Ending the slump: Office furniture redefining employee-workstation relationship

The following is the second post in our series on the office space of tomorrow. 

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 1.21.40 PMSince the 19th century, factory machinery and office desks have been static, immovable objects that forced human workers to adapt to them. That means for centuries, workers have stood at machines, sat and slouched at work stations, and toiled in offices that were hardly conducive to normal human behavior and posture. The office space of the future promises to turn this traditional ideal of office furniture on its head, which will surely impact the ways that office space will be designed and used for generations to come.

While office floor plans and creative perks are still considered critical factors for adapting to the workforce of the future, some organizations are focusing on incorporating futuristic office furniture and flexible office partitions to create a work environment that promotes privacy and a more inviting and transparent approach that improves productivity.

One company on the forefront of this movement is Steelcase, the largest office-furniture manufacturer, and arguably the most innovative, in the world. Steelcase is creating new ways for employees to work individually and as teams. From stand-up desks and soundproof enclaves to drop-in-and-out video conferencing suites to strangely shaped office chairs, Steelcase’s primary goal is to develop the smartest, most informed take on trends in the contemporary workspace and then build products around those insights.

At Steelcase, teams conduct interviews with employees but also use sensors to track employee movements (i.e. in-chair squirming and general mobility), and then Steelcase designers create furniture prototypes onsite based on those experiments. Steelcase is committed to designing work furniture that encourages people to work, and feel, like humans again.

Steelcase launched its Brody WorkLounge system just last year based on a wealth of data focused on human work habits. By studying data from examining how students spend time in libraries, Steelcase developed the ultimate work-friendly lounge chair for the office. When sitting in the ergonomic cocoon, the worker’s body is positioned in an “alert recline” with the upper and lower back supported. And angled work surface holds your laptop at eye level while an arm support relieves pressure on the shoulders.

There is a built-in space to hold your bag (mainly for nomadic workers) and an opaque screen surrounds the individual to block out distractions without making the worker feel like they’re in a box (like the cubicle you’re probably sitting in right now). The Brody has been described by Steelcase executives as a “psychological safe spot” for workers.

Steelcase CEO Jim Keane, and admitted introvert, recently told Wired magazine, “If you want to change your culture, getting the physical space to match the body language is critical. And if you change the culture but don’t change the space, the space will anchor behaviors of the past.”

This innovative design could potentially transform the cubicle-laden office floors that are so prevalent in today’s commercial office spaces because it provides a user friendly and comfortable experience for workers along with privacy, all while consuming far less space than an average “cubicle farm” that you might see in today’s office environments.

And then there’s an innovative company called Altwork that has created its own office furniture design inspired by big data. Pointing to studies that confirm sitting and slouching decreases productivity, inhibits creativity and is just generally bad for our long-term health, Altwork designers just knew there was a better way and believes they have redefined how a computer and workstation can interact with workers and help them become more productive, comfortable and healthy. Their answer?

Altwork developed a dynamic new workstation called the Altwork Station that caters to the growing number of high intensity computer users and allows workers to work in four key productivity positions — sit, stand, collaborate and focus. The Altwork Station provides a worker continuous comfort while their computer seamlessly moves with them, at a push of a button.

So, how might this office furniture of the future impact the world of construction? Clearly, the use of more flexible and mobile workstations over traditional offices with heavy mahogany desks, wooden cabinets and bookshelves will inevitably mean the construction of fewer walls, partitions and individual offices. That also means fewer construction materials and labor (fewer walls mean less wall board, plastering, painting and finish work, right?). And when you consider what that means for a 60-story office building, you’re talking about a lot of materials and labor (or shorter construction schedules and lower costs). But regardless of the supposed impact on materials and labor, architects and construction professionals will still be required to design and coordinate office space and amenities that accommodate the more flexible furniture and ensure the buildings meets the basic needs of the workforce of tomorrow.

Let’s consider something that many office workers take for granted — electric outlets. Open office layouts with fewer walls and columns will require creative solutions to connect fluid, movable workstations with the building’s energy sources. Running electrical systems in between wall studs may not be a viable option if the actual workstations can be moved anywhere in the space (not to mention there will be fewer walls anyway). For open office spaces that utilize more mobile and flexible workstations or pods like the Brody WorkLounge, “raised floors” constructed slightly higher than the concrete floor slab might be a useful solution — the space in between the slab and floor can house the wiring and allow for more flexible outlet locations on the floors throughout the space.

As new designs for office furniture are conceived to serve the needs of workers, the world’s architects and construction companies will need to continue designing and coordinating creative office space layouts, along with mechanicals, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, that can accommodate the needs of tomorrow’s more mobile and flexible workstations.

If you look back at workplace layouts and furniture over the past hundred years, you’ll find that not a whole lot has changed in regards to comfort, outside of the new technologies that make work faster and more efficient such as laptops and mobile phones. Despite some incredible technological advances, many of us are still bending over to machines, contorting our bodies at desks and sitting in static chairs at assigned immovable work stations, just as factory workers toiled back in the 1800s. For far too long, workers have been sitting and slouching in place to make a living. Isn’t it time our office furniture and workspaces adapted to us?

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at dantonellis@suffolk.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.


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