Open-Plan Offices And Buying Office Furniture
The task of buying office furniture is often challenging, but innovations in office design have made it more so. A good example is the trend in space design towards open-plan offices. This approach is supposed to make workers more collaborative and less isolated from co-workers. However, it has created unintended side-effects.
The problem is that workers find it difficult to concentrate and focus in the often vast, noise-filled open offices that have become a common feature in today’s workplace. The open space and the needs of workers also have to be considered for individuals buying office furniture.
It’s estimated that almost three-quarters of workplaces in the U.S. have adopted an open-office environment. Yet, during the same time, research continues to show how ineffective and stressful open plans can be.
In fact, despite the continued design push towards open-plan offices, it’s being acknowledged that workers need quiet space to concentrate at work. In the meantime this simply complicates the process of buying office furniture.
Is Buying Office Furniture Becoming a Research Project?
A recent example that takes buying office furniture to another level is the “Brody,” from furniture maker Steelcase Inc. It resembles an inverted library study carrel, which isn’t really surprising since the concept began as a project in the company’s education division.
The designers observed how students came to the library, found a seat where their back could be to the wall, then isolated themselves as they dove into their assignments. Steelcase took these observations and designed a pod-like space that includes a reclined seat and a movable desk, all surrounded on the back and sides by a privacy wall.
According to an article in the WSJ:
Called Brody – a play on the words “body” and “brain” – the pod-like workstation is shielded from view by screens on about three sides, depending on the model. With its visible power outlet and dedicated space for a person’s bag, the design is intended to calm anxiety in workers, according to Mark McKenna, a Steelcase designer who worked on the project.
Everything from a low charge on a laptop to a handbag that’s not within arms’ reach can spark “latent anxiety” in employees, he said, making them uncomfortable and unable to keep their minds on their to-do list.
Steelcase’s “Brody” design is not intended to replace a worker’s regular desk, however, but to simply provide somewhere for an employee to escape for an hour or two. In the process of researching the design, the Steelcase team looked not only at the habits of college students but at research on neuroscience and how the retina works.
Once the designers better understood the eye’s response to movement in its peripheral vision, “that little fact flipped the project around for us,” McKenna said. “We began to see distractions and distractibility not in the pejorative sense, but as a human biological response to stimulus.”
Steelcase is not the only firm making buying office furniture more cerebral.
The Irony of Open-Plan Design and the Need for Privacy
Office furniture and design company Knoll has also been promoting the idea of “refuge rooms,” complete with video displays for connecting devices, where workers can go to concentrate.
According to Knoll company spokesman David Bright, “Within the last 24 months, we have focused aggressively on the needs of companies to balance individual workspaces with areas of the office that provide for individual and group privacy.”
Buying office furniture for open-plan spaces is being guided as much by aesthetics as by a growing recognition among designers that workers value their privacy.
Architecture and design firm Gensler conducted a study in 2012 which found that workers spend 55 percent of their time on focused work. This is up from 48 percent in 2007. Steelcase’s internal research shows the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk has increased by 16 percent since 2008 and that privacy is consistently listed as the top workplace issue.
Smaller office space isn’t helping the task of buying office furniture either. Recently the New York Times reported that the average amount of space per worker dropped to 176 square feet in 2012, from 225 in 2010.