THE BLOG
06/24/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

NeoCon 2014: Work Is a Verb

Walking into the doors of the Merchandise Mart with 40,000 other people for NeoCon 2014 makes this crazy underground world of office furniture seem like a normal way of life. While we are not saving the world, we can all sleep well at night knowing the sole job of those in the commercial interiors industry is to make your life better. Considering Americans spend over 40 hours per week on average at work, that suddenly becomes a pretty important part of improving your life.

If you've read this column at all in 2014, you've heard a lot about emerging workplace trends and current struggles in workplace design. Many of these trends were alive, well and reflected in three dimensions by the contract interiors industry at the show. So what was the biggest takeaway from NeoCon 2014? It's that everything as we know it is changing: Work is no longer a noun. Work is a verb.

Say back in 1950, when one said, "I'm going to work," it meant, "I am physically going to an office to do work tasks." But now, "I'm going to work" is transitioning to mean "I'm going to _________ (insert place of choice) to do work." Work is no longer just some place we go, but something we do and something we do in many different places that is hard to put a neat box around. The biggest struggle for this industry is translating what this shift in nomenclature means for the physical office space.

Based on the NeoCon displays, 2014 marks the biggest shift since the advent of the cubicle. It is clear the line is blurring between "furniture systems" (cubicles) and ancillary (tables, lounge seating, etc...). Need an illustration? Just take a spin around Haworth's NeoCon 2014 showroom and you will see the new Openest line where even the individual desks appear to be a part of the ancillary package. A majority of the square footage of many showrooms was used to show creative open office solutions filled with new "third space" ideas. Most still focused on collaboration and connection with others, while Steelcase tackled Susan Cain's world of introverts.

While many of the show trends were not brand new, here are three new-ish industry trends which were prevalent at NeoCon 2014:

Material as a Product. Immediately upon entering NeoCon, attendees registered on a table made by molo, whose walls, seating and lighting lines are all made from what appears to stem from a creative art student's exploration of a new material. The result is a striking aesthetic and flexible designs perfect for impromptu events. Buzzispace has perhaps led this trend with its exploration of acoustical materials in infinite applications, and their 2014 showroom did not disappoint. 3form and Skyline are two other companies who have pioneered the "material as a product" trend. Both market beautiful products which create the opportunity for the designer of interior space or product only limited by what they can dream up. Another newer entrant to this category was Seeyond with its Cloud product. By creating a proprietary parametric design system called the Tess Specification Tool, creatives can easily create organic shape and complex form for ceiling and architectural elements. As where we work changes, these flexible tools will equip designers to create new types of spaces to fit new places for work.

New Postures. Whether it's the health and wellbeing craze, new technology mediums (i.e. iPads over laptops) or simply new places of work, much attention was focused this year on new types of furniture to support and encourage movement. Izzy+has been speaking this language for quite some time with their HAG seating line, however it came to life in many new ways at the show. Height adjustable desks were literally everywhere as were fun, new un-office-like chairs like the Humanscale Ballo. KI also launched MyWay, an education focused lounge chair which not only allows, but encourages new postures and unconventional ways of sitting. But it wasn't just limited to furniture. Knoll featured a new Ap called "Bounce," which is exploring ways to measure and analyze workplace space utilization and work patterns which should help as we explore and experiment with new ways of working. These new postures extend to new places, too. Knoll featured an outdoor furniture setting in the front window of the showroom. The Grand Rapids Chair Company launched a new indoor/outdoor chair called Sadie with industry award winning designer Joey Ruiter. And although Landscape Forms did not exhibit at the show, the rumored growth the company is experiencing is a great indicator that outdoor space will likely be a big part of new postures and places in the new more active-throughout-the day workplace.

Customization. While the idea of customization itself is not new, the extent to which users can customize their space seems to be ever-evolving. In years past, most showrooms have been product displays. First you see product A, then product B, and so on. This year, almost every showroom was much less internally focused (here's my product A) and much more focused on out-doing the next showroom with increasingly more creative settings using new combinations of product. Applying this type of solutions-based product combinations to real client challenges will put more pressure than ever on the contract industry for hiring. Anyone wandering the show who is new to the industry would likely tell you most companies have a lot of the same kit-of-parts. So as we approach this new "work is a verb" world, (with an impending labor gap no less) it will be up to manufacturers and service providers to walk their own talk. They have to do more than talk about the trends, but recruit and retain the best and brightest talent that will help them connect with their customers to create new, ever-more-creative and customized solutions.