CHICAGO — Employee wellness initiatives are changing the way corporate America makes decisions about office furniture.
According to executives at this year’s NeoCon trade show in Chicago, that push for employee health and wellness is largely driving office furniture manufacturers to strike a balance between offering both private, productive spaces and open, collaborative environments.
“What’s probably been the most powerful thing is that we think our customers and employees are starting to appreciate the experience of work, how they work when they’re in a space and the holistic impact the space has on employees and therefore on company performance,” said John Mooney, CFO at Holland-based Haworth Inc.
Overall, office furniture manufacturers have been moving toward products that encourage worker mobility as a way to complement employers’ emphasis on increased productivity. That’s led the furniture makers to design a variety of private, semi-private and collaborative work areas that cater to different work styles and offer different postures for employees throughout the day.
The rationale: The more options employees have, the more they’ll move around the office.
“Sitting has been called the new smoking,” said Tom Newhouse, principal of Grand Rapids-based Thomas J. Newhouse Design LLC, who works with various OEMs on products ranging from seating to lighting. “The assumption is that you’ll gain weight, get fat and die — what an over-statement. But sitting has proven to cause … problems when done for long durations. Humans aren’t meant to do that, but they’re not meant to stand all day, either.”
In particular, Newhouse predicts that the office furniture industry will move toward an airline club-style of office plan with a combination of lounging furniture such as sofas, collaborative benching and individual private spaces.
“Not everyone’s going to get their own private office, but I think there will be a mix of semi-private or private offices to drop into,” Newhouse said.
As corporate America increasingly adopts wellness strategies, the office environment represents an area to turn to for creating greater employee well-being and furthering a culture of wellness within the workplace, said Amy Ritsema, a partner in OnSite Wellness LLC, a Grand Rapids-based wellness provider.
Office aesthetics, color palettes and lighting all affect the mood and stress levels of employees, which in turn affect their physical and emotional health.
“That work environment really fits in well with the soft side of wellness and that culture,” Ritsema said. “It’s going to help with my stress level and it’s going to help with how I feel throughout the day.”
While most manufacturers have developed products to satisfy physical wellness, Bill Bundy, CEO of Holland-based Trendway Corp., sees emotional wellness playing a heightened role in the future of the industry.
Going forward, Bundy believes the office furniture industry must continue to blend the comforts of residential furniture with the durability and versatility of contract products to reduce employee stress.
“Stress is associated with not being able to meet deadlines or do quality work,” Bundy said. “I think the emotional element is just as big and important from a wellness perspective.”
ADDING VALUE BACK
While office furniture products are evolving to manage workers’ demands for privacy and collaboration, companies must figure out ways to add value back into workstations that are constantly shrinking, sources said.
To do that, office furniture companies and their suppliers are capitalizing on new technology that is more flexible to accommodate the different ways people work in private and collaborative settings.
At Grand Haven-based Light Corp., the company has used LED technology throughout its products to expand the number of mounting locations for lights as OEMs have moved away from overhead shelving, where lights had traditionally been affixed, said General Manager Kyle Verplank.
“The trend we’re seeing, and that a lot of executives echo, is that the office space is undoubtedly changing in the sense that the large cubicles and overhead panels have come down,” Verplank said.
Office furniture companies are also integrating storage space for workers’ belongings along with additional power and connectivity options inside benching and private spaces to add value back into their products.
One of the most prevalent ways OEMs are adding value is by incorporating designs that minimize the amount of time that a space goes unused, sources said. They can achieve that by ensuring the furniture is flexible enough to accommodate changing employee tastes and needs.
For example, office furniture companies at NeoCon displayed smaller executive offices with desk systems that could easily be closed off and secured so that the space could double as a conference room if that executive was away from the office.
Other companies unveiled slightly larger versions of the one-worker private room that can either be used by an individual employee or for group collaboration.
As employees continue to change how they work in offices, furniture manufacturers will need to continue to design nimble and flexible products, Bundy said.
“The pendulum is trying to find its place,” Bundy said of the industry’s pull back from the open office concept in recent years. “It’s always going to move — sometimes we guess where it’s going to go, and the other times, the market tells us.”
MiBiz Senior Writer Mark Sanchez contributed to this report.