In an era when work dynamics have undergone a profound metamorphosis, collaboration – encompassing a spectrum ranging from workplace furniture and room ambience to cutting-edge technology – has emerged as the cornerstone of the contemporary professional sphere.
The realm of office furniture has experienced its own sea change, reshaped not only by the unprecedented pandemic upheaval but also influenced by geopolitical shifts and economic challenges. Selling into the homeworking sector has been hit and miss for many vendors and resellers, the return to office has yet to live up to its promise and workplaces are undergoing huge transformations in terms of ever-changing requirements. The result is fluctuation, recalibration and adaptation. Nevertheless, there is optimism.
Assman UK Managing Director Aaron Claydon sees a constantly improving situation and believes the worst is over. At Dams, optimism has been buoyed by record sales for the last financial year, with an increase of 25.5% on the prior year’s turnover. Marketing Manager Simon Howorth says: “Much of our success is rooted in reinvestment in the business. We have expanded the teams in all departments and added equipment and infrastructure to help ensure we are in a strong position to meet the higher demand.”
Fellowes Brands is also enjoying an upward trajectory, as the company’s Head of Channel Development UK & Ireland Luke Alemanno explains: “2023 has been a year of creating brand awareness and building new relationships which, in turn, have already resulted in the onboarding of high-profile partners, double-digit growth and intuitive product development initiatives. We still have a lot of work to do, but these are very exciting times for Fellowes Brands.”
At Floortex, the past year has seen moderate sales in its core chair mat category. Marketing Manager John Barker hopes to close off 2023 on a high note thanks to the launch of new products in Q4. “This should result in additional growth, with the focus on a sustainable material range,” he says.
Deflecto Director of Marketing Craig Malmloff is also witnessing a pick-up in sales in its floor protection chair mats category, adding: “We expect that to continue to improve as people return to the office.”
Meanwhile, dealer D3 Office Group experienced a 40% increase in 2022 for interior projects and furniture sales over 2021 – mainly due to favourable comparisons – but 2023 has been slightly trickier. Managing Director Martin Shaw says that although the beginning of the year started with plenty of design work and quotes, there was a lack of customer commitment. This changed in Q2 and he believes buyer confidence is rekindled, with improvements expected for the latter half of 2023.
The meteoric rise of hybrid working has woven an intricate web over the office furniture landscape, presenting plenty of challenges and opportunities for manufacturers and dealers alike. Having to deal with this evolution is no easier for end customers – for many, it remains a work in progress as they contend with its multifaceted dynamics.
Furniture giant MillerKnoll has revealed several broad themes influencing the category. These include: employers thinking about the workplace experience holistically; companies supporting more flexibility; leaders talking to their employees to discover what matters to them; an upswing in the consideration and support of hybrid working options; and real estate teams now collaborating closely with HR personnel.
While organisations grapple with the nuances of flexible working arrangements, the home office furniture sector forecast is for continued gains throughout the forthcoming years. Part of this will undoubtedly be attributed to the move away from budget items or using domestic furniture when upgrading chairs and desks, suggests Dams’ Howorth
Work-from-home (WFH) has been a boon for Floortex, which has seen sales of its chair mats “dramatically boosted”. However, this surge has coincided with an influx of cut-price online competition. “The ongoing growth in homeworking has shifted demand, with a resultant rise in Far East imports. While quality and performance are poor, ongoing economic conditions have given these goods a market position,” observes Barker.
He underscores the need to communicate the long-term consumer value through paying a little extra for better products, a focus the company is championing in tandem with key resellers.
Fellowes Brands, too, has witnessed a seismic shift in how businesses have adapted. In a world where approximately 60% of employees divide their week between the office and home, they are now more supported in their homeworking arrangement. It includes investments in smaller desks, monitor arms, laptop risers and ergonomic solutions.
This, notes Alemanno, has enhanced Fellowes’ sales performance due to the diverse ergonomic product range it offers.
According to Shaw, the reality is clearly sinking in: “Some larger companies have taken WFH seriously and provided staff with all they require to set up a home office. Others have limited it mainly to chairs.
“However, as hybrid working is being built into company plans, we have observed increased interest in wellness. Workplace assessments are also gaining traction as organisations realise they have a responsibility to provide the right equipment wherever employees are based.”
This adjustment has led to modified purchasing habits as buyers contend with more restricted room in home offices. “People are looking for ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing furniture options for their home workspaces to support comfort and productivity. Also coveted are space-saving designs and versatile solutions to cater to different environments,” notes Assman’s Claydon.
In the desking arena, adjustable and standing desks featuring compact formats and integrated cable management are popular as they can accommodate various work styles and spatial configurations. There’s additionally been a pronounced uptick in the requirement for smaller chair mats and foldable versions that are easy to lift and tuck away outside office hours.
In terms of seating, comfort has become key, with a desire from end users for ergonomic chairs offering customisable attributes, breathable materials and lumbar support. Across the gamut of home office furniture, a broader range of designs and the inclusion of more vibrant colours are popular, with unique textures adding vibrancy and personality in contrast to the neutral palette of the traditional office.
A collaborative affair
Although the demand for transactional desks and chairs continues, companies are increasingly turning to comprehensive office fit-outs to navigate the challenges of hybrid work. The underlying principle is to provide an equitable experience for all employees, regardless of their location, ensuring they enjoy the same high-quality and professional opportunities and don’t feel isolated or left out. This shift is reshaping conventional settings into a hub for collaborative endeavours.
This intricate set-up necessitates various factors to be considered, such as furniture design, acoustic solutions, layout, and advanced video and audio equipment – all of which have to be combined for superior collaborative implementation.
Hot desking, for example, is a popular trend where quality headsets and desk phones provide instant access to work in multiple ways. The explosion in huddle rooms and pods, coupled with the decline of traditional boardrooms, underscores the importance of fitting the right technology to different room sizes. Here, aspects like camera and screen performance to ensure clear communication must be taken into account. Innovations like voice and face tracking can now greatly enhance the overall execution.
The hybrid work trend has prompted a shift towards shared workspaces designed for dual presence. Consequently, meeting/conference rooms and huddle spaces need to house cameras, speakers and screens, even if they haven’t in the past.
Adrian Penny, Senior Solutions Consultant at global collaboration service provider Evolve IP, says: “Years ago, a big boardroom might have had a complex video system gathering dust in the corner of a room. But this is not the case today.
“Ease of use has greatly improved as jumping on a conference call is part of daily life for many employees. People can now walk into a meeting with their mobile device and simply connect.”
Connecting the dots
Flexibility has become an anchor of the modern workplace, with companies empowered by technology to adopt various operational modes. Offering a wide array of display and TV mounts as well as hubs, docks, and other solutions to make connecting smoother are all opportunities for incremental growth in this space.
Neil Hampton, National Account Manager at connectivity accessories provider StarTech, believes that, as most workplaces are now facilitating some degree of hybrid work, offices are becoming more open as they are configured for hot desking or ‘hotelling’.
Consequently, IT is dealing with the additional risk of having more workers routinely working outside corporate-controlled spaces. So, while cybersecurity is important, business supplies dealers have a role to play in providing expertise on mitigating physical risks to data and devices through smart workspace designs.
Incorporating all the various components to establish seamless areas for collaboration clearly takes more than supplying a few desks and chairs and a new TV screen. So, is there a concerted effort from vendors from different sectors to cooperate and create cohesive products and solutions to meet this current specification? Or do dealers need to look at a more piecemeal approach of assembling ad hoc pieces which seem to work?
Finding a solution
Furniture suppliers are stepping up, with more products on the market featuring innovative ways for including cabling systems and power requirements. Mobile solutions like wheeled tables and chairs containing battery packs are becoming increasingly sought after.
Says Holli Hulett, co-founder at videoconferencing provider Boom Collaboration: “Many separate components need to be compiled to create the ultimate workplace collaboration experience. It’s very much a mixed bag in terms of vendor partnerships, as some resellers have to source equipment from different distributors alongside individual manufacturers.
“Some wholesalers are better than others, especially around popular small, medium and large meeting spaces where solutions can be kitted out together.”
All of which begs the question: do dealers need to become IT gurus? Hampton responds: “Resellers don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of IT. Rather, they require a general understanding of the collaboration tools their customers plan to use so they can help better answer questions and win more of their spend.”
Expanding on this point, Hulett states: “It’s about doing your homework. What room size, how many people will be present and what are they using the room for? No one wants stuff gathering dust because it’s too complex to use or not the appropriate specification.
“Product demonstrations are the best way to capture new sales and show clients how good current solutions can be. With videoconferencing equipment, for example, secure support from the manufacturer and set up online meetings to demonstrate different cameras.”
Evolve IP’s Penny agrees, adding that achieving success hinges on having the correct tools in your kit bag, teaming up with the right service providers and keeping channels of communication open. “Resellers must lead from the front in terms of knowledge and expertise. Provide compelling evidence of what technology can do, not just for today but also with one eye on tomorrow’s office needs. Be at the vanguard rather than following from behind.”
On the right path
Talking about staying ahead of the curve, sustainability has made a comeback, particularly in the context of office fit-outs and renovations for larger firms. By and large, customers are placing a premium on environmentally conscious factors, such as the use of eco-friendly materials, responsible manufacturing processes and the ability to recycle.
According to D3 Office Group’s Shaw, the majority of its UK furniture suppliers possess strong sustainability credentials. The dealer itself has also been proactive in supporting clients in repurposing or recycling old furniture, all the while promoting the adoption of sustainable products and fabrics.
Acknowledging the inherent challenges and costs associated with revamping extensive workspaces and managing furniture disposal, Dams has relaunched its re.think by Dams recycling service.
Providing more insight, Howorth comments: “All our customers’ old furniture can avoid landfill through our recycling solutions, thereby helping to reduce their carbon footprint at the same time as creating a modern office environment.”
In addition, the manufacturer has recently introduced the Everly range of multi-purpose chairs as part of its Social Spaces portfolio. These chairs, made from certified regenerated plastic derived from sources like bottles and food packaging, are engineered to be fully recyclable upon reaching the end of their life cycle.
Similar intentions can be observed among chair mat suppliers. The new BioPlus chair mat collection from Floortex is a prime example, showcasing a composition primarily comprised of 89% non fossil fuel-based bio-circular material and manufactured using 100% renewable energy. Meanwhile, Deflecto has launched its OceanMat floor protection solution, crafted from 100% ocean-bound plastic.
Take the opportunity
In today’s business landscape, the imperative to cultivate an inclusive work environment catering for a diverse array of employees is a universal challenge confronting all companies. For dealers, this presents fresh prospects to branch into solutions-selling, with manufacturers readily lending their support.
Dams has a dedicated team of interior designers and a space-planning department specialising in creating workspaces that are not only multifunctional and efficient but also apply innovative methods to save energy, cut waste and increase the wellbeing of staff.
At Fellowes Brands, it is all about the pivotal roles of connections and service. Explaining further, Alemanno states: “You can have the best product on the market, but if you do not have strong working relationships and second-to-none customer service to back it up, then you will hit a brick wall.”
There are three key factors for dealer success in the furniture and workplace collaboration sector, according to Assman’s Claydon:
- Stay agile: the office furniture landscape is evolving. Remain informed about industry trends and adapt your offerings accordingly.
- Customer-centric approach: understand your client’s unique needs. Customisation and personalisation can set you apart.
- Education: educate clients about the importance of ergonomic design, wellness-focused furniture and integrated technology solutions.