The UK furniture market is currently worth approximately £428 million. There are over 140 companies, all of them highly competitive and offering increasingly sophisticated ranges. The complexity of tasks processed through the office has placed huge demands on furniture and on building services. Whereas furniture selection used to involve picking the right desk, chair and filing unit for a particular grade and multiplying it by headcount, increasingly building elements have to be considered and a misguided choice can entail costly relocation of services. Criteria for choice should therefore be carefully evaluated and weighted.

Evaluating your requirements

Needs will change over time: how many terminals might you expect to have in two years’ time? Similarly, executives performing few if any machine-based tasks will still require storage space, and machine-intensive work still generates large quantities of paper which will need to be stored. If frequent internal moves are realistically anticipated, standardised workplaces may be required to minimise disruption.

Allocating space

Space needs will expand and retract as organisations change and staff numbers fluctuate. For many, the actual worksurface area will be more important floor space square footage. Selection of a system will also be influenced by the need to hold formal or impromptu meetings around the workspace. In practice, layouts are often determined by existing furniture systems, and once the components are installed, only superficial changes can be made. If the furniture selection process takes place before layout needs have been properly established, then choice is likely to be dictated by the supplier’s sales pitch, rather than by what the organisation needs. Management should commit itself to realistic standards at an early stage. It is helpful to draw up a profile of the types of work activity for different job functions. Ask how much time each person actually spends at their desk. Traditional perceptions of corporate heirarchy and status can often obscure the real needs of users. Support staff place the greatest demands on space, equipment and furniture, whereas managers and executives are likely to spend most of their time either out of the office or in internal meetings. Once these primary criteria have been established, it is important to weight them according to individual job types.

Involve the user

Suppliers and specifiers are increasingly involving users in the design and selection of office furniture. User participation is crucial in ensuring adequate provision of space for storage and accessories and ergonomic design. For example, many managers will assume fixed desk heights across the board whereas a sample of user preferences will probably reveal an even spread of different requirements. Full-scale mock-ups will not be possible in every furniture budget but they do provoke comment and suggestions from users. A simple questionnaire, at the least, is essential for getting useful feedback and avoiding expenditure on redundant items. A survey prepared by Steelcase for 20 employees in different functions of a large organisation found that:

  • 8 per cent wanted additional worksurface area
  • 5 per cent wanted a more convenient location for equipment or machines
  • 5 per cent wanted more comfortable height for equipment or machines
  • 8 per cent complained of glare on computer terminal displays
  • 2 per cent wanted a more convenient outlet location
  • 6 per cent wanted more storage capacity
  • 2 per cent wanted more convenient storage for some materials
  • 4 per cent wanted additional guest seating.

Budgeting for furniture

Furniture accounts for an increasing proportion of building costs. When drawing up a budget, assess the quantity of existing furniture that can be re-used or adapted. A phased purchasing programme is often the best solution when budgets are tight. Depreciation periods for each type should be recorded so that new furniture is acquired as old items deteriorate or become obsolete. With a phased programme, select a solid basic structure to start with that can be added to in time from the same range without compromising flexibility. Pare down your workstation plan to a basic unit of cost- desk, chair, return, single storage unit – in the initial stages so that you can compare costs more easily. In one example the difference between a fixed pedestal and a mobile pedestal was £100.

Use your bargaining power

Discounts on office furniture can range from a standard 20 per cent to as much as 50 per cent. One supplier will be reluctant to name a price because it increases your bargaining power with the next one. Some have separate pricing structures for retail, contract and specifier markets and elements within one range may come under different price headings. A general word of advice is to push for the most you can get and play quotes off against each other.

Summary

Decide on current and future performance requirements before approaching suppliers. In other words, define the question before you pick the solution. Once you have made a choice, remember that as a facilities manager, you have purchasing power: ask for a full demonstration and, if in doubt, take the system apart yourself. Talk to other facilities managers who may have used the system. Appreciate that there may be a certain element of risk in the game of furniture selection – the rate at which specifications are changing means that suppliers cannot always guarantee that a range will still be available in three years’ time.

Checklists Organisational fitness – can the system:

  • accommodate a range of layout
  • provide a variety of workplaces (cellular/open plan/group/mixed)
  • adapt to different or awkward building forms
  • adapt to a range of different job types and functions?

Construction, function and capacity

  • Design image.
  • What materials are used? Are special finishes available?
  • Is wire management provided and if so, how?
  • Is there provision for task lighting and task air-handling? 10 Facilities Vol 6 / No 3 / March 1988
  • Is the system easily demountable by untrained staff?
  • Is the method of construction robust? Will it withstand different types of use (such as heavy equipment)?
  • Can the system be flat-packed when not in use?
  • Are individual components height-adjustable?
  • Do drawers open easily without jamming?
  • Are surfaces easy to clean? Will upholstered finishes show up dirt?
  • Do free-standing units allow for easy floor cleaning?
  • Can finishes be replaced?
  • Does the product comform to safety regulations? Are all materials hazard-free? Are storage systems fire/water resistant?
  • Are accessories provided (for example, telephone trays, coat hooks, pin board, signs, pen holders, bins).
  • Is storage capacity for a variety of needs provided? (paper, computer equipment, security).

Manufacturer

  • How long has the product been on the market?
  • What is the country of origin?
  • Is a design service offered?
  • What is the expected delivery time?
  • Do they have an installation and maintenance service?
  • What type of after-sales service is offered?
  • What discounts are available?
  • What are the replacement costs for single items?
  • Do they offer leasing/trading-in facilities and on what terms?

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