Fast changing office environments demand more flexible furniture solutions

Fast changing office environments demand more flexible furniture solutions

Geiger, John

Fast Changing Office Environments Demand More Flexible Furniture Solutions

The design and furnishing of a new office has turned into a track

Until the mid1990s, planning and creating professional corporate office spaces was most often a slower, lengthier process that reflected the lengthier lead times and workmanship that went into the product. Frequently, the time frame from beginning a client design project to installation could run four, five, even six months or more, with nine to twelve months not uncommon.

But times have changed. The roaring, low-inflation economy of the past decade, instant global communications, growing e-commerce, and the Internet service companies under pressure to make money almost immediately, has turned the design and furnishing of a new office into more of a track meet rather than a conventional business transaction.

And, while the end result may boost a company’s profit margin sooner rather than later, the tight schedule has left interior designers, facility managers, dealers, and manufacturers are under tremendous pressure to get the job done and the office open for business. Heeding this need to move faster, many office furniture and seating manufacturers have expanded their own production and electronic integration to reduce product turnaround times to mesh with today’s more urgent client needs.

Tight deadlines have magnified the need for accurate planning and attention to greater-than-ever details. In fact, these may be more important than ever before, as any mistake or oversight under a tight schedule can delay the opening of a new office or expansion of an existing facility. In today’s world, missing an urgent deadline could cost an interior designer, manufacturer, or dealer the job.

COMPANIES’ CHANGED

Changes in technology since the 1980s, and even since the early 1990s, coupled with new approaches to business spurred by the Internet have created three types of corporate clients. The oldest type is the more traditional manufacturing or service business. These “traditional” companies include long-established manufacturers in the Fortune 500, as well as industries such as insurance, banking, accounting, and legal. For interiors projects for “Traditional” companies, the client organizations have to be very image conscious, as well as concerned about office fixtures and furniture quality.

The second type of company is, by its nature, “Technology” oriented: Microsoft, Apple Computer, and Anderson Consulting, to name just three. A third type are the “Progressives,” companies that are heavy users of computer technology and leading the charge into e-commerce. Similar to Technology-oriented companies, “Progressive” organizations of all kinds embrace a business culture rooted in speed and quick change. They are commonly found in California’s Silicon Valley area, Silicon Alley in New York City, Route 128 in Boston, and clustered in other larger or smaller urban and suburban pockets throughout the west, midwest, and south.

The pace that these three organizational types set for themselves seems to reflect their demands on the vendors selected to supply their new offices, particularly when it comes to furniture.

For example, “Traditional” companies place substantial value on corporate image, solidity, and fine furniture. They are long-successful organizations that place particular care on the caliber of their employees. To attract and keep good employees at all levels, especially management and executive staffs, it is common for these companies to equip their offices with high-quality, well-designed furniture and seating. They recognize that it does take time to manufacture such office furniture to order, especially since it is wood based, and that it may contain custom features or finishes ordered by the client or their design firm.

“Technology” and “Progressive” companies are much different. While they care about their employees, and about relative quality and design features, they place value on their ability to adjust their operations to a given customer situation or market environment. Consequently, they tend to purchase office furniture that is particularly modular or flexible-in-use, easy to erect, dismantle, and move. If they land a major account in a region, state, or country where they presently have no office, they purchase furniture that helps them get up and running quickly.

ERA OF MOBILE FURNITURE

The emergence of “Progressive” companies particularly, and of a business culture based on speed, has placed emphasis on flexibility when it comes to providing their office furniture. “Progressives” often require modular/ mobile furniture. Their furniture needs to meet every demand their users have in a workplace, and frequent [constant] changes.

The need for such flexibility and function in fact, is what prompted Ahold Information Services to purchase mobile conference tables that adjust to the company’s future as well as immediate needs. With 700 employees, Ahold provides information services to its parent’s eight major U.S. companies. The subsidiary purchased 100 conference tables this year for its conference and learning center, for formal presentation one day, and in-house employee training the next. In addition to their ability to be reconfigured at will, these highend mobile conferencing and “learning” tables came with a built-in wire management system and portals to keep computer cables safely out-ofthe-way.

ERGONOMICS ARE STILL KEY

As in the 80s and 90s, ergonomics is more than ever a key issue for interior designers and corporate clients of all kinds. Desks need to adapt to a user’s needs or preferences of the moment. In “Technology” and “Progressive” clients, heightadjustable desks need to fit to a particular user or task and convert from seated to standing use at will. Such flexibility is important, since it comes at a time when the new federal legislation will give workers more protection against repetitive motion injuries, minimizing physical or ergonomic stresses of jobs including those of computer users.

A conference table today may need to become an individual or team workstation the next day. Ergonomic flexibility gives “Technology” and “Progressive” clients the ability to use office furniture as a tool to help keep employees, since it can be fitted to an individual user’s preferred work style or ongoing responsibilities.

CONSTRUCTION & DESIGN

Whether a corporate client is in the “Traditional,” “Technology,” or “Progressive” categories, they each want furniture that, regardless of function and cost, is “timeless” in design, use of materials, construction, and detailing. This is especially necessary with mobile and heightadjustable furniture! Quality office furniture today of any kind, including modular/mobile and heightadjustable, should have a trouble-free life expectancy for continuous daily use of at least 15 years. While most office furniture continues to be made of either steel or wood, a trend has developed for a mix of materials; desk and table legs made of pressure-cast aluminum with adjustable connection points, steel and aluminum die-cast workstation and chair components, less costly wood-veneer tops, and other visible surfaces made from replenishable sources.

Clients today, in all categories, prefer natural wood finishes, augmented by water-based or “light” stains. Clients should not be able to smell the finish, and both manufacturer and specifier today have to be alert to any potential office environment health problem their product or spec may cause.

REPUTATION, PRICING AND GUARANTEES

A major concern for any project designer, corporate client, or dealer under a tight deadline is the furniture manufacturer’s track record. Prospective clients today in any of the three categories expect references and want to visit the manufacturer’s operations for on-site planning meetings and plant tours. Along with competitive pricing, many clients want a guaranteed delivery date, with a built-in penalty if missed.

FUTURE-FLEXIBLE

The relationship between office furniture manufacturers and their clients in the years immediately ahead will hinge greatly on flexibility. The ability to change quickly will be important so neither side falls behind their respective competitors.

In today’s contract interior design and multilevel corporate environment, while the terms “Traditional,” “Technology-driven” and “Progressive” will inevitably change, a part of the designer’s and dealer’s role will be to ensure that client furniture keeps pace with change whenever, whereever, and however it occurs.

EDITOR’S NOTES: John Geiger, a master cabinetmaker with an advanced management certificate from Harvard, and with four decades of furniture design and building experience, is founder and head of Geiger International, Inc., today a subsidiary of Herman Miller Inc. entering its 27th year.

Copyright B U S Publishing Group, Inc. Jun 2001

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