Corporate Market Trends: The corporate sector is focused on humanizing the workplace - Mar 2018
By Jessica Chevalier
Technological innovation and the preference for workplaces that integrate comfort, versatility and wellness have greatly impacted the corporate sector over the last decade-and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The age of generic, one-size-fits-all interiors and furnishings is behind us. Today, interior architects serving the corporate sector are considering the culture and needs of each client holistically and developing a space that aptly serves their unique employee base, customer base, function and style, and that endeavor has kept the sector active.
While the experts with whom we spoke for this piece listed varying trends impacting the corporate sector, in the big picture, all of the concepts are interconnected.
Work life integration is highly influential, says Mark Oliver, vice president of workplace and retail for Mohawk Group. “The blending of work and life is a huge trend,” he reports. “Who doesn’t sit at home with an iPad answering emails or bring their dry cleaning to work? We are seeing a blending-a blurring-of the personal and professional. There are studies supporting the idea that making offices more comfortable leads to greater innovation, creativity and productivity among employees, and it also helps in terms of employee attraction and retention.”
Similarly, hospitality and residential design are having a strong influence on the sector, and that also relates to creating comfortable, welcoming spaces for employees and guests. “We are seeing the softening of corporate culture thanks to big corporations-like Amazon and Google-creating fun spaces for their employees,” says Libby Gillen, director of design development for Tarkett. That includes, for instance, incorporating area rugs into corporate landscapes to create soft touch-down locations and amenities such as cafés.
David Oakey, founder of David Oakey Designs and lead product designer for Interface, notes, “Technology is one of the big driving trends in corporate interiors. Right now, technology enables people to work anywhere in a space. They’re not confined to one cubicle or desk. Offices are unrecognizable compared to ten years ago, and it’s technology allowing this to happen. What we’re seeing today is as much a change as in the 1970s when open office cubicles came along. That, too, was driven by technology: flat cabling and raised access flooring. That contributed to the rise of carpet tile use back then. Today’s technological innovations enable people’s freedom in a space.”
Oakey adds that another important thing worth noting about trends in workplace design today is that they are more conceptual than aesthetic. In other words, corporations are choosing looks in line with their cultures and tastes rather than simply aligning with what’s hot. Says Oakey, “If you look at office spaces today, you will see great diversity. You can’t identify a single trend. Some will design biophilic spaces, some residential or hospitality inspired; there are those that feel calm, others that feel exciting, those that focus on sensory elements. In some instances, you may see all these elements in one building. Gone are the days when we would put loop pile grey carpet through the corridors and plusher cut pile or tip sheared in the high-end offices. Today, you see highly varied materials-both hard and soft-going into corporate interiors.”
More than one individual that we interviewed mentioned, with a note of frustration, that stained concrete has a strong, and possibly strengthening, hold in corporate workplaces. The trend is related to aesthetics and cost savings-or perceived cost savings-but also to the power of cool. Associated with the pared-down hipness of the high tech workspace-not to mention the highly desirable laid-back approach toward work within those organizations-exposed concrete has become almost a symbolic element used to align an organization with a particular brand of freshness.
Concrete offers sustainable benefits too, of course, as its use eliminates the production, installation and, ultimately, disposal of floorcovering. And, interestingly, several product designers noted that it is sometimes grouped-at least mentally-among natural materials and therefore included in projects with a biophilic bent. Of course, concrete is a mixture of gravel, sand, water and cement-a limestone and clay mixture-but it is certainly not a naturally occurring product of the earth, like hardwood and stone are, so it ultimately seems like something of a third wheel in this classification.
One would think that, as the focus of sustainable workplaces has turned somewhat from composition and manufacturing to wellness, concrete would be deselected. After all, it’s loud, cold, slippery and uncomfortable underfoot. And with the focus on movement and standing in the workplace, it seems a poor choice. But perhaps the mental boon of the hip factor is, at least for now, outweighing those negatives.
Says Gilbert, “We are seeing concrete more and more. Our sales reps are the best indicators for us on what’s happening in the field, and they say, ‘concrete is killing us.’ But the cost of concrete is going up, and we are seeing so many projects where they say, ‘We need to at least add some carpet in these areas.’ With all the concrete, I believe we’re going to see more acoustic wall treatments come into play-especially in pods. I suppose, looking forward, the good news is that concrete is easy to carpet over.”
There are reportedly instances in which concrete is being specified initially and then reconsidered after the employee team has “lived” on it for a spell. “There was a project in Chicago where the design team specified stained concrete,” recalls Gillen. “I warned them that it would be loud, but they said, ‘We will try it, and it will look beautiful in the [architectural] photos.’”
The flooring industry is, of course, responding to the demand for concrete looks with floorcovering products that feature the visual, primarily in LVT and ceramic. And these remediate some of the challenges of the actual material.
OPEN OFFICE EVOLUTION
With regard to the open office trend that we have seen sweeping the sector for several years now, contemporary corporations are honing that concept, creating offices that continue to encourage communication and collaboration, but that offer a multitude of scapes in which employees can work-in a sense providing options for customization, a concept driving so many aspects of society today. The free address and open-access benching options that swept the sector at the start of the millennium proved to be challenging for some workers, especially mature associates accustomed to the privacy and relative isolation of traditional high-wall cubicle formats. For that reason, today’s offices typically incorporate a range of formats: assigned cubicles in which an employee can stash their personal belongings and retreat to for heads-down work, conference spaces-of varying sizes-available for access as needed, nooks for small group work, cafés and collision spaces that enable spontaneous collaboration and talk, and even spaces that are mutable, serving a variety of functions via convertible or movable furnishings. Gillen sees collision spaces as today’s water coolers and reports that, though it was hard for a time to get mature workers out of their offices, today she is seeing a range of generations embrace the collaborative-culture concept.
Ginger Gilbert, vice president of design and development for J+J Flooring, says, “One of the things we really noticed coming to life last year was that people realize that workers of all ages are inhabiting corporate spaces, not just the younger crowd. The older crowd was forgotten for a bit and shoved into a world that they weren’t productive in. I don’t believe the open concept will ever go away. The coffee houses of the world changed that forever.” Gilbert contends that society as a whole is becoming more social, and it’s happening in the workplace first. She adds, “Instead of cocktails after work, we’re socializing at work. Of course, open spaces are crucial to promote the sharing of information and communication, but there is also a need for private space.”
Gilbert believes that having a “home” space encourages employees to feel that they have an identity in the company-rather than simply being part of a herd-and also notes that the creation of non-traditional collaborative spaces levels the playing field a bit, as there is not an upper-echelon employee occupying a commanding seat at the head of the table.
Oliver points out that how often employees actually take advantage of different desking or workspace options isn’t the point, noting, “It’s about having the option. Employees like opportunities in the workplace, and they like to be able to work where they feel most comfortable.” He points out that different types of workspaces lend themselves to different activities. Employees using Excel are likely sitting in their private station; one working on a creative project might be standing; if working on emails, an employee may relax in a more comfortable chair or move outdoors.
Oakey adds, “Adaptability is really important today. These are spaces meant to cater to the people. In addition, the space is meant to be able to change as it adapts to workers and how they work. The trend today is diversity. ”
Acoording to Bentley’s Libby Cook, “Grey is definitely still the main color trend we see happening. Bentley does warm and cool greys, some of those taupe browns with grey influence. As much as people are drawn to color, the majority of the time they are still ordering a variation of grey because the floor is such a large expanse, and they want to play color off it. But sometimes today people are choosing color. We were awarded a large job with H&R Block, and we worked with them to develop a custom neutral product for the field. The plan was to use a friendly, welcoming spring green from our running line as an accent, but then someone said, ‘Why don’t we consider spring green for the whole thing?’ In addition to greys, the second biggest trend we’re seeing is blue. We’re seeing blue being used like a neutral now. We have introduced blues for two to three years now, and we’re getting great responses. It started more in the navy family, but now we’re introducing a wider variety of blues. Nothing super bright. Some may be a little denimy.”
J+J’s Ginger Gilbert agrees, adding, “We’ll be seeing a lot more blue, in all tones and hues: baby, electric, soft. It’s being used as a neutral.” And she also believes hues will get deeper. “The trend has been bright and vibrant, and I think the market will be taking those colors to more sophisticated, saturated levels. Deeper, but still clean. Bright purples will become deep eggplants.”
Nevertheless, neutrals will likely always be the most popular choice for corporate workspaces, though the neutrals of today aren’t the plush, one-note products of yesteryear. “We still see neutrals leading,” says Gillen. “Within those, a floor might gradate from a neutral into color where they want emphasis on a destination space or different kind of workspace. We are seeing a lot of products-not just from Tarkett-where there is one neutral base and then a second neutral base with one accent color. These can be used for blending and gradation. We’re also still seeing pockets of solid color to designate space. We are still seeing designers putting color in floors but maybe moving towards putting color in things that they can change out more easily.”
Gilbert seconds the notion that color is migrating to some degree, noting that she is seeing solid colors on the flooring and patterning and colors on the walls in graphics.
Interestingly, Melanie Tatum with Crossville reports that she is seeing greater demand for color in porcelain tile. “I have never had more requests for color: bright green, red, yellow. And we see firms mixing it in playful patterns. Corporate brands are willing to be bold and set themselves apart.”
THE PEOPLE-CENTRIC WORKSPACE
Says Gillen, “Corporate spaces today are people-centric. And wellness is certainly part of the discussion. Some corporations are choosing to blend in spaces in which they offer a stretch program during the day that helps employees adjust and meditate. Another trend is taking the stairs. Some corporate offices create incentives for people to do that, so they are making stairwells that look nicer.”
Gillen points to Atlassian’s Austin office as a space that she finds inspiring and representative of many of the office design concepts held dear today. Entry to the space reveals a grand stair between three floors around which the business has established a collision space.
“When you walk in, it feels like a café, not an office,” Gillen explains. “It is truly a gathering space because all those landings are opportunities to collaborate. There is a yoga room, a wellness room, a green wall with succulents, an open multifunction room, a library with modern wingback chairs that has a cozy feel and offers an incredible view of the city. There are conferencing booths and pods in which to conduct video chats. The workspaces have all windows walls and feature casters on all the furniture so that the configuration can be changed as needed, and cabling comes down from the ceiling so that it can be easily plugged into.”
The concept of sustainable workplaces has shifted somewhat from earlier days of the movement where the focus was on material composition and origin. Make no mistake, those elements are still important, but today the lens through which we view our sustainable course of action is in considering how workplaces-and the materials used to construct them-impact the humans working within them. Says Reesie Duncan, creative director for Shaw Contract Group, “Sustainability today is definitely about human health and human quality of life, wellness, comfort, community, indoor air quality, daylight, plants-they’re all playing together. Elements that promote interaction between humans and nature are important in spaces where people are spending such long periods of time.”
And, of course, a significant part of creating a human-centered workplace is providing elements that make the humans within it happy on a fundamental level. Oakey points out that today, the Facebooks and Googles of the world are “on the leading edge of making sure that they have spaces where workers are happy, spaces that are flexible and promote wellbeing. They may have started in a garage with a keg of beer and a foosball table; today, they have a game room, five-star catering and 24/7 access.” He notes that he is seeing these “techy trends” move into other industries, often out of necessity, adding, “The one we’ve been following most recently is financial-banking and hedge funds. They are having a hard time recruiting the tech people that they need because their offices are more formal, not as creative and not as casual.”
PROVIDING THE RIGHT PRODUCTS
To equip designers with the products they need to create these highly diversified spaces, flooring manufacturers must not only roll out more product choices but also more mindfully designed ones. As spaces are being used to tell a story about the culture of a company, the products used within are the elements that build that story-the words, sentences and formatting, as it were.
Explains Duncan, “In creating products for the corporate market, we step back and consider our drivers. We are trying to help designers create spaces that foster connections, build communities and nourish comfort. We are always focused on the concept of a product and developing a real story behind the process. I’ve seen a shift in this regard-today, we’re focused on really digging into the ‘why’ for the customer and making sure that a product is answering some of the big questions. It’s kind of like meaning before matter.”
Oakey agrees, adding that just designing a product and putting it in an A&D folder won’t cut it these days. “You have to show how the product looks in the interior, coordinating products, how the designer can work with it,” he says. “It used to be that years ago, if we suggested to A&D how we thought a product could be installed, they would back off and say, ‘That’s our arena.’ But today young designers want us to show them what to do and how to use products. And we need to show as many adaptations and coordinations as possible. Today, introducing collections is more important, and we’re never designing a single product in a vacuum but considering how it works with older products and other surfaces.”
Creating cross coordination among its entire line is one of the central tenets of product development at Bentley. “We make sure that the neutrals we introduced three to four years ago can be combined with the elements we’re introducing today,” says Libby Cook, director of product development operations for Bentley.
“There is so much new and so much that people are trying to achieve in the corporate workplace today,” notes Duncan. “Work and life are merging, and we are creating spaces that feel comfortable but are also flexible. We are humanizing space in a more thoughtful way. We want to create independence but also encourage interaction, and there must be choice: places to retreat and those that build community and collaborative culture. All this makes us, as product designers, really have to think about how products work together seamlessly. No one wants a transition in a floor; we want flexible zones that can be reconfigured. We have to think about how products unite, from a level standpoint, regarding color and texture. It’s all about creating a system or toolbox.”
Several manufacturers talked about the significance of area rugs with so much hard surface flooring in the corporate workplace today. These may be bound broadloom, hospitality market rugs or carpet tile rugs, and they play an important role not only in managing acoustics and creating zones but also in building the comfort level.
In terms of how the trend toward residential looks is impacting flooring design, Cook says she is seeing the continuation of something that has been happening for a little while: the melding of the comfort of home with the office environment. “Lots of people are working from home today or doing a mix of both home-based and office work,” she says. “For that reason, employers want people to feel very comfortable in their work environments, and that level of comfort has a lot to do with texture. To create texture, we’re considering both how we use tufting machines and how we’re having yarn processed. We’re using different pile heights. We’re creating products that are very tactile-that are begging to be touched. There are new studies today quantifying the correlation between employee attitude and revenue, and one of the ways to improve employee attitude is to create a more comfortable work environment.” Cook adds that, understanding this, corporations are much more hands-on with regard to the design of their interior environments than they once were.
In addition, with so much activity and movement in the workplace today, it only makes sense that specifiers would give more thought to comfort underfoot. Though most of the manufacturers with whom we spoke have not yet seen this trend impacting specifications, Bentley notes that it is selling a lot of cushion-back carpet tile, which obviously adds a layer of comfort for those on their feet.
Another interesting consideration today has to do with wayfinding and walking paths. With more open offices-not to mention moveable furnishings-the walking paths are more varied than they would be in a traditional office with closed spaces and hallways. As such, patterning must assist in wayfinding as well as in the designation of particular areas of use across the floorscape. Color, scale of pattern and product transitions all play an important role in this regard.
With stained concrete in such demand, concrete-look products are also popular, especially in LVT. In addition, looks that blend concrete with other visuals such as wood, stone or fabrics are popular choices. According to Gillen, “We’re seeing an appreciation for materials that look like concrete but can morph, to some degree, and will be more reliable with regard to cracking and potential for other damage.”
Melanie Tatum, architectural sales representative for Crossville, notes the same trend in tile, with concrete and wood looks very popular. The company just released a line that mixes concrete and tweed visuals. She adds, “There is always a market for stone and concrete looks. In fact, concrete is our number one requested visual.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Oliver reports that he is seeing an increase in hardwood use in the corporate workplace, which plays into the residential trend. This is often commercial hardwood, though some choose a residentially rated hardwood, understanding that it will change and develop a particular patina with use.
Tatum reports that large format porcelain panels, such as Crossville’s Laminam, are in high demand for corporate use and are now the best-selling product in the Illinois market that she serves. The material is being used both in new installations and to clad old walls or flooring.
The increasing preference for walkability and convenience has impacted the locations in which corporations are placing their offices. “Young people today really want to be able to have a short commute and live in urban environments, so it’s really important where offices today are located,” says Oakey. “Everything is about making the employees in the space feel good and happy. If they don’t, they go elsewhere. The trend goes beyond offices-it’s about cities trying to attract new businesses and residents. Everyone is waiting to see where the next Amazon office will go, and cities are trying to sell their creative environments. In Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, he talks about industry going where the people are, rather than the other way around. That’s why Silicon Valley became such a stronghold-because in the ’60s and ’70s, that’s where the creative people were.”