The Crucial Role of Furniture in Hybrid Workplace Design

FCA’s Ann Hoffman shares the news rules to follow when designing and selecting furniture for the hybrid workplace. 

As the speed of change is accelerating all around us, we are called to rethink the workplace in the context of new expectations regarding how we prefer to work. As the workforce has undergone an awakening concerning where and how they work, it’s clear now that personal preference is the key. Investing in a more dynamic space to answer these updated needs would be better framed as a commitment to a competitive edge rather than a costly expense. Moving forward, a complete and unique hybrid model of distributed work for each organization will be formed, addressing physical, digital, and psychological considerations. Before moving forward, it might be helpful to start with a framework that lays out some of the truths of the new workplace.

The New Rules are as follows:

  1. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay, and a skilled workforce demands it.
  2. We must adjust our thinking from fixed to fluid in the workplace landscape; Elements must be more agile, user friendly, and offer choice.
  3. Technology is the leader for great work settings; without updated technology, workspaces will underperform.
  4. Each organization needs to define its hybrid version to include policy and place for all workers, creating a framework for employee autonomy and success.

Applying these new principles to our offices now, it’s clear that the back-to-work crowd is showing up with new expectations. Commute-worthy settings and features are the ultimate draws, but we must start with the basic comforts that people have become accustomed to while working from home.

It’s time to rethink the benching systems that placed people in linear stations—some under 6 feet wide. To adapt to alternative settings, work can be done at long, open bench-style stations that function as a communal table. Tables wired for power and tech where users can gather and define their space parameters can mirror the protocols of a library table, acting as an agile solution for spontaneous teamwork. When addressing bench settings, we can also rethink the configurations for smaller clusters, offering both collaborative and private locations where possible. Prompted with the assumption of lower office capacities, fewer dedicated work points with added circulation would make the layouts more desirable.

We need to abandon the open landscape without visual breaks; sightlines that travel the length of an entire floor plate are psychologically tiring. We should envision the office landscape as a series of sections or neighborhoods, bifurcated with pierced dividers, open shelving modules, soft panels, or mobile walls. These moveable elements allow organizations to respond to agile groupings, making these team neighborhoods feel more like rooms, ultimately replicating a more intimate atmosphere that users previously had in their homes. No one wants to come back to a sparsely populated office as the lone occupant in a long view of a sea of empty workstations.

Furniture is the most efficient and user-friendly way to achieve this. Investing in furniture that can be moved as desired can work to merge the needs of facilities managers and the teams they serve. Many furniture manufacturer partners have been quick to respond to a more agile, tech-connected landscape. Already in production are new models of mobile tables, carts, charts and easels, connectivity accessories, battery packs, and charging pylons, meant to support work in multiple locations and designed for the needs of today’s hybrid worker. Furniture with small features, like a hook for a backpack or a small lockable drawer, caters to the drop-in participant carrying their belongings. It’s time to upgrade the office experience, implementing desks and tables with adjustable height features throughout for focus and meeting work, giving the added benefit of choice related to posture during the workday. These small additions provide great satisfaction to end-users, and their impact is anything but. Each motion, feature, and adjustment gives the end-user a “little dose of happiness” as they exert control over how and where they work in the office, as well as the tools they use to do so.

It’s time to upgrade the office experience…

The office landscape will consist of spaces with various configurations, shapes, and levels of privacy—a place where fixed walls will be purposeful and strategic in their placement, with a greater emphasis placed on furniture to define spatial boundaries. Private offices are going toward smaller, reservable, non-dedicated focus rooms instead of a hierarchical perk that remains empty nearly 50% of the time. While not prescribed to one person, these reservable offices can be varied in the type of furnishings and customization options to offer unique opportunities that give varied character to a space, providing another level of choice for the user.

Another aspect of the workplace that is long overdue for a rethink is the conference room. We have been using the military command model for years, which increasingly stands at odds with deployed technology. While the elongated rectangle gave authority to the head of the table, the configuration for viewing screens was consistently a problem in bigger rooms. We see two most prevalent types of meetings: the 4-5 person huddles and the 30+ person all-inclusive meetings. Attempting to facilitate collaboration with a virtual audience forces us to admit that the commander’s rectangular table doesn’t work as well as it used to. The first step is a thoughtful exploration of how a room is used and its frequency. Alternative solutions using more theater-style seating, with mobility through casters or swivel in the seats, make the experience more agile and conducive to interacting with the technology to engage participants who are in-person or remote.

Technology has buoyed businesses throughout the pandemic. Our dependence and adoption have deepened through the experience, along with mixed audiences of virtual and hybrid connections. While creating these work settings, we would be remiss not to assume that work will happen everywhere, given the correct tools and furnishings. Lounges, café tables, booths, and private rooms are all newly appreciated work points. To support that work, small nudges such as tablet-armed lounge chairs, seating with built-in connectivity ports, mobile monitor stands, and small moveable laptop tables can facilitate productivity in tandem with the choice of movement throughout the office.

It would be prudent for facility managers to allow for these appointments in their operating budget.

Finally, we have been strategically introducing hospitality features in the workplace over the past several years. It was challenging to convince some facilitators that minor design considerations might go a long way in upgrading user experience. The mere introduction of accessories such as floor lamps, area rugs, throw pillows, etageres, and plants are subliminal reminders of comforts to be had now in the office. These touches are not necessarily critical to the work but more to the culture of value a modern company must demonstrate to its employees. It would be prudent for facility managers to allow for these appointments in their operating budget.

Like all good strategists, we must seize on these challenging times and convert them into opportunities. When Robert Propst invented the first office landscape for Herman Miller, consisting of angular panels, he dreamed of offices as flexible, and he wanted workers to have quality furnishings, with privacy; but not too much, and he explicitly did not want his moveable panels sitting at right angles, creating endless cubes. More conventional users overruled his vision, and thus gave way to the cubicle and years of overturning its shortcomings. An untold number of social, cultural, and environmental indicators tell us it’s time to rethink the office—maybe it’s time to give Propst’s vision another try.

Written By
More from Ann Hoffman

The Four Pillars of Today’s Workplace Design

Francis Cauffman Architects' Ann Hoffman shares the four pillars of transformation management...
Read More

2 Comments

  • An added bonus to furniture over construction is that furniture is depreciable, while hard construction is not. Something else for facilities managers to consider.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *