Fernando Jauretche says employers are returning their attention to community meeting spaces from the earlier, pandemic-induced trend of Plexiglas workspace dividers.
Jauretche is the CEO and owner of Spokane-based commercial furniture dealer and interior services company Contract Resource Group Inc., which does business as Freeform Interiors. He says Freeform currently is updating its showroom, just east of downtown at 715 E. Sprague, to display a variety of collaborative workspaces. The appeal for such spaces is among a handful of trends that Jauretche says were present before the COVID-19 pandemic and have been accelerated by the ripple effects of the pandemic.
Jauretche says that while many employers are still concerned about health and safety, employers also should focus on creating welcoming spaces to help combat a coming “turnover tsunami.” He believes that once people returning to the office feel secure to do so, many of them will change jobs or careers.
The Journal sat down with Jauretche in the Freeform showroom to discuss office furniture trends, obstacles, and what could be next in the world of workplace interior design.
What workplace trends were you seeing that the pandemic accelerated?
There was already a trend toward making commercial workplaces feel more residential, but now that people are actually coming back to the office from home, if there’s a stark difference in coming into the office, it’s going to feel less desirable.
We think through furnishing interiors, you can get people to come back to the workplace with a carrot, rather than with a stick. If you have a really cool space, it seduces people into the workplace, rather than mandating it.
If an employer says, ‘you can’t work from home full-time, I want you in the office two to four days a week, and you choose.’ If your workplace sucks and they say two to four days, you’ll only be there two days a week. But if employees put in an espresso machine and they have this living room space, employers get to see coworkers and collaborate and get good coffee, enjoy a wellness area with a healthy snack—well shoot, now I want to be in the office four days a week. Now I’ll just go home when I need some real heads-down time and there’s too much distraction with everything in the workplace. Those are the ideas that we’re redoing our showroom around.
The workplace is about community. We’re creating a Zoom living room. I want a space in the office that feels like home.
What are some continued effects of the pandemic on office design?
You still need some division. We’re delineating space to create a feeling of safety. We offer one of the few commercial air cleaners that actually scrubs viruses out of the air. It also filters out wildfire smoke.
When people come in and they see that, that’s some assurance. Clean air is something that I’m frustrated hasn’t been addressed enough. Going forward, air quality should continue to be a focus, between seasonal viruses and seasonal wildfire smoke in our region.
With our three air scrubbers, it’ll be interesting if we can keep the inside not smelling smoky. When you go into a place that has really good air filtration from the outside where it was smoky, it feels really clean, almost refreshing. Talk about enticing people to not be at home—if you’re home air isn’t as clean as the air at work, you’d rather spend your day at work.
For companies that aren’t sure what direction they’re going to take, they might benefit from some flexibility, as opposed to building hard walls and locking themselves into a set footprint. We know what hybrid work looks like for workers in an office space. It’s either that they alternate and there are empty stations, or they share a desk on an alternating schedule. But what does that look like for managers and private offices? Are they using the same office and turning it over? When the manager is gone, could it be a meeting space?
Has business been affected by materials shortages?
The problem is that, like with everything else we’re hearing, you can’t get product. We’re having problems with lead times, with backlogs. Supply chain issues are affecting every industry. Fortunately, a lot of our furniture is still made in the U.S., although some of it has Asian or European components that can be delayed. European is the worst, because between their backlogs and their shipping delays, they also close down for the summer.
We’ve got stuff we need from Italy that’s going to take another 26 weeks to get because they’re off for the summer and there are not enough ships and there are not enough shipping containers and workers at the docks, and then there are truck shortages. Every step of the way.
We’ve had a lot of projects where we’ve had to re-select and re-select products, just based on what’s available. If it can be made in Jasper, Indiana—that’s a hub of furniture manufacturing—they can probably get it to us on time, but if it has a pneumatic lift that’s Chinese or a hinge that’s German, now we can’t get our whole product because manufacturers can’t get this one component.
What aspects of COVID-19 pandemic-era office design are going to stick around the longest?
I think people will keep some sense of space, because I think we’re all a little traumatized. After the Great Depression, people who had gone through it still saved their money carefully. After COVID, people who went through it and who weren’t in the workplace are still going to keep some sense of personal space that is greater than it used to be.
I think there’s going to be this trauma-based, larger sense of needing space, so areas in the workplace will have to be bigger. They’re also going to remember how easy it was, when you had to, to work from home. If an employer says, “this work has to be done here,” an employee might say, “we’ve proven that it doesn’t have to all be done at the office, and if you’re not flexible, it’s because you don’t care about me as an employee.”
Hoteling (providing unassigned workspaces, typically reserved in advance) has been a trend that furniture manufacturers and architects have been telling me is coming forever, and I still didn’t see it. In fact, I tried to implement it in my own showroom and failed, because we’re creatures of habit. People want to feel like they belong in their little space. The only time it works is for (people) like nurses, who are up and about anyway, who are used to moving from one nursing station to another.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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