Furniture Trends: The Open Office Puzzle

By Richard Kadzis
From the May/June 2015 issue

In Toledo, OH, Libbey Glass headquarters was designed to provide an atmosphere for collaboration, increased communication, and exhibiting the company’s brand and history.
In Toledo, OH, Libbey Glass headquarters was designed to provide an atmosphere for collaboration, increased communication, and exhibiting the company’s brand and history. (Photo: Vocon.)

Workplace strategies, settings, and practices define today’s business model for a growing number of global corporations whose fortunes often hinge on their ability to innovate and, thus, engage their employees. The most agile of these enterprises include top brand names like Google, W.L. Gore, and Unilever, yet there are many others entering this new economy landscape. Sometimes described as “meta-companies,” they are forward facing, adaptive, and proactively responsive to change.

Many factors influence this level of workplace flexibility, including the commercial furniture sector. “Furniture has become an important part of creating flexibility because flexible furniture creates many types of workplaces,” advises Shawn Murphy, director, real estate and fleet, West Division, for Comcast Cable.

It’s also a key part to solving today’s open workplace dilemma, as employers continue to discover that, in many cases, they have overbuilt collaborative workspaces to the detriment of focus or heads-down work.

As those realizations hit home, Murphy recently told Building Dialogue magazine that it’s important “to stay with flexible furniture to create new spaces as needed.”

Having the capacity to reconfigure workplace designs affordably can spell the difference between higher and lower rates of productivity, which in turn impacts outcomes like speed to market, competitive advantage and profitability.

From Scott Ashley’s vantage point across the breadth of the workplace industry, it’s all about optimizing organizational performance now to drive future growth.

Ashley, senior workplace strategist for the architectural and interior design firm Vocon in Cleveland, OH, frames the open office debate around today’s “smaller and smarter” portfolio of workplace design options that are best informed by the day-to-day activities of employees in given work settings.

“Just like the open office isn’t right for everyone, there isn’t a predefined mix of focus and collaborative spaces that can be adopted by all companies,” he observes.

“Furniture can make for better workplaces by supporting the tasks employees need to perform throughout the day,” Ashley relates. “For instance, workstations with lower privacy screens allow for individual, heads down work, while still encouraging interaction.”

Goodyear, the tire and rubber company, was melding business goals to its physical space. This called for a mix of collaborative spaces. (Photo: Vocon.)
Goodyear, the tire and rubber company, was melding business goals to its physical space. This called for a mix of collaborative spaces. (Photo: Vocon.)

Vocon recently partnered with Libbey Glass to redesign that client’s corporate headquarters in Toledo, OH.

“The company’s previous space contained inconsistent workplace standards, high paneled workstations inhibiting employee and departmental collaboration, as well as inflexible furniture systems, making accommodating future growth challenging,” Ashley recounts.

The solution became custom workstations built to ensure task specific support blended with private but transparent offices, multiple collaboration areas, work bars, and a café. “These varying settings and types of furniture ensure Libbey employees have all of the areas they need to complete their various tasks, improving how the office functions,” according to Ashley.

Counteracting Inertia

While Libbey and Vocon accentuate social spaces like cafés to heighten interaction, VARIDESK places emphasis on standing, not only because extensive sitting is “the new smoking,” but because standing also promotes more interaction.

Based in Coppell, TX, VARIDESK provides height adjustable standing desks including its Pro Plus 36. “We are big believers in removing barriers to inertia, and have found that when you get your employees standing, they’re more able to take advantage of the open office concept,” says the company’s CEO, Jason McCann. “When you add a dynamic element to the space, it removes some of the friction associated with the traditional desk, chair, screen, and partition.”

Height adjustable desks facilitate more interaction as employees are inclined to move more frequently with this dynamic furniture design.
Height adjustable desks facilitate more interaction as employees are inclined to move more frequently with this dynamic furniture design. (Photo: VARIDESK.)

For example, the company began to target workers in cubicles and benching systems by adding the VARIDESK Cube Corner 48 and Cube Plus 48 to the existing mix. “They are specifically designed for employees tied to systems furniture workstations,” McCann notes.

“Facilities management and space planning are organic elements of every organization’s life cycle, and it’s never complete,” McCann also remarks. “Planning for collaboration is key, but adding dynamic elements to those spaces is what helps them actually work well in the real world. It’s not just breaking down walls or moving employees closer together, but focusing on specific motivators that employees need to get their work done.”

This includes specific products and components that companies can inject easily and affordably into the space for maximum impact. That’s good news for facility managers, because this type of flexibility also meets the timeless mandate for cost savings, efficiency, and optimization.

According to John Campbell, principal and workplace strategist with architecture, planning, and interior design firm Francis Cauffman, which has offices in Philadelphia and New York City, choosing the right furniture can help stoke a company’s workplace strategy and, by extension, its very growth. “We cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding and using appropriate furnishings as a key factor in creating the right individual, collaborative, social, and learning workplace settings, and expressing a company’s cultural values and brand,” he says.

To Campbell, today’s situation isn’t as much about collaborative versus focus space as it is about gaining balance. “The real issue is not a question of open versus enclosed space, but the need for a good balance of both.”

Voice And Choice

Give employees a voice and choice in determining how balance is attained, Campbell also emphasizes. Treat them like stakeholders. “As part of a pilot space for a recent client, we engaged user input to prototype their new workstations. In addition, we engaged them in testing a wide range of miscellaneous furniture solutions. As part of our discovery process, we asked them a full set of questions to determine how they used this furniture, and how effectively the product performed,” he recalls.

This information allowed for the building of stronger knowledge of the behavioral patterns for particular furniture pieces, as well as for the best possible placement of those components, resulting in “much higher” utilization of these settings than previous ones.

This scenario underscores the essential need “to understand the different behavioral attributes associated with each work style and work setting, as well as carefully considering how each setting will be used in relation to adjacent work settings,” as Campbell describes.

Campbell shared a headquarters transformation scenario involving the pharmaceutical giant GSK (GlaxoSmithKline). The case illustrates how workspace can be extremely adaptable to changing business needs. It resulted in a workspace with a much higher utilization rate that “feels more generous than the previous facility, even though the footprint is significantly smaller,” according to Campbell.

Interestingly, the GSK headquarters (located in Philadelphia’s restored Navy Yard and opened in 2013) shows how furnishings can impact even leadership styles, starting with a compelling commitment to 100% unassigned seating with no private offices. “This configuration requires a very different approach to leadership,” Campbell asserts. “Without private offices, senior executives work side by side with their subordinates. This was both a key design element and a business driver, because it improved transparency and connectivity across the company, and it sped up decision making.”

Key facets of the GSK redesign included: open area desking around the building perimeter; maximized daylight penetration and open views to all employees; a wide array of open and enclosed work settings; accommodation of multiple work styles and activities; a totally wireless environment allowing for work in the cafeteria, atrium, and roof deck; departmental blocking and stacking with flexible boundaries; and increased emphasis on wellness, including ergonomics and adjustable furnishings.

The Future Of Work

Campbell foresees the convergence of GSK-type models with co-working spaces, which represent the fastest growing type of commercial office space today. “Both provide a wide array of different work settings to suit different user and business needs, and both have the ability to address rapidly changing business needs without requiring expensive construction work.”

Co-working, or on-demand, work spaces started as independent places for self-employed freelance contractors, teleworkers, and other “digital nomads” to find a desk and share equipment, ideas, knowledge, and contacts. But it is rapidly morphing into flexible space inside companies seeking cost-effective ways to leverage underutilized pieces of their leased and owned real estate portfolios.

The GSK headquarters layout includes sit-to-stand workstations, team tables, meeting areas, social areas, and soft seating.
The GSK headquarters layout includes sit-to-stand workstations, team tables, meeting areas, social areas, and soft seating. (Photo: Eric Laignel.)

Whether there for freelancers, staff, vendors, or others, co-working spaces are redefining collaborative work styles, which are changing quickly, as architect Bob Fox observes. Fox is part of a think tank called the Case4Space, which authored the book, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture.

Technology is the main lever, Fox reports. “Post-recession start-ups are operating very differently than those that came before, especially the way that they collaborate. Most of these new start-ups have piggy-backed on an existing technology (think iPhone). They can’t exist without it. They have leveraged social networks to the point that they are able to interact and collaborate with thousands simultaneously (look at Open or Ideo). The nature of collaboration and the amount of data is growing geometrically and exponentially, akin to Moore’s Law applied to organizations.”

And the frequency and speed of collaboration will get faster. “The physical spaces that we use are still critical to collaboration but you will see an increasing amount of new ways for certain types of organizations to collaborate. They will integrate together and immerse us with people and data. Some furniture companies are looking at integrating Link, Hangout, and other technology into furniture and space. It is evolving very rapidly,” Fox believes.

Ashley of Vocon offers an overarching point of view about the increasingly strategic nature of the workplace. “Office design is not one size fits all,” he contends. “While an open office plan can work well for certain organizations, a workplace renovation or redesign should not be implemented without understanding the leadership goals, work habits, and business plans of an organization.”

Richard Kadzis.

As Ashley reinforces, an organization’s business strategy must play a key role in planning a new workplace in order to provide for long-term success, and commercial office furniture can be an integral part of that alignment with the enterprise.

Kadzis is a corporate real estate analyst with subject matter expertise in facility management, workplace practices, economic development, corporate social responsibility, location strategies, portfolio optimization, and enterprise leadership. He is part of the think tank