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The evolution of ‘modularity’: How commercial furniture systems are responding to new professional behaviours

According to Matt Newell of Business Interiors, “Too often, modularity is seen as a ‘piece of furniture’.” How is the commercial sector reimagining this?

Beset by skyrocketing levels of competition within market shares, the waging skirmishes of the war on talent and the continued rise of insurgent disruptors in every industry, the commercial landscape remains in a state of unease. In the face of further inevitable disruption, decision makers in this space are calling upon the expertise of the architecture and design community to provide some form of a future-proofed, adaptive, flexible and democratic solution to alleviate the ongoing pressures and challenges of our contemporary commercial reality.

To this end, facility managers, particularly, have entered into a new intimacy of collaboration with commercial interior architects and specifiers in a bid to create the workplace conditions that will allow creativity and innovation to flourish – but always with a greater sensitivity toward more cautious assets identification and the bottom line of the balance sheet.

As a result, the increased uptake of modular furniture systems suggests that critical value opportunities exist for end clients looking to incorporate flexible, wellness-oriented and multi-functional furniture into their workplaces, in line with the growing diversity of users and uses the commercial sector anticipates in the near future.

Having observed this rapidly accelerating procurement trend, I wanted to learn more about how this conversation between commercial furniture designer-suppliers, the commercial architecture and design community and their corporate clients has evolved.

So, when I recently sat down with Matt Newell, the General Manager of Business Interiors – a leading supplier of commercial design solutions in the Australian market – it became clearer and clearer that creating meaningful experiences in commercial environments that also support productivity and efficiency will continue to develop at breakneck speeds. What role can modular furniture play, then, in helping commercial clients weather the imminent tides of change? Well … let’s ask an expert ––

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David Congram: Matt, thank you for taking the time to explain this development in commercial furniture procurement behaviours to me. But I wanted to first-off ask, why do you believe that today we are seeing a clear trend in popularity for more modular furniture systems?

Matt Newell: From what we’ve learned through both our commercial clients and collaborative efforts with the architecture and design community, it is fairly apparent that modularity is about freedom of choice for end users. The increased procurement of modular furniture, in particular, is occurring as a response to wanting to provide a solution for creative, focused collaborative needs. In most contemporary commercial environments, the increased need for collaboration, however, can’t come at the cost of isolating individuals or teams from the broader ecosystem of a company. There is a clear necessity for allowing end users to draw from the energy of a specific space – and modular furniture systems ensure that this kind of demand for flexibility and a more open interface between individuals and teams can occur organically. 

So has this shift also been shaped somewhat by the increasing role of facilities management teams in the specification process? It would seem to me that such stakeholders would be highly invested in opening up this interface in a very meaningful way.

It certainly has had a profound impact. Facilities management personnel have become more and more end user-centric in their focus and intent. They are driven by the desire to provide greater customer and employee experience, but also need to have the opportunity to be creative with their management of space and associated overhead costs. Modularity has proven to be a successful and workable solution for these drivers.

Clearly these benefits have become broadly known. But out of interest, what are some of the benefits surrounding modularity that are often overlooked?

That’s a good question! Too often, modularity is seen as a ‘piece of furniture’. But really, it’s all about the needs of the end user, the functionality of the space. Modular furniture is something akin to functionality in motion. It must carry a high degree of functional design, a strong purpose for the space and its users, and must be able to continue adapting to evolving demands and expectations well into the future. The re-usability factor is very important.

How does this concept of re-usability come into play then?

Modular furniture systems have something of a future-proofing effect in a workplace. They enable the space – or spaces – to be reconfigured to suit different, evolving and sometimes competing needs over time and over users. From this perspective, the investment in new furniture for specific configurations decreases and longevity becomes more and more ensured.

And do you think that the industry – or what’s more, commercial clients – have reached a point of understanding this value? 

Clients who have been early adopters of modularity continue to be challenged by their early decisions. Now, however, I have seen a clear difference in how such stakeholders view modular furniture systems. Today there is a very broad understanding that modularity is beneficial as both a commercial imperative and a human resources tool – it is beneficial for their people, talent and business needs. I feel that this is the challenge – but also the opportunity – when you take the initial plunge. Of course, qualification of user needs is critical but not always easy, especially if the current environment that a client is accustomed to is a more conventional commercial space.

Can you explain that aspect further for me? How commonly does modularity foster employee engagement?

When you start with understanding the end user’s needs – how they work currently, how they want to work in future – you already are fostering employee engagement. When an organisation shifts their space to a modular layout, it is allowing employees to work in different modes, creating options for various employee preferences and their idiosyncratic and evolving needs.

How have you seen this play out in your own personal experience?

I worked at one time with a large national organisation that operates traditional workplaces. You know the kind of thing: an assigned desk for every person, closed-door meeting spaces, all managers having an office. I was asked to work with the organisation’s interior design partner to create a more open condition, opening up the space and thus also opening up new functional modes and opportunities. The brief seemed quite a tall-order – support customer and employee engagement for open and confidential conversations, provide individual focus areas and open collaborative spaces – you can already see how some of these success factors can compete. But once we began to look at different modular furniture systems that deliver on diverse and often competing needs such as these, the end goal became very achievable. These pieces, additionally, altered the cultural envelope from closed to open at all team levels, making everyday communication more visible and, as a result, welcoming. Particular areas and settings also ended up becoming a bit of a destination for their customers, allowing them to feel super comfortable and also enjoy their engagement experience with the company.

On that topic of pleasure and comfort, how have you seen modular furniture systems address this increased demand for wellness in the commercial space?

Well, space, texture and modes give end users choice or variety – especially in comparison with more traditional solutions like a desk, chair or meeting room. For a lot of people, this ability to choose drives emotional responses, and allowing them to select a space and method to support how they wish to operate throughout a day allows them to feel individually encouraged to work to their fullest potential. For me, I think this is underestimated as a key reason for why a variety of furniture solutions in the workplace can be a very effective driver for more wellness outcomes for all.

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To learn more about how Matt Newell and Business Interiors approach the changing landscape of modularity, download the free whitepaper below. Explore how modular furniture addresses the concerns of the modern workplace, the changing nature of the workforce, and the increased demand for more health and wellness in the commercial space.


Download your whitepaper for free, here:This whitepaper is proudly presented by Business Interiors.

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