Tracing the Arc of mobile furniture to bring back the human touch
In the search for workspace efficiency, have we gone too far in removing personal control and a sense of belonging? Flexible new furniture developed by Task Systems for PwC UK seeks to redress the balance
In the drive to make workplace interiors more efficient, are we sacrificing a sense of belonging for people? That was the question confronting Carl Gearing, workplace consultant to PwC UK, as he implemented workspace design changes within the large management consulting firm that reduced levels of personalisation and privacy while optimising space efficiency.
Gearing, who has more than 20 years of experience in the sector, recognised that the scales were tilting in the wrong direction. He could see it was important to manage space tightly but a lack of personal autonomy and control could lead to lower levels of employee satisfaction if unchecked.
‘The trend to be highly efficient can create a sterile, clinical environment in which no personalisation is allowed, people aren’t happy and don’t feel they belong,’ explains Gearing.
So he set about finding a better balance in which a high-efficiency approach is combined with a more human touch. The solution can be found in a new furniture range called Arc, that Carl Gearing developed with independent UK manufacturer Task Systems for specific application at PwC.
The Arc range comprises a flexible and mobile set of loose-fit interior components that hand back some elements of personalisation and choice to the individual office worker.
As Task’s Fergus Bowen comments,’ You control the environment, the environment doesn’t control you.’
Responding to human needs
The fast-track development of the multi-functional Arc range began in 2016 with a design workshop convened by Gearing on behalf of PwC. Product designer Craig Jones of Jones & Partners worked with the Task Systems team and Gearing to sketch out ideas in response to human needs within PwC. An early consideration was the need for tax specialists within PwC to have somewhere to put their tax manuals.
A versatile new product swiftly emerged, a tall, distinctive unit that could be wheeled into place to act as a room divider incorporating book shelves, plants, coat-hooks, pin-up and writing walls, and digital screens. Within eight months, Arc prototypes were tested, first in Craig Jones’ own studio and then on three floors of a new PwC building.
Feedback from the early pilots were encouraging. Arc not only broke up expanses of open plan space – providing more private areas and supporting personalisation – but also supported the more fluid patterns of agile and activity-based working. The ability to write on walls in a project environment was particularly appreciated. So was the function of the tall objects as wayfinding objects to aid navigation in the office.
Capturing the imagination
Made in the UK of plywood with a metal base, whiteboard and an acoustic panel material called Autex, Arc rapidly caught the imagination of users as furniture that can be adapted locally by employees without bringing in the facilities management team.
‘We showed the product at steering group sessions for a new PwC building and people simply went “yes”’, recalls Gearing.
The range was developed from the original one-metre-wide version to include a two-metre-wide unit with a battery-powered digital screen; the theme was further extended with an integral and adaptable Arc table and bench to work with the system. Development was guided by an over-arching ethos to give people more control over their environment, using a kit-of-parts approach akin to building a theatre set in the office.
‘The trend now is towards a more eclectic mix in furniture, away from streamlined efficiency,’ explains Carl Gearing. ‘People don’t want minimalism, they respond to visual stimuli.’
Indeed, the informality and immediacy of the Arc range reflects wider trends in office furniture towards versatility in use rather than longevity for its own sake. As product cycles shorten, so workplace design is seeking to balance business efficiency with the psychological comfort and wellbeing of employees.
Open-minded to innovation
It is tricky balance but PwC has made personal wellbeing a key priority. There are now more than 100 Arc pieces in PwC offices around the UK, including 50 Arcs in PwC’s flagship More London headquarters. Having PwC as a test client, with its exacting standards and open-mindedness to innovation, was doubtless a bonus in bring Arc to the market so quickly. Now other major occupiers such as JP Morgan Chase, Maersk and the British Heart Foundation have also become Task customers for this novel range.
The future is bright
Carl Gearing is in no doubt that furniture developments like these represent the future:
‘As turnover of furniture comes down to three-to-five years from ten, it’s all about answering people’s real needs in a direct and practical way.’