Trends in Workplace Design: New design directions in the corporate sector are changing flooring needs - March 2020
By Darius Helm
The modern workplace is in the midst of a comprehensive overhaul, with businesses spending exorbitantly on new models of workplace design in their quest to generate customized solutions that maximize employee productivity and retention. And the fortunes of commercial flooring producers rest on their ability to keep pace with these workplace developments and elevate their roles by coming up with creative solutions.
The corporate sector accounts for over 60% of the commercial interior finishes market, according to internal estimates, though its influence spreads across much of the commercial landscape, including education, government and public space. The flooring industry annually generates over $3.5 billion in revenues, at mill sell price, from the corporate sector. As workplace design evolves, flooring needs are rapidly changing, not just in color, design and performance, but also in terms of different types of floorcoverings and how they can perform to help spaces achieve their design goals.
Until the 1990s, the U.S. workplace was largely carpeted by broadloom, with sheet vinyl or VCT in the utility areas, like copy rooms, break rooms and cafeterias, as well as back-of-house applications. Some ceramic tile was also used in these areas, as well as in restrooms. In the late 1990s, just as open office design started trending, corporate flooring started its first dramatic shift-from broadloom to carpet tile. In the decade that followed, hard surface floorcoverings along with polished concrete started taking a larger share of the floorscape. And as we enter the third decade of the new millennium, more flooring categories than ever are in demand in the corporate sector, as architects and designers experiment with color, texture and function to optimize the work environment.
FROM CUBICLE TO PRIVACY POD
The cubicle concept that started taking over the corporate sector in 1970 was a vision gone awry. Herman Miller’s Robert Propst, whose Action Office II furniture series led to the modern cubicle, had originally envisioned an office landscape in many ways more in tune with today’s trends, but business owners weren’t interested. Having already rejected his original Action Office dynamic design of sitting and standing desks with varied partitions and customizable layouts, they stripped away from Action Office II most of its valuable design aspects and instead created lots of identical tiny chambers to jam people into. Also appealing to owners and management was that a change in the tax code made it easier to write off furniture that depreciated over time, making cubicles better for the bottom line than traditional, higher-value office furniture.
The dotcom boom in the 1990s ushered in both the modern open-office trend and the raw industrial aesthetic. The tech start-up founders weren’t looking to join the ranks of corporate suits. And they didn’t want to ride elevators with them in corporate towers. And they didn’t have deep pockets, at least not yet. So they set up shop in disused industrial parks and other low-cost locations and unfinished spaces.
The open-office design was not so much a trend as it was, via its rejection of the status quo, a stripping away of obsolete design, a laying bare of the floor space. And in the last few years, designers have taken that open, exposed space and started to design it from the ground up, this time around with a focus on the people who populate it.
Open office design trended for nearly 20 years, peaking, by most accounts, around 2015. By then, there was an abundance of data showing flaws in the design plan. For instance, while a goal was to boost collaboration, the open designs yielded the opposite effect. It turns out that when people have a lot of facetime with other people and no capacity to retreat to private spaces, they steer clear of each other by doing everything from avoiding eye contact to faking bathroom runs or phone calls to pretending to be deeply involved in a task. Another common strategy is wearing headphones-an auditory wall in lieu of a physical wall. The open-office plan was effectively taking away choice from workers in the space, restricting their options.
A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article from 2019, “The Truth About Open Offices,” reveals that when firms switched to open offices, “face-to-face interactions fell by 70% … while electronic interactions increased to compensate.”
HBR also reports on a study from a major software firm showing that with its open office format, only 3% of face-to-face interactions took place in common areas, while 90% occurred at people’s desks, revealing that there wasn’t much in the way of collaboration in the collaborative spaces.
There is also an abundance of data showing that open-office environments increase distractions, elevate stress and don’t drive creativity like they should. Other research suggests that face-to-face brainstorming is not as effective as brainstorming online or remotely.
It was only a matter of time before the open-office model had to morph. It started with attempts to compensate for the louder, busier, more distracting workplace environment by developing makeshift solutions for specific issues. No privacy in the vast, open workspace? Put privacy pods in the vast, open workspace. Too noisy? Hang soft things from the ceilings and put soft things on the floor. Too many people swirling by? Make some casual nesting areas and privacy nooks, using those same soft things, like islands in a sea of concrete.
These are, of course, effective solutions, and they’re brilliant and well-designed. But the point is that they are reactions to the symptoms of the open workspace. And the trend has already started evolving from this reactive approach to a more organic and much more comprehensive design strategy.
Workplace design developments are generally driven by a desire to increase worker productivity and maximize corporate profits. That’s why, prior to the cubicle design, workers had been crammed into large rooms at close quarters, where they used minimal space and could easily be overseen by managers. The cubicle was designed to improve workers’ conditions in order to make them more productive and effective, but it was quickly usurped to once again squeeze more workers into a space.
A Harvard Business Review report details how average worker square footage has steadily diminished over the last few decades. In the early 1990s, the average was already down to about 225 square feet from closer to 500 square feet in the 1970s, and it steadily fell until the dotcom recession, where it somewhat rebounded because layoffs meant more space for existing workers, and there was another rebound after the Great Recession. Since 2011, average employee square footage has been steadily falling, down to about 190 square feet.
However, this only tells part of the story, because employees’ loss of average space is negligible compared to losses in actual personal space. There’s more communal space than ever before-lounges, fitness and recreation areas, collaborative zones-but personal space has in many cases shrunk down to literally zero.
THE MODERN WORKPLACE
The Mohawk Group’s Mark Oliver, vice president of workplace and retail, points out that there’s a more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between work and life. “People used to talk about work/life balance,” says Oliver, “and now it’s more about work/life integration.”
According to Gensler’s 2019 workplace survey, “When people have great experiences at work, they are more engaged with company culture, have better interaction with their peers, and are more productive.” Citing Gallup research, Gensler reports that companies that offer a great workplace experience generate 21% higher profits and have 41% lower absenteeism and 10% higher customer loyalty that their peers.
The new starting point and singular focus for trending workplace design is the work experience, with a unique solution for every business based on its brand, company culture and the needs of its unique workforce demographics. This means that firms have to conduct an indepth analysis of their needs and how best to fulfill them. And these days that includes how to manage remote workers and those using coworking spaces, and how that relates to its office design, free-address open workstations, etc.
It’s a daunting task that seems to get more complex the deeper one digs, but the stakes are high. As Mark Shannon, Crossville’s executive vice president of sales, puts it, “You have to get it right, and there is no right.”
The open-office design at its core is here to stay for the foreseeable future because it accommodates the needs of today’s workers. It’s particularly essential for larger firms that might regionally expand or contract and have to accommodate varying numbers of workers. Similarly, coworking spaces fill an essential void in the corporate market, and remote working-from home or on the road-is also a critical part of today’s office landscape. Shannon points out that the gig economy has changed the market. Today’s workers like gigs. They don’t crave permanent things like homes and cars as much as previous generations. They Uber everywhere, and they’re sent all over the country for jobs.
It is often said that today’s workplace designs are catering to the needs of Millennials or the Gen-Zers just now joining the workforce, but it turns out that it’s a little more nuanced than that. For instance, while it’s generally true that Baby Boomers have a stronger attachment to their personalized spaces and heirloom possessions than Millennials, who are more intimately attached to their online presence, when it comes to privacy, desire for human contact and response to distractions, it’s case by case.
John Stephens, Shaw Contract’s vice president of marketing, points out that it’s less about generational differences and more about neurodiversity, the ways different people are wired. For some, noise and physical distraction are stressful and enervating, while for others it’s comfortable and relaxing.
DESIGN TRENDS AND FLOORING
For several years, it was all about the raw industrial aesthetic-exposed ceilings, concrete floors, minimal design and loud, echoey spaces. But it didn’t take long for demand to build for a more designed interior, one that still conformed to the market’s desire for a minimalist look but also addressed issues of cacophonous noise and the need for retreats and private areas, that brought warmth and softness to the cold and hard open environment. Historically, mid-century modern design comes closest to satisfying those needs, and these sorts of designs, modified in various ways, have been trending for the last couple of years.
Terry Mowers, Tarkett’s chief creative officer, notes that it’s more of a Scandinavian vibe than traditional mid-century modern, which happens to mirror the hardwood aesthetic prevalent in the residential market-white oak, wide boards, smooth and pale finishes. Mowers points to recent acquisitions by manufacturers of case goods and office furniture, like Knoll’s 2017 acquisition of Muuto, a Danish firm with a Scandinavian design tradition, and Herman Miller’s acquisition last year of Hay, also Danish, a producer of contemporary furniture with a similar aesthetic.
Today’s workplace design trends are heavily influenced by the health and wellness movement as well as environmental sustainability demands. Abundant natural light, biophilic elements, colors and textures that create calmness here, encourage creativity there-these are all indispensable elements in today’s workplace design.
The “resimercial” aesthetic, with cross-pollination from the hospitality sector, heavily informs the design process, and this includes plenty of sofas and chairs and even beanbags, casual rugs, recreation areas-both physical and digital-all in an effort to keep workers happy and engaged.
According to Stephens, in today’s office, productivity is more driven by technology, whereas before it was more about the space design. He adds, “The physical space is more responsible for employee engagement, and that engagement is a key driver for workplace design material decisions.”
Stephens cites Shaw Contract’s Community collection, introduced last year, as an example of how product offerings can cater to the sector. Community includes carpet tile, rugs, broadloom and LVT. And it just unveiled a commercial area rug program, a large part of which will target workplace applications.
Tarkett’s Tatami system also seeks to bring solutions to the hard surface-dominated workplace, with its woven and tufted broadloom program that creates bound rugs in four sizes-6’x6’, 6’x12’, 12’x12’ and 12’x24’-that can be attached to each other using TarkettTape to create whatever floating configuration is required and also be easily reconfigured as needed.
One product strategy popularized by Interface and quickly adopted by just about the entire flooring industry is having hard surface and soft surface products with the same gauge or thickness. Interface’s first LVT collection, introduced in 2017, was appropriately called Level Set, in a 4.5mm thickness so that it could be installed with carpet tile without the use of transition strips.
The biggest flooring trend in the workplace is concrete, which suited the raw aesthetic of the early open-plan offices and now has been carried into the more finished space currently trending-this despite the various issues concrete brings with it, from challenges with properly curing the product to prevent moisture issues to dealing with how cold and loud it makes a space. Nevertheless, concrete use, while not increasing at the same rate as just a few years ago, is still taking share in the corporate sector, thanks in part to its performance attributes-it’s ideal for flexible spaces, high traffic and rolling furniture.
The visual itself is so popular that concrete is one of the most common looks in porcelain tile, and it’s also a widely used visual in all resilient flooring types. Concrete-look LVT is a favorite of designers, since it allows them to get the visual and texture they want without the hardness underfoot or the same degree of sound transmission.
Stephens notes that part of concrete’s appeal comes from exposing an authentic architectural material, a different sort of minimalism, and he feels that some of the demand for hardwood is driven by the same impulse. Shaw’s commercial hardwood program, launched in 2018, has been “growing like crazy,” according to Stephens, with volume evenly divided between the hospitality and workplace sectors.
In Europe, hardwood has a much stronger position in the commercial market. Assuming that trends relating to interior décor continue to flow from Europe to the U.S., there’s a good chance that hardwood will gain serious traction in the U.S. commercial market.
Hardwood also connects to one of the biggest influences on workplace design: environmental sustainability. Hardwood sequesters carbon, ideally for decades. Every plank of hardwood installed-assuming it’s from a well-managed forest, which is generally the case with North American hardwoods-reduces the carbon load in the atmosphere. On top of that, the hardwood visual evokes a biophilic response, part of the arsenal of design tools deployed by the A&D community, along with using natural light, bringing plants and living walls inside, bringing people outside, and creating biophilic designs with interior décor elements.
The other major influence of workplace design is health and wellness, which relates to both sustainability and productivity. And within this arena, flooring plays a role in terms of the physical design, including zones for various functions and states of mind, how the flow of traffic is managed, and which materials perform best for the various functions. In an office without walls, flooring takes on the role of defining the space.
Soft surface flooring in the workplace sector is mostly carpet tile. Some broadloom is still used, but less frequently. Rugs are a growth category, everything from handmade and machine-made area rugs to bound broadloom rugs. Carpet tile has some established design roles, like in workstation zones or as wayfinding corridors through an open space, and increasingly it is used, along with rugs, for acoustical abatement. In an open-office environment, the floor presents the best opportunity to quiet a space. However, concrete expanses are still in vogue, so soft surface flooring, along with acoustical partitions and soft furniture, increasingly offer zones of escape.
Looking ahead, a big opportunity for floorcoverings lies in the concrete expanses. In environments that increasingly cater to employee comfort and wellness and with a design aesthetic trending toward more finished interior decors and increasingly varied spaces, concrete may impede design development. At the very least, the concept of layering (like rugs on rugs) seen in lounges and quiet zones may extend across the entire floorscape, with the polished concrete base exposed in some areas and heavily covered in others.
This sort of scenario would be the ideal opportunity for click system flooring. Currently, floating floor systems for carpet tile are commonplace in the corporate sector, but products like LVT are generally glued down. Virtually all rigid core LVT, which mostly goes to residential applications, comes with a click system. And there’s good reason to believe that floating resilient floors would perform well in most environments. Oliver reports that looselay flooring is Mohawk’s fastest growing commercial LVT category.
As noted above, hardwood is poised to make gains in the commercial market, but its fortunes are also mired in concrete trends, in that it’s hard to find a home for hardwood in polished concrete spaces. Hardwood on top of concrete, for instance, may not make a lot of sense. And it’s not like you can pour concrete in one part of an open office and install hardwood in another. Then again, if designers start to play with the floor plane, adding incremental layers and contours to provide relief from the flatness of the space (which would be extremely biophilic), more robust products like hardwood could play a central role.
One major change over the last few years is the development of technologies that enable businesses to monitor everything that goes on in the workplace. The Internet of Things (IoT) allows for vast amounts of data collection-activity and flow in the space, human interactions, use of digital services, use of amenities, when people come and go, where workers sit, how often they get up and move around, when they’re most productive. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s only a matter of time before businesses will embrace the value of monitoring their workers’ vital stats through smart watches.
It’s all in service of enhancing productivity and wellness, supposedly, but for some workers it’s hard not to feel like they’ve entered some Big Brother universe, where nothing is private anymore and all of their personal data is leveraged to squeeze every inch of their worth to maximize corporate profits.
The IoT does bring significant value to facilities management. If a firm can determine the when and where and patterns of movement of its workers, the building’s operations can pivot off of that to efficiently heat or cool spaces, turn lights on and off, and adjust maintenance programs to focus on high traffic areas. And beyond that, the building can learn the most effective temperatures in each space or zone for maximum productivity, how much natural light works best, and even what sorts of food and beverage options play a role in productivity and wellness.
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