Time to reassess office space in a post-COVID world

The office of tomorrow must somehow integrate furniture with technology

Time to reassess office space in a post-COVID world

Thanks to inflation and subsequent interest rate volatility, it might be a good time to reassess what tenants want in terms of their office space. In its latest conversation this week, CBRE discussed the findings of its study into the matter that showed tenants want their offices to talk back.

A global leader in commercial real estate services and investments, CBRE staged a discussion on findings of its Global Workplace and Occupancy Insights. The study found a rising desire for tech-enabled space and data to drive efficiency and productivity. Officials also discussed further trends in occupancy management and design.

“People go to the office for culture, go to the office to feel part of something bigger,” said Franco Bianchi, the CEO of Haworth, a private, family-owned business founded in 1948 by a former industrial arts teacher, GW Haworth. The talk’s moderator, Spencer Levy of CBRE, noted that Bianchi moved from his native Bolgna, Italy, in 2002 after Haworth acquired the Italian firm where he previously worked.

Franco has helmed the company since 2005, shepherding its growth into the $2.5 billion enterprise it is today. He offered his insights into the future of office space.

What is the future of the office?

In his own experience, Bianchi has noted how even the furniture becomes a tool to create conditions amenable to tenants in a post-COVID environment. “Secondly, the environment is changing,” he noted, invoking the office conference room as a launching  board for his insights. “The conference room is a large table with some fancy chairs around it, and that big table is there to do what we are doing right now, talking to each other, looking at each other.

“That big table often is kind of in the way. So the ability of engaging the client [is important], to make changes in the office that make people more conducive to say, actually work better by being in the office than being from home, because many people from home work from their kitchen counter, which after a few hours is not exactly the most ergonomic or the most satisfactory place to work. So creating the best environment where people want to be is clearly much bigger than the physical environment itself. What we can impact on, but has a lot to do with a physical environment is safety, is about configuration, product typology, and is about variety. And I think that we can impact that pretty significantly.”

How important is ergonomics in the workplace?

Ergonomics plays a big role in the office of tomorrow, he said: “Let me say first of all this about why. It is about variety, you know. At home – you know, I keep comparing to home – at home you’re going to have very few places to work from and not really a variety because you’re not going to work likely from your bedroom. In the office, you have the ability as a company to showcase a very large variety of applications, we would say, which have different levels of privacy, different levels of sound absorption, different level of ergonomy, different levels of support, different levels of integration with technology, according to what you actually have to do.

“That variety is the power that I think is one of the elements that will bring people more to the office. The point about height adjustable tables or ergonomic chairs, it’s absolutely a good one. I can tell you we sell probably 70% of our desking now, height adjustable. A few years ago, height adjustable desks were a premium and where in order for users to have an adjustable desk they had to come with a medical ordinance, with a certificate. Today, the premium is moderate, number one, and number two has become standard. So that’s a great point. Ergonomy is certainly a component.”

It’s all about creating a culture, Bianchi stressed: “I truly think that the quality of the environment is one tool in your hand as a leader to facilitate, to foster, to accelerate or decelerate the amount of communication, the amount of control, the amount of creativity, the amount of involvement of your team. And you can literally point out culture to space in a very scientific way. Companies that have a very strong collaborative culture would have environments that are meaningfully different than companies that are very hierarchical, control-oriented, top-down culture. The level of their privacy will be different.”

Why are there global supply chain issues?

But the spoilers in this idyllic vision are the seemingly intractable supply chain issues, Bianchi noted: “The last two years the word ‘speed’ has been really painful, obviously. Certainly, we have been challenged by supply chain complexity. One of the good things of the Hayworth world is that we don’t have a lot of cross-continent purchasing. So in many cases we have done probably better than average. But fundamentally, we had a lot of supply chain instability. Largely driven out in our world by labor, by the complexity in flexing up and down labor. You know, we grew quite extensively and, in 2022, we were challenged, many of our businesses, by the fact that we had the order but we didn’t have all the labor all directly in our plant, to a lesser degree in our supply, we didn’t have all the labor to satisfy the demand.”

What is the office of the future?

Integration of technology into the office space of tomorrow will also play a significant role, Bianchi said. “The impact of technology is very powerful, but actually the way I see it, not that much in the product itself. Technology’s really changed the way that we specify our product, that we facilitate the action of pre-purchase and purchase has facilitated our relationship with our dealers and the amount of information that we can exchange has facilitated the transparency that our dealers have of our manufacturing and sourcing activities.”

The reason for that lies in the shelf life of each element: “So we have to be aware of technology when we design our product. Our product will always be, and more and more is, hosted in an environment or has to contribute to create an environment. A work has to contribute to facilitate a work task where technology will be a profound player. But that’s very different than, say, that our product needs to significantly change with embedded technology. Because I love to tell you that our clients change the environment at the same speed that they change their PC or their video, their monitor. Unfortunately, they keep our furniture, you know, 10 years, 20 years, and they change their monitor every two. So if I embed it, that becomes a problem.”