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September 18, 2023

Evolving Workplace: Office furniture dealers, design firms adapt to employers’ changing workspace desires

PHOTOS | CONTRIBUTED As companies downsize their office footprints, they are also re-imagining the look and feel of the workplace to make them more inviting to employees reluctant to return to the office.

As businesses continue to push more workers back to the office, at least for a few days a week, companies that furnish and help design workplaces say they are seeing an uptick in business.

But industry challenges still remain, with significant amounts of empty office space in Connecticut and nationwide.

Office design and furniture firms that have a diversified customer base are faring better. At least one local office furniture company has even reinvented its business to cope with the pandemic’s impact on workspace demand.

Olivia Powers, a workplace designer for Hartford-based Infinity Group, said the need for office furnishings and redesign slowed in 2020, amid the height of the pandemic, but activity “is definitely picking up.”

Olivia Powers

Infinity Group has grown in both staff and revenue since 2020, “and we’re not seeing a slowdown,” she said.

Driving growth is the desire by many employers to shrink their office footprints under the new hybrid work model, which has led to fewer workers in the office at any one time.

Office space redesigns are also happening more frequently (every three to five years today for some employers vs. 10 to 15 years in the past), Powers said, and are competing with the comfort and privacy that workers enjoy at home.

Some companies are doing away with individual desks for each worker and encouraging the use of shared spaces, more cozy workstations with couches or armchairs, and private rooms that workers can utilize when they seek a quiet place.

Companies are also creating more communal workspaces to encourage collaboration when workers are in the office.

“We’re definitely seeing more people come back to the office, but companies are recognizing that hybrid is here to stay, and that works to our advantage,” Powers said.

Back to work, by the numbers

Commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE conducted an office occupier sentiment survey this spring with insights from 207 corporate real estate executives.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said their companies are requiring employees to return to the office.

Leading the way are financial and professional services firms, with 71% requiring a return to the office more than half the week.

However, office space generally remains underutilized, and a majority of employers are adopting a hybrid work model.

Recently released data from the Flex Index — compiled by hybrid workplace software company Scoop — found that only 39% of U.S. companies require their employees to be in the office five days a week, down from 49% at the start of the year.

That percentage is expected to decline dramatically to 15% or less in the coming years, according to the report.

U.S. office tenants vacated 40 million square feet more than they occupied during the first six months of 2023, according to CoStar.

The Greater Hartford office market has been slow to recover from the post-COVID office exodus, posting an availability rate of 29.9% and vacancy rate of 28.2% at the close of the second quarter of 2023, according to CBRE.

To entice workers back, many offices are changing desks, tables and chairs, and integrating more comfortable and ergonomic options like standing desks, ample charging ports, and inviting armchairs similar to those found in residential living rooms.

Still, it’s a challenging time to be in the business of furnishing office space, according to Dawn Monde, a senior vice president at East Hartford-based design firm Red Thread.

Dawn Monde

“In this post-COVID world, what we’ve really seen is larger companies, particularly in the Hartford market, are still cautious in terms of forcing people to come back to the office,” she said.

One exception has been the biopharmaceutical industry, especially around New Haven, she said.

According to global studies conducted by Red Thread’s parent company Steelcase, Monde said “people are willing to trade remote workdays for their own workspace at the office. While they want the autonomy and flexibility of hybrid work, people are looking for choice and control and a sense of belonging.”

Red Thread is navigating the waters well, Monde added, because it works in more than just the office furniture market. Prior to the pandemic, the company had a healthy foothold in the healthcare and education sectors, which have remained active.

“We recognize them as opportunities for us to continue to grow,” she said.

Red Thread also has an entire division that installs floors in buildings outside the office-space sector. The company has seen growth through its flooring division, and in senior and assisted living facilities.

“We’re definitely seeing a rise in that as the population is getting older,” Monde said.

Infinity also designs and outfits children’s therapy centers, for which demand is growing, Powers said.

Red Thread is also venturing into technology and consulting. The company is starting to offer clients integrated office technology packages to connect in-house and remote workers, and to see where employees are working when in the office to help increase comfort, productivity and company morale.

Manufacturing pivot

Allen Lawton, CEO of Manchester-based Transfer Enterprises, said his new and refurbished office furniture company made a significant shift to navigate the post-pandemic waters.

The industry saw a significant drop in office furniture sales in 2020, when the main buyers were newly established remote workers. 

Transfer Enterprises, with 45 employees, went from buying and selling furniture to designing and manufacturing it.

The formula appeals to customers who like the reduced price Transfer Enterprises can offer, and who like buying American-made products, Lawton said.

“Anywhere you can save is great, but people also want quality,” he said.

The company also helps install cubicles and performs other workspace design projects.

Lawton said he invested several million dollars into new manufacturing machinery, which does the bulk of the furniture building and allows the company to compete for larger jobs. 

Transfer Enterprises also invested in infrastructure and systems upgrades in its Manchester and South Windsor facilities.

The company holds contracts with the state of Connecticut for office, educational and health facilities, and has many other private clients. 

Lawton said e-commerce sales and COVID changed the game, and he’s unsure what the next five to 10 years will bring for brick-and-mortar offices. 

But like most companies, he said, Transfer will continue to adapt.

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