The Evolution Of The Office Solution

August 11, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Herman Miller's Action Office (better known as the cubicle), which turned 40 last month, is now officially over the hill — yet it is still the most common form of office solutions.

The office cube is classic: sort of the Harrison Ford of office solutions. But even Ford, while timeless, will eventually be replaced by a younger generation.

The same is happening with office furniture.

"Once upon a time, it was, 'Well, welcome to the company. Here is your cubicle, here is your chair, and oh, if you need anything, just let us now and we'll bring you what we think you need,'" said Mike Dunlap, owner and principal of Michael A. Dunlap and Associates, a business consulting services company that focuses on issues involving the office furniture industry.

"Many of the furniture designs coming from the manufacturers are moving away from the panel systems that might be referred to as 'Dilbertville' and cubicles to more free-standing, more moveable, more re-locatable and reconfigurable furniture setups, so that it truly can be customized, given a circumstance."

Another trend Dunlap has noticed in the office furniture industry is a move to what he calls "crossover furniture."

"The crossover furniture is furniture that is of a style that is comfortable in an office, but can also be comfortable in a residential setting. Perhaps it would be comfortable in health care or educational — multiple places — and still feel that it's in place. And it's a trend I began to see, really, going back about five years ago," said Dunlap.

"We've been seeing a shift from a more commercial or institutional style to more of a residential, more of a comfort style."

Dunlap said crossover furniture lends itself to customization of spaces. He gave the example of Herman Miller's Teneo line of storage furniture, whose basic pieces can be combined in various ways to create new products.

David Pimental, who works in the field of systems product merchandising for Haworth, also noted the trend of a meld of home and office.

"The way people work is changing today," said Pimental. "We talk about telecommuters, and people are working more from home. There's this kind of blurring, if you will, of home life and work life."

Haworth addresses this trend with the implementation of technology in its Castelli for Haworth line.

The Castelli line is a portfolio of global products that includes new designs as well as the tried-and-true —pieces that don't necessarily go with one another.

Pimental said that, thanks to laptops and wireless Internet, he and his coworkers often would work from local coffee shops.

"Part of the reason they were attracted there — and our research shows this — was that it offered them a unique way to work," said Pimental. "The atmosphere was different and it was also probably more comfortable than, say, sitting at a desk. And some of our pieces that we've included in the Castelli for Haworth portfolio, that was part of our decision-making process. … No longer do we have to go to the coffee shop; no longer do we have to go home to do this."

Pimental said that Haworth's customers are now able to get that same atmosphere and comfort level working in the office.

"I compare it a little bit to what happened in the workplace a few years back with … casual Friday and the attire. You were able to lighten up a little bit," said Pimental. "Now, that's what we're seeing with how people customize their offices and their work areas."

With the economy down and businesses eying their bottom lines, Pimental said it is rare to find a complete office being furnished in new high-end office solutions. Instead, customers are going for "accents." And that's where Castelli for Haworth finds its niche: Each product is unique, so a customer doesn't have to buy the whole line.

The shift to customized office solutions is due, in part, to the desire to attract and retain young talent.

"If you take someone in Silicone Valley who is going for a Stanford or Berkeley grad, they're going to offer him options. … They come into a facility, and you see it time and time again, that they want a facility that's more engaging, more open, more creative, allowing them to fulfill their image of wherever they want to work," said Jim Stelter, CEO of StelterPartners.

"They'll walk into one environment with a sea of small cubicles, and then they'll walk into another one in the next interview and it's an open environment that's very collaborative, and they'll say, 'This is the place I want to be.'"

Customizing is a specialty for StelterPartners, which will often modify a solution to fit the customer's exact needs.

"We explain to them and show them things that they can't change, things that are very expensive to change. … But to make a work surface three inches longer or to cut an opening for power and create a power outlet, it's not hard to do," said Stelter. "But those are the things that people find most valuable."

For instance, when Stelter and some of his designers met with a client in the education sector in Columbus, Ohio, he brought cardboard, duct tape, scissors and magic markers along. He broke the teachers and staff into groups and each group started to construct their furniture solutions. After the groups identified their top needs, StelterPartners took that information, sketched solutions for the client to OK, and is now in the process of creating prototypes for the client.

Stelter describes quantity and difficulty as the X and Y axis for customization. If a client wants just one simple customized product, that is very feasible. However, the more difficult the customization, the more quantity plays a role.

"Some people, all they want is a special size trapezoidal work surface. We can do one of those. That's not a big deal," said Stelter. "It is a big deal to a big company like Herman Miller or Haworth, but to us, one isn't that difficult a thing, and we still make money off of it."

Workspaces, historically, have swung from wide-open spaces with herds of desks and no privacy to closed-off, replicated cubicles. The pendulum is now swinging back toward the middle, Dunlap said, with spaces that have shorter panels with customizable options, and that can be reconfigured within minutes.

"I consider it kind of a step up, because now we've taken what we've learned from both those earlier environments and have applied them to become a hybrid. It truly is evolutionary."

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