Along with flexible hours and healthier environments, the next thing we can thank our changing work lives for is office furniture that literally moulds to the way we do business. And while an acoustically sound, ergonomic, high-backed workstation may be a costlier option than your standard desk, both formal studies and anecdotal evidence have found positive impacts in the form of improved workplace output outweigh any extra expense.

“One of my clients did an amazing fit out with soft furnishings and breakout areas that added about $50,000 to the cost of doing the same thing 10 years ago,” says Jared Wade, CEO of office design firm A1 Office. “But afterwards, his company’s sick leave dropped by 27 per cent. He told us that was a very unexpected result – he thought people were taking sick leave because they were actually sick - but when they started enjoying being at work and the fact it was a lot more fun, he got that return back from less staff absenteeism and in a much shorter time than he ever considered.”

Similarly, a study of over 1000 Australian workers by Melbourne’s Empirica Research found good workplace design attracted the right staff, then kept them engaged and more likely to stay.  “What we factor into design now is staff productivity,” Mr Wade says. “We want to keep everyone performing at their optimum level.”

Shape shifting

With sit-stand desks virtually a given in modern workplaces thanks to increasingly active lifestyles, companies are now seeking more, says Wendy Bird, owner of Sydney Office Furniture. “Flexibility, acoustic panelling and formal to casual meeting spaces are what we’re finding is now high on people’s lists,” Ms Bird says. 

This has led to such workplace furniture solutions as single-space booths, cabana-style hutches designed for small meetings and aiding privacy, couches configured to foster collaboration and desks made of long-lasting materials impervious to scratches and hot cups.

Schiavello, a leader in the creation of large-scale work and living environments, was one of the first in Australia to cater to this changing demand, establishing its Workplace Research Psychology division almost a decade ago.

An array of innovatively shaped furniture such as the Kayt Hutch, Kayt Cabana and Tangier Bench has ensued, although keeping up with market shifts requires constant vigilance says the company’s head of marketing and design Anton Schiavello. Regular workshops on how companies such as his can cater to rapidly changing workplaces facing uncertainty and a need for greater flexibility and choice are now the norm.

“We are all simply trying to understand how we can remain nimble,” Mr Schiavello says earnestly. “These days we have to respond to a market that is making changes on a more regular and shorter basis. Lease terms are dropping as companies change so quickly. This means furniture is being advertised for a shorter period and most of all we’re seeing businesses gravitating towards furniture that isn’t fixed.”

As a result, pieces that work as movable boundaries are fast gaining popularity over fixed walls and floor-to-ceiling petitions. “A movable boundary allows for creating and defining a floor plan which can then in 6 to 12 months be altered for another purpose altogether or cater for a completely different kind of business,” Mr Schiavello says.

Corner offices are no longer the only means to privacy, either. Movable hutches and private booths such as Schiavello’s Kayt Hutch and Kayt Cabana are portable, compact spaces emerging as alternatives. Structured with ergonomic high back sofas, they also create more relaxed working environments perfect for private talks, or simply a place for personal privacy within an open plan office.

“We established the workplace research psychology division which creates furniture like this as we realised the need to foster mental wellbeing,” Mr Schiavello says, who sees technology eventually integrating with office furniture in the same way modern cars connect remotely with smartphones. “In this manner, your office furniture could act as a personal assistant.” 

No place like home

The shifts in design are leading to places that are more, well, like home – as it is these “homely” styles focussed on colour, variety and comfort that have been found to stimulate creativity, promote socialising and increase worker satisfaction. “What we do know from research as well as client feedback is that furnishings stimulate creativity,” says A1 Office’s Mr Wade.

“People want their lunch rooms to be more café than cafeteria and that gives us an opportunity to use different furnishings. They want breakout areas which are more like home with different coloured chairs and tables of different heights.

“Lunch rooms used to be cold bland places where you would eat and leave. Now we know a different style of room can inspire different ways of thinking and encourage engagement with the rest of a team on a social level.

“And at the end of the day, positive downtime is what a breakout area is all about.”