, sometimes coupled with less manpower to execute the same number of projects, presents the need for adaptability and increased options when it comes to facility furnishings.facilities management furniture trends

In their roles, facility managers (fms) have an integral part in identifying occupant needs and then choosing furnishings to help those occupants achieve their goals on a daily and long-term basis. Determining the best items to purchase for a facility can take into account any or all of the following factors: type of work being done, space available, desired level of sustainability, and, of course, budget.

Keeping in mind three broad issues affecting an increasing number of organizations today can help guide an fm’s decision making process. These issues are product versatility, technology requirements, and levels and types of customer service from suppliers.

The Task At Hand

Whether it happens once a year or once a month, most fms find themselves tasked with moving people and equipment around their facilities at some point. This might involve consolidating a department in order to gain room for workers from a different department to move in, or there may be wholesale moves of departments within a building to accommodate the organization’s specific needs.

Furniture that can be easily moved around is key. Ease of disassembly is another attractive characteristic for many fms. And it’s worth noting that this advantage is not limited to chairs, desks, storage, and the like. “Modular interior construction is finally beginning to realize its potential,” observes Mark Paul, national sales manager for OM Workspace based in Naperville, IL. “Many buildings use movable walls, raised floors, sound masking systems, and indirect lighting fixtures to [facilitate easily reconfigured space.]”facilities management furniture trends

Adaptability is also beneficial when the furniture can be reconfigured to serve a variety of job types. Downsizing an accounting department, for instance, can reduce the number of workstations needed there. This furniture may go into storage until it is appropriated for another purpose (perhaps another department), at which time the fm can pull the needed equipment from the stored inventory.

Where in the past, this interdepartmental swapping may have resulted in mismatched furniture from several product lines—and perhaps, several different manufacturers, there are options on the market today that enable fms to choose furniture that can not only be reconfigured fairly quickly for office moves, but that is also is versatile enough to serve as an effective workspace for a variety of job types.

While the need for a worksurface, seating, some storage space, and task lighting are relatively universal to office workers, a person’s title, along with specific tasks performed, often calls for customization of an individual space. For instance, a department supervisor may want higher walls around his or her workstation and require more storage space, while a call center operator might sit in a set of six workstations featuring lower walls and minimum storage. Furniture lines with components that mix and match enable fms to expand the potential of existing assets.

Certainly, systems furniture has been designed to fulfill these needs for a number of years now. However, products are becoming even more versatile and interchangeable than in the past. Fms may be starting to look for these characteristics more often as well, notes Greg Dunlop, IIDA, national manager, architecture and design for Allsteel in Muscatine, IA.

“For many years, interior designers have advocated the concept of planning space and workstations based on tasks being performed versus a corporate hierarchy or a pure one size fits all approach,” says Dunlop. “More fms are embracing this change in space allocation and planning and taking a critical look at how job functions work. We see floorplans where [different] departments are supported with the same set of furniture components but arranged in different configurations. This is not a revolutionary concept, but as younger fms become decision makers and corporations are more focused on productivity, we find a willingness to challenge what, for some, continues to be status quo with regard to space standards and entitlements.”

Mona Hoffman, vice president of marketing at Kimball Office in Jasper, IN, has also noted fms seeking multifunctionality in their furniture choices. “There is a need for multipurpose products that easily adapt to changing footprints and flex with the flow of people and projects,” she says.

Fluidity For Technology

Meanwhile, other workplace activities that can be fulfilled with adaptive furniture include impromptu meetings, collaborative sessions, and temporary projects. For instance, several colleagues whose desks are located in an open floor plan may want to extend an impromptu discussion on a shared project. Rather than disturbing fellow occupants, they can move a short distance away to a group seating area.

These types of areas can vary from a smaller than usual conference room, a casual seating area in a nook off a corridor, or a space carved out of a main work area equipped with movable walls and an overhead panel to contain noise. As with traditional workstations, people working in these spaces often require access to technology, such as the Internet or audiovisual equipment.facilities management furniture trends technology

Says Dunlop, “[There is increased] emphasis on the spaces that support group activities and what the particular attributes of those spaces need to be. We are no longer seeing floorplans of individual spaces plus a smattering of eight to 12 person conference rooms, but rather a mix of group spaces, such as meeting rooms for two to four people, project rooms that teams can ‘own’ for the duration of a project, quiet rooms where those who really need heads down, concentrated time can go to work, or offices that can double as small conference rooms when the owner is out of town or working from home.”

Workers who, due to the nature of their tasks, are in and out of a facility throughout the day and week may not require a dedicated workspace. Here, the concept of providing temporary spaces where “visiting” employees can work for a day or set their belongings down for an hour or two comes in handy. These “touchdown stations” provide employees and visitors alike with a space to check their voicemail or send off a few e-mails.

Excepting the completely wireless facility, any office move requires consideration of the physical infrastructure serving technology needs. And with shared workstations and other space constraints, furniture that minimizes aggravation and risk of equipment damage or loss can be desirable.

The rise of flat panel monitors, for instance, has freed up space on many workers’ desks. And even more space can be saved with furniture that enables users to store their monitors down within the desk, which also protects the asset. Meanwhile, workers requiring multiple monitors may work best with monitor arms that can secure displays off of the surface.

John Lechman, president and CEO of NOVA Solutions, Inc. in Effingham, IL, notes that an environment where limited space serves multiple purposes can be referred to as “reconfigurable, space constrained workspace.” Speaking directly to security issues in shared spaces, he says, “There is a growing need to use technology securely in dynamic work, learning, and living environments where limited space serves multiple purposes. Securely integrating technology in restricted workspaces, while maintaining a level of accessibility and functionality is paramount when considering new furniture designs.”

Standards And Service, But Not Standard Service

Having components that can be moved and reconfigured easily and can serve the needs of more than one type of worker helps to maximize investments in furniture. While an fm may not want to install furniture from just one manufacturer, there can be an advantage—standardization.

Says Hoffman, “Now more than ever before, fms want their furniture to do more and their furniture manufacturer to provide more. Our end user clients are looking at furniture as a strategic tool to help them improve facility efficiency and enhance worker effectiveness. They are adamant that each piece of furniture they purchase be flexible and functional enough to work across an ever increasing range of uses and users.”

On customer service, Paul puts it simply: “Faster, cheaper, better has been the mantra for the past several years. And it is intensifying.”

Many fms are also ramping up efforts to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to finding products that meet their environmental requirements. For these decision makers, part of the service they expect from suppliers is information on a product’s environmental impact.

James Dowling, environmental compliance and safety administrator at Trendway Corporation in Holland, MI, says, “In the last year or so, there has been a noticeable increase in customer requests and concerns regarding long-term environmental programs or actions. [They] want to know about the manufacturer’s environmental sustainability commitment, in-house future product design programs to minimize production materials and wastes, product and facility energy reduction efforts, and end-of-life recyclability for products. Merely having a green slogan won’t get a manufacturer very far with most consumers.”

At American Seating in Grand Rapids, MI, Brock Hesselsweet, AIA, manager, sustainability and A&D relations, says, “I have observed an increase in concern over indoor air quality derived through increasing requests for furniture and construction material testing. Customers are also requesting information on recycled content more frequently and are concerned with [end of life] recyclability.”

There are a number of rating systems and benchmarks that fms can refer to when evaluating furniture products for environmental qualities. Most recently, The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (BIFMA) in Grand Rapids, MI released its e3-2008 Furniture Sustainability Standard.

Developed by BIFMA with NSF International, the standard was created using the consensus process described by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and released to the public in December 2008. The voluntary standard is aimed at providing measurable market based definitions of progressively more sustainable furniture by establishing performance criteria that address environmental and social aspects throughout the supply chain.

Says Dunlop, “In response to the recent BIFMA standard, we see an increased level of interest in its comprehensive inclusion of materials, energy, and human and ecosystem health along with a focus on corporate social responsibility. Many clients understand the need for—and benefits of—the [standard’s] third party testing as a way to offset potential greenwashing and to ensure fairness in the evaluation of products.”

Maximum Returns

Stretching resources further has become the norm for many fms today. Shifting and shrinking facility footprints, tight budgets, and the prevalence of technology make adaptability and durability necessities when purchasing furniture. Suppliers that provide superb service are also helping fms to identify the best choices. More than ever, fms are in a position to find what they need.

This article was written with input from Dowling, Dunlop, Hesselsweet, Hoffman, Lechman, and Paul. The recent BIFMA Sustainability Standard can be downloaded at