Guest Post by Anthony Hansen, Director of Marketing, Installation Specialists, Inc. (ISI)

If you think back to 2010, the iPhone had not yet outpaced Blackberry, broadband was still the primary method for internet connectivity, and cellphone data was extremely expensive. Instagram was founded that year and Amazon had 30,000 employees (today that number skirts around 1 million). These advances in technology, social connectivity, and procurement created fundamental shifts in the ways that furniture manufacturers and dealers designed and delivered commercial interiors. These changes also forced the evolution and rapid adoption of service expectations for installation companies everywhere.

More than laborers, installers are now tech savvy.

Loading, unloading. Packing, unpacking. Assembling, disassembling. Installers remain the physical backbone of commercial interiors. But muscle alone no longer gets the job done. Installers now correspond with dealers and manufacturers by digitizing their field experiences. The ability and ease of photographing, texting, emailing, uploading/downloading files from smartphones has streamlined communications. This connectivity provides visual representation of progress, challenges, and punchlist issues for all project partners.

The rise of software programs to manage inventories (e.g. SnapTracker™) and communicate on common platforms with contractors and designers (e.g. PlanGrid) add new proficiencies for installer success. Data-enabled tablets now run these programs which allow field crews to provide real-time documentation and timestamped accountability for their work. 

As furniture changes, knowledge becomes a superpower.

The focus of office interiors has morphed from concentrated personal space to integrated communal space. . . and now to socially distanced space. A rapid infusion of ancillary product and associated manufacturers over the last 10 years has allowed designers to curate exceptional and eclectic spaces that match each client’s brand and aesthetic. The shift in product placement and reduction of systems furniture has reduced the floorplate coverage of singular manufacturers.

Because many manufacturers now populate a typical floorplate, installers must have a broad knowledge of all systems, casework, plug-and-play, ancillary, and specialty products. No two products are the same, and neither are their assembly, disassembly, or care. Installers must be knowledgeable in all product installation needs. They must be critical thinkers to determine phasing when working with a mix of national and international shipments. They must be great mathematicians to customize pieces in the field that were incorrectly ordered or manufactured, or simply have a physical or code conflict in the field. Further, today’s popularity of power, technology, and electronic screens in commercial furniture requires installers to understand its integration into new and existing product.

As capabilities expand, so do toolboxes.

Increased customization of products in the field—as well as their inherent engineering—requires specialized tools of the trade. Installers always carried traditional tools (drills, mallets, pry bars, plumb bobs, screwdrivers, tape measurers). Today they are also outfitted with advanced equipment (heat guns, sanders, routers, ram sets, etc.). Most tools are now battery operated to accommodate work where power is unavailable. Lasers have replaced 4-foot levels and are used for workstation, private office, glass board, shelving, shade, and millwork installations. The integration of sound masking systems and acoustical panels and lighting are bringing installers much higher than an 8’ ladder. Therefore, scissor lifts and scaffolding are often needed on site.

While some companies provide tools for the installers, others require self-procurement. The additional cost for these tools can be substantial. And unlike technology that gets smaller each year, tools do not and the required space to transport them to and from project sites is something that must be taken into consideration.

Efficiency never goes out of style.

Two things will forever find a way to be compressed in commercial interiors: schedules and margins. Ten years ago, installers entered the scene at the end of construction with carpet laid, lights in, and space clean. Today, they enter while construction is still in full swing. In projects with greater complexity, installers are at the table offering insight and influence throughout construction as their integration with other trades continues to grow. Efficiency in manpower, deliveries, product staging, and trash disposal is required when jobs are expected to be completed under great time constraints. Strategic thinking and critical path development become paramount. Seasoned installers can recoup and reinvest their time in a project when they leverage economy of scale to assemble and install large runs of furniture.

Back-end efficiencies are also key for installation companies. From project coordinators and warehouse receiving to dispatch and accounting, the importance of streamlining processes and ensuring clear and concise communication increases every year. Further, providing furniture dealers and manufacturers with field insights for labeling, packaging, and installation drawings helps the industry develop a solid base of best practices to aid in efficiency. It is through these actions that installers can minimize margin erosion and protect the bottom line.

Despite industry changes, safety still reigns.

While safety has always been at the forefront for field teams, additional layers of protection and education protocols have been implemented over the last ten years. Regular safety training and OSHA certifications are now standard. Some companies have dedicated Safety Managers or site representatives to ensure that site conditions are conducive to worker safety, as well as enforcing that team members are following all safety requirements. Hard hat and steel-toe shoe usage is not new, but recently face coverings/shields and digital thermometers have been added to PPE (personal protective equipment) requirements across the country.

For legal and insurance reasons, installers and other trades must often attend preconstruction site safety meetings with the general contractor and/or provide written verification of ongoing safety meetings throughout a project to the end user or building manager.

What does the next decade look like?

There is widespread speculation that manufacturers will absorb others and that dealerships will merge to form regional alliances. These changes will require installation teams to continuously elevate service models as they increasingly become the only eyes and ears on-site to represent furniture. Technology will continue to strengthen communication but most likely will become streamlined across the country as manufacturers and dealers request standardization from all their field partners. But regardless of the changes that may come in the industry, the needs for quality craftsmanship, exceptional communication skills, and broad industry knowledge for installers will remain constant.

Anthony Hansen is Director of Marketing at Installation Specialists, Inc. (ISI), Chicago’s largest commercial interiors installation company.