Where Do We Go From Here?

The design directors of five leading contract-furniture companies stare into a crystal ball made hazy by a deep recession and fundamental shifts in the way we work.

To the contract-furniture industry, today’s marketplace feels a bit like that old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Commercial real estate does not seem poised for a quick recovery. Money remains tight, developers are skittish, and office-vacancy rates are higher than they’ve been in almost two decades. At the same time (and here’s the interesting part), technology continues to transform the workplace, changing not only the way we work but calling into question how organizations will function in the future. Do places matter? Are traditional offices an anachronism? How do you accommodate four generations of workers, all of whom interact with technology (and one another) in drastically different ways? “Designers love to take on the wicked problem, and there’s no absence of those right now,” says Steelcase’s James Ludwig. We recently invited the design directors of Allsteel, Haworth, Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Teknion to talk to us about the state of the industry, the future of workplace design, and the role sof research in a down economy.

James Ludwig, Steelcase
Don Goeman, Herman Miller
Jeff Reuschel, Haworth
Jan Johnson, Allsteel
John Hellwig, Teknion

Was this recession, which struck directly at the core of your business, somehow different?

GOEMAN: Yes and no. Yes, because of the global pervasiveness of the challenge and the speed of the drop. No, because we’ve been through this before and know how to maneuver through the tough terrain.

JOHNSON: We think this recession may have more lasting and fundamental impacts on the workplace. For example, our collective wisdom about the mobility programs that were so tantalizing to organizations in the last couple of recessions has matured along with the technology that enables them.

REUSCHEL: This recession has features which make it unique. One, work-style shifts. The furnishing providers yield their greatest revenue from individual workstations. For a variety of reasons, many companies are dedicating more space to collaborative endeavors and either shrinking or eliminating spaces for individual workers. This doesn’t mean lower revenues but rather revenues from a different section of the catalog—sections that are currently underdeveloped. Second, sustainable practices. Public awareness, government mandate, and, eventually, economics will continue to drive sustainability into the mainstream. One of the primary targets is likely to be the daily commute, which will affect the amount of space needed to accommodate workers each day. And third, technology enablers. As mobile technology improves, the likelihood of working from alternative settings rises. This is not necessarily bad for the industry, but it raises questions about current product portfolios and distribution models. Short answer? Yes, this is very different from past recessions.

Traditionally, forward-thinking companies have used downturns as an opportunity to ramp up their research-and-development efforts. Has this recession changed your research mission?

HELLWIG: The mission has not changed, but the recession triggers a whole series of shifts in how companies operate, which companies or sectors thrive, how people are employed, how companies plan their facilities and purchase furniture. It becomes important to detect these changes and understand their ramifications.

REUSCHEL: A growing economy is a good insulator. It breeds optimism, confidence, and the always attendant complacency (why change when things are going well?). While I’d never wish for it, a stalled economy does tend to force attention on what’s over the horizon. This forced forward-thinking is a good thing for an industry that has notoriously lacked innovation. However, part of the reason for this is a lack of risk taking on the part of the purchasers of interiors products and services. We hope the uncomfortable necessities of this recession will give birth to new ideas on both sides of the blueprint.

What are you researching these days?

HELLWIG: Economic downturns affect behavior a great deal, and with the enabling power of technology and the Internet, things can change quickly.

Our strength in design comes from being in tune with these changes and being able to respond. We cater to customers’ requests for customization, because as well as getting sales, these requests are an early indicator of changing requirements and often give us inspiration and guidance for new product development.

REUSCHEL: One of the most profoundly sustainable advances in history is the principle of interchangeable parts. While furnishings are constructed based on this principle, the buildings that house them typically are not. But we’re beginning to see buildings constructed as mass-produced, “interchangeable” elements (e.g., Fisher’s Rotating Tower). The ability to evolve an interior from one function to another would have a profoundly positive impact on the 40 percent of landfill waste currently attributed to construction and renovation. While we intend to be a part of this revolution, it will take the coordinated efforts of several constituencies to make it a reality.

LUDWIG: The two vectors that are a constant in our view of the future are changes in technology and the sociology of work.

GOEMAN: Mobility, technology, collaboration, sustainability, and asset utilization are the major problems/opportunities now. They’ve been on everyone’s radar over the last decade, and a recession may not change the drivers of change as much as it heightens our sensitivity to them and an urgency to formulate a way forward.

Some economists are predicting an extended slump for the commercial real estate sector. Huge projects may be a thing of the past (at least for the foreseeable future). What ramifications will that have on workplace design?

GOEMAN: This sounds like an overly pessimistic view of the future—recessions always pass, even this one. Organizations will always need to do the right things with their real estate, and they will search for strategies that align with their future business needs.

JOHNSON: We’ll see more focus on the retrofit of existing buildings. GSA’s Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings, for example, is working to ensure that all federal buildings—new but especially existing—meet sustainable-design and energy-reduction targets. We have every reason to believe that the private sector will continue to invest in improving their existing portfolio.

HELLWIG: One interesting aspect of the world of technology, instant communication, and the Internet is that small enterprises can compete with larger companies more easily, and larger companies need to become more fluid and nimble to stay competitive. Most large companies are dealing with a mobile workforce, multiple generations, project-based collaborative work, and the need for a flexible, easily changed facility that can keep up with their business requirements. It’s no accident that these are also the characteristics of smaller, growing companies.

It looks as if the baby boomers will be in the workplace longer than expected. How are you treating the needs of four different generations?

HELLWIG: Two things are in play here, ergonomics and the ability to cater to different work styles. An older population may have more acute requirements for furniture that’s easy to use and comfortable. Lighting levels, reach, strength, back support, and other physical attributes need to be carefully considered in the basic design and in the choice of components that make up a workstation. But these are the basics of good design. We see our role as offering choices rather than dictating a way of work. This approach is well suited to meeting a wide range of needs, including multiple generations.

LUDWIG: What is clear is that the generation currently struggling to enter the workforce will eventually dominate the world of work, and that will have a big impact. When that tipping point happens is a big issue. The millennials will have had a categorically different experience in education and coming-of-age. Learning was once about memory. For them it’s about access to information, and soon it will be about immersive experience. This points the way to how business problems will be solved and decisions made. It’s already happening. You can call that a generational thing or a human- capability-being-amplified-by-technology thing. Whatever label you put on it is less relevant than the reality that it’s changing the nature of work.

JOHNSON: We’ve always had multiple generations in the workplace. What’s throwing us is the ever-increasing speed with which technology changes and the marked impact each new thing has on how we live and work. We have seen information go from currency to ubiquity; access go from precious to constant; and attention go from focus to continuous scanning. An article in the New York Times quoted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project: “People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology. College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”

REUSCHEL: The four generations are much more alike than they are different. The most important differences between them are behavioral, not generational. Therefore, radical design differences to satisfy one group over another are probably a mistake. One common misconception is the younger generation’s ability to multitask. While many people believe that the under-25s can text, listen to music, and do homework simultaneously, they are, in fact, no better at it than the over-50s. The design translation of that misconception is to put younger workers in a completely open environment and older workers in more enclosed spaces, which is simply not effective. More important than generational considerations are differences in stage of life, state of career, personality, and corporate culture. These would be much better to use to align with the physical space than relying on generational differences.

GOEMAN: As a late-boomer myself, I resent the implication that I can’t handle new technology and ways of working. Some of the generational conflicts are more hype than reality.

What’s the next wave of ideas about how people work, and how are you adapting your workplace designs to these complex, often contradictory set of needs?

HELLWIG: Many end users are looking for more open, light-filled environments that are healthy and somehow inspiring to the creative people who drive their business growth. A variety of different settings rather than a monolithic single solution seems to be what is necessary to support this kind of workforce. Current and future designs need to be simpler in one way (components, basic desks and tables) but more nuanced and tunable in others. Open environments are not without enclosure needs. Designers will need tools to attenuate sound and isolate noise, and we will need to fully understand the relationship between furniture and architecture in this area.

REUSCHEL: The typical modern office worker is occupying a smaller, noisier, and more densely populated environment than ever before. One recent phenomenon to reduce the individual-space footprint is the application of benching solutions. It is often advocated as a more collaborative, European work style that enhances communication while providing greater access to daylight and views. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence that this configuration enhances collaboration or communication. To compensate, we must return to the European application, where a spatial break is made, separating groups of people into small groups.

LUDWIG: There are cultural differences and preferences, but there are some real and deep common threads. When viewed through our dual lenses of sociology and technology, connecting people in a networked world becomes a dominant theme. As we understand more, we are focused on enabling and amplifying the connections between people (eyes to eyes) as well as with their devices (eyes to information). We don’t believe that one size fits all or one universal planning paradigm fits every problem. If the products could be seen as the hardware, the applications or insights into planning as the software, both have to be tailored to the needs of the users.

GOEMAN: New Urbanism holds a lot of relevance for interior-design planning. It can teach us a lot as we compress space requirements for what individuals need when working alone, and enrich and enlarge space to support the needs of collaborative groups and the community. This means we need to simplify and dematerialize the workstation and reappropriate more value to the shared-space areas of a floor plate. These days, traditional corporate offices are competing with the richness of the urban experience to attract people who can work almost anywhere they choose. The highest degree of knowledge transfer will likely occur in the corporate office—provided people choose to show up there instead of at a coffee shop.

How is the proliferation of portable electronic communication devices changing the look, size, and function of your furniture designs?

GOEMAN: Obviously there’s an incredible shrinkage going on in the space required to accommodate these technologies, leading to this logic: the tools require less space; office footprints can shrink; material appropriations can lessen; walls can come down; and the spatial depths can decrease.

JOHNSON: When any vertical surface can become a touchscreen, any phone is a projector, and surfaces are no longer needed to hold laptops because we’re all using netbooks, furniture looses specificity. Our goal is to understand the interfaces but avoid tightly tethering the technology to the furniture and hobbling its potential adaptability.

LUDWIG: Take a look at the space around you and how you are doing things today versus five years ago. It’s different. Having more devices has a bigger impact than simply needing more outlets for power. It has work-process, social-protocol and IT-policy, posture, and planning impacts. We look at behaviors and devices as fixed or mobile. They enable and compound each other in a reciprocal effect. One thing that is clear to me: even if the computer didn’t produce the paperless office, mobility will. That is having a big impact on the whole picture.

The sustainability goal will, eventually, be zero carbon. How are you adjusting your sourcing, manufacturing, shipping, marketing, and other systems for this daunting goal?

LUDWIG: Let’s frame the term zero, because it can be misleading. As long as we’re in business—or on this planet breathing—each of us will have a carbon footprint. We can neutralize it by offsetting it in some way, but that’s not the same thing as not having one. Investments like our Wege Wind Energy Farm help us offset what we cannot eliminate today, but should never lull us into believing that our investment makes our footprint zero or voids our accountability. Many of our operations and offices are in states where the burning of fossil fuel (namely coal) is the foundation of the energy grid. We also know that the world’s commercial and personal transportation system is fossil-fuel based. Therefore, lowering our footprint by lowering our demand and reliance on fossil-fuel-based energy is a critical part of our company’s carbon strategy. This applies to the way we run our business as well as the way we design product.

REUSCHEL: Our greatest contribution will be creating interiors that are adaptable and mutable. Interiors that can be reconfigured to the needs of the next tenant is our long-term goal.

JOHNSON: Cost, not carbon, is the sustainability driver. The ideal is for us as global citizens to realize that pollution has a front-end as well as a back-end cost. Those costs have been pushed off onto the environment by both producer and consumer. Lean manufacturing processes taught a long time ago that sound environmental practices are not just good business but great business.

GOEMAN: Zero carbon is probably the most holistic driver of sustainability values in application, so long as it’s pursued as a consequence of how we do business—as opposed to acquiring offsets.

Great contract furniture is made to last a long time, yet changes in function and style demand products that can be easily recycled. What is your response to this growing need to reclaim materials while keeping your product lines fresh and timely?

REUSCHEL: In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand speaks of layers of a building in terms of time they’re meant to last (structure, 30–300 years; space plan, 3–30 years). Adaptable buildings allow slippage between the layers. One of the cardinal sustainability sins of new product development is to create composites that can’t be separated at end of life. Likewise, intimately integrating short-life-cycle elements (the bathwater) with long-life-cycle elements (the baby) is equally problematic on a grander scale. We must begin by making each layer more considerate of the next layer. This is especially true of the longer-life-cycle layers, as they tend to rule over the shorter ones.

LUDWIG: We say, “At the scale of architecture, we exercise a sophisticated restraint. We seek a certain timelessness.” The cycles of change at this scale are less urgent for good reason: disruption in the workplace, cost, tax laws, et cetera. It is also material-intensive. This restraint, focusing rather on exquisite execution and detail, ensures that the product will remain relevant for some time without being simplistic or banal. We also say, “At the scale of the user, we seek a certain sensual sophistication. Expressions here can be more timely.” We won’t do a cartoon or whimsical chair. There are enough examples in design history where “interesting” becomes irritating and “exciting” becomes exhausting. That is a recipe for more landfill. Our strategy is road tested. It’s simply: don’t follow fashion; create solutions that solve authentic problems; use good ingredients.

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