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Furniture: Finding The Best Fit

Building Operating Management Magazine | March 2009

by Karen Kroll  

Factors that Impact Office Furniture Design
Deciding what office furniture and systems will work best for occupants means examining the designs, materials and quality that will work for the next 10 to 15 years. That's the length of time over which most furniture pieces remain in use, says Jim Cahill, vice president of systems, storage and education with HON Company. Both initial and life-cycle costs are of concern, of course. Increasingly, so is the products' impact on the environment.  

Moreover, the office environment, including the furniture, can have a dramatic impact on employee morale and performance. But employers and employees often view workspaces differently. Employees usually want to create a sense of privacy, even if their workstations or cubicles don't really allow it. Employees also want their workspaces to feel spacious, even as executives are cutting the space allocated to each worker, says Mona Hoffman, vice president of marketing with Kimball Office. Employees often want to individualize their space, while most business owners want some degree of standardization to build a corporate image and streamline the furniture-purchasing process.  

Determining which furniture system will come closest to meeting these goals is a tall order. A first step is to take a holistic view of the work environment, rather than immediately zero in on furniture elements, says Jonathan Webb, vice president of business markets with KI. You may discover, for instance, that employees spend little time at their desks and more in collaborative work. That's probably a signal to provide more meeting areas, and decrease the size of individual spaces.  

You also want to consider flexibility, which is achieved when there is "intelligence behind the design process," says Jan Johnson, vice president of market development with Allsteel. That is, the furniture should be able to serve more than one function. Otherwise, if the specific function or technology for which it was built goes away, the furniture has little use. That's the case now with some desks designed with split tops, so that one could be used for computer keyboards. As more workers have moved to flat screen monitors, they're placing keyboards on their desks, and no longer using the pull-out trays.  

At the same time, consider the company's culture and growth, including the level of "churn" or employee moves and other changes, says John Lubbinge, director of product marketing for systems with Herman Miller. Those moves and changes often mean reconfiguring voice and data systems, which cause most of the downtime. Organizations that frequently move employees may want to consider frame-and-tile workspace systems, rather than panels, to create employee spaces. That's because it's usually easier to lay the cable into a frame-and-tile system, rather than feed it through the base of a panel, Lubbinge says.  

As part of evaluating a furniture system's flexibility, review just how complicated it is to assemble and disassemble the pieces when an employee moves. The more complicated it gets, the more money and time required to make changes.  

Similarly, check the degree of interconnectedness between employees' systems, says Brad Lynch, business unit leader for technical environments with Wright Line. Ideally, moving one person should not greatly disrupt others' workspaces.  

While employees often want to put their own touches on their workspaces, employers often frown on them making lasting changes. Options exist for offering employees inexpensive, temporary ways to personalize their spaces, says Cahill of HON Company. Slatwalls, for instance, give employees a way to hang personal items without permanently marking the walls. "It gives you personalization, but it's done with inexpensive parts," Cahill adds.  

Productivity Factors and Office Furniture
Along with flexibility, furniture's ability to contribute to employees' productivity also is an important consideration. After all, the reason for purchasing furniture in the first place is to help employees do their jobs. "When you give people the right tools, they're more productive," says Hoffman of Kimball Office.  

As a starting point, consider ergonomics, says Hoffman. Desks and chairs that are appropriately sized or that can be adjusted will help workers avoid sore backs and necks, and conditions like carpel tunnel syndrome.  

This is actually becoming easier to provide, says Cahill, as more desks and chairs can be adjusted. Workers can raise the height of their desks in order to stand for a bit. "This provides vertical movement, but workers can remain in their space at work, versus stretching at the water cooler," says Webb of KI. That can boost productivity.  

Knowing how employees work is the first step toward helping increase performance. That starts with a workplace audit, says Webb. Observe employees in action to determine, for instance, the amount of time they spend in both concentrated and collaborative activities. Keep in mind their use of cafeterias, break rooms and storage areas, as well as workstations. "Every space within the real estate has to be used to enhance productivity. You can't have wasted space," Webb says.  

Once you have an understanding of employee work patterns, look for furniture to match, says Johnson of Allsteel. For example, an accountant who stores hard copies of financial reports will need a filing cabinet, while a manager who frequently collaborates with colleagues needs room in his or her cube to accommodate other workers.  

Simply assuming you know how different employees work can backfire. Lynch of Wright Line says he was working with a client who thought everyone in a certain department needed storage for reference materials. As it turned out, only one set of the reference materials even existed. Rather than equip all employees with the storage space, they created a central storage area everyone could access. That lowered overall costs and actually generated better sight lines around the office.  

Hoffman suggests bringing employee focus groups to a furniture showroom, where they can try out the furniture and systems first hand. Or try to get the manufacturer to install several mockups of different systems on site. If neither of these options is practical, it is also possible to create a virtual workplace, and ask employees for their feedback on it.  

Office Furniture: Price and Longevity Considerations 
As with any purchase, paying attention to price tags when buying furniture is critical. In a tight business environment, companies definitely want to get the most value from every dollar. However, aiming solely for a rock-bottom first cost often undermines the ability to maximize the investment over the long term. An inexpensive system most likely will lack quality and durability, as well as the ability to adapt as business changes.  

So, while the initial purchase price has to figure into the equation, it is also essential to look at product quality, warranty, materials, and ability to reconfigure the system, among other attributes, Hoffman says. Otherwise, the initial cost savings will be obliterated by higher costs down the road. What's more, given the lack of moving parts in most pieces of office furniture, there's no reason well-built ones shouldn't last for decades.  

As a starting point, look for features that contribute to furniture longevity, says Johnson. One example is threaded metal inserts in the screw holes in particle-board desks. These let you screw and unscrew the piece multiple times, accommodating moves and changes, without the screw hole disintegrating.  

Another way to control life-cycle costs is to minimize the number of  

pieces required to build the systems needed, says Johnson. Reducing the number of items kept in inventory cuts both cost and complexity.  

Make sure to involve IT early on in furniture evaluations, says Lynch. Given the work involved in getting cabling, wires and other technical infrastructure where needed, "IT has to be a huge part of the purchasing decisions," he says. Their input helps ensure that employee moves and changes don't become more complicated than necessary.  

In a few cases, purchasing less expensive furniture may be a legitimate strategy, Cahill says. A true startup, for instance, probably won't have much cash available for furniture. What's more, management may reason that the company will change so dramatically and rapidly that trying to pin down a corporate environment and image early on would be futile. "If you're in an early state of chaos, and don't know what you'll need and what image you'll want - there is a time to be frugal with furniture," he says.  

One way to cut costs is to work with remanufactured furniture. The savings can be significant, says Bill Davies, president of Davies Office Refurbishing. An organization that can take the furniture "as is" should save 80 to 90 percent off the cost of comparable new pieces. If it's necessary to remanufacture some of the inventory - say, by replacing fabric chair cushions and the like - the savings will probably drop to the 60 to 80 percent range. Finally, remanufacturing all workstations should still generate savings, when compared to new items, of between 40 and 70 percent. Moreover, most remanufactured furniture should last as long as necessary, Davies says.  

If a company is planning to buy a large number of pieces of remanufactured furniture, it can be difficult to find enough matching pieces. One way to avoid problems is to replace some of the fabric or other materials on the pieces, so that not everything purchased will need to match a specific color or finish.  

Be prepared to act quickly, though. "It's first come, first served," Davies says. When considering remanufactured furniture, a facility executive should know exactly what is needed in terms of footprint, number, and materials, and be ready to order when inventory comes along that fits those needs.  

Finding Green Office Furniture 
Furniture manufacturers say they're seeing more clients ask about the environmental impact a proposed furniture purchase may have. Using remanufactured furniture is good for the environment, as well as a company's bank balance.  

Still, remanufactured furniture can't always fit the bill. And most eco-conscious new furniture systems have carried higher price tags. Fortunately, the price differences are coming down, Webb says. "As we go down the road of green furniture, the more they get used, the narrower the price gap."  

Another concern is what some call "greenwashing," or claims of environmental friendliness that are more marketing hype than fact. To reduce this, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) has partnered with NSF International to create a sustainability standard modeled after the LEED rating system. Once the standard is finalized, facility executives will be able to use it to help determine whether furniture is developed and manufactured in a way that minimizes impact on the environment.  

Until then Johnson urges facility executives to remember that "buying quality is a form of sustainability." The longer a piece of furniture remains in use, the fewer replacement pieces that will be needed. That reduces the amount of resources used and the number of products that end up in landfills.  

Considering a variety of factors, including flexibility, productivity, quality and sustainability, is really the best strategy for furniture selection. Focusing on cost, and simply dividing the square footage available by the number of people it will house, "shortchanges everyone," Lynch says. The key is to consider how furniture will contribute to the work being done.  

Karen Kroll, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who has written extensively about real estate and facility issues.

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