Rethinking the corporate office for the 21st century

A talk with Jim Keane and Angela Nahikian of corporate furniture firm Steelcase about sustainability, office space design, mobility, collaboration and emerging technology.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Office furniture may not be sexy, but it's at the heart of helping corporate offices go green.

Last month, I spoke with Jim Keane and Angela Nahikian of Steelcase, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based firm responsible for much of what you meet over, sit on and work at in a modern office building.

Keane serves as president of the Steelcase Group and Nahikian is the company's director of global environmental sustainability.

We spoke about the role of green building in corporate sustainability, the value of rethinking the design of office spaces, the needs of a 21st-century workplace and the emerging technology that's brewing in the lab.

SmartPlanet: Let's talk sustainability. What's your role, internally and externally?

JK: Sustainability is a journey. The way we implement LEED in our plants -- over time you see an opportunity to make more progress. You don't reach a destination [of] "Good, we're sustainable." That [ongoing process] is good for everybody.

As we keep innovating across the board, we keep finding ways to improve the company from a triple bottom line perspective, as well as from an environmental perspective. Take new materials [for example]: things are much different than just three or five years ago. We're learning a lot more about product lifecycle.

When it comes to recycling and reusing products, we're working to build a supply chain on the other end -- people who can take those products and use them for something else.

Every year, we have new ways of pushing ourselves forward. I don't think that's going to end.

AN: This is about long-term commitment and will and gaining insights into the work we're doing. We've been spending a lot of time and investment diving into material composition and the upstream and the downstream impact of the decisions we make. We think that sustainability is really an amazing lens for innovation.

We've been really focusing on the environmental intervention and social value creation and really delivering on that innovation from an integrated, systems-wide approach.

JK: It's got to be good for customers, too. We're trying to make it easy for customers who want to make better decisions. It shouldn't be hard for customers to choose products that are sustainable. We went to our trade show one year and were really proud to have products that were completely cradle-to-cradle certified: a chair, a desk, a couch, including the electrical [elements within]. There's a hollow feeling: well, what about the rest of the stuff [on display] in here? Is there really only a limited choice [of sustainable products]?

The following year's show, we only allowed product on the floor that was cradle-to-cradle certified. And that really got our people thinking.

AN: Is it baseline yet? I think it is, conceptually. But there's not a universal definition of sustainability. Increasingly, they are demanding it, but they're asking different kinds of questions. We're seeing this from the design community, but also from customers. Questions about transparency. They want to know specifics of how we're doing it, where we're doing it, details. They're taking it beyond the LEED baseline.

We've learned a lot about our supply chain doing this work. Before, we may not have known a lot about how many tiers we have in our supply chain. Our record so far is nine layers -- from a 3M or a Dow to a finished part or assembly. That tells us we've got a lot of players in there. We go all the way down that supply chain for chemistry information. We gather all of that information.

From an energy standpoint, we're starting down that path.

We're actually the largest participant in the Green Supplier's Network working with the EPA. We began with the 80-20 rule -- 20 percent of our suppliers provide 80 percent of what we buy. Who are these people and how can we connect with them to find opportunities for energy savings? We fund programs for auditors to work with them to identify opportunities for energy reduction. To help them become one more efficient business.

Energy equals money equals carbon.

JK: We help our suppliers become more literate about sustainability. It doesn't just help us, but it helps everybody they buy from. Some of the people are involved in junior achievement -- "teach tomorrow's leaders." How do you create accountability around them? We're as proud of that impact as the impact [sustainability] has directly on our supply chain.

AN: A lot of our suppliers supply our competitors. That ripple effect happens through the community. That's how we have to address it in the end. Even if we have everything working in our company like a well-oiled machine -- [when] we've reached that nirvana -- the effect we have is very small if we don't consider the supply chain. If we can reduce floor plate, for instance. That possibly surpasses everything we do as a company.

JK: If we were the only voice in our industry talking about sustainability, customers might associate it with Steelcase. But this is part of how they should think about outfitting their office space. Other leaders in the industry have made similar investments. We're in good company. If they haven't heard it first from us, they've heard it from someone else.

AN: We have competitive advantage when we're first movers; when we're drivers. But we have an obligation to share what we know.

SmartPlanet: Rethinking office spaces -- how has recent technology affected this, and how has that changed office design?

JK: Clients are struggling looking at their existing offices. The size of the average workstation is smaller than it was five years ago, 10 years ago. The idea of offices laid out by status -- those things are changing.

Clients now see a lot of empty workstations. Where are they? They're traveling, they're at client sites, they're in meeting rooms. Work has changed in a fundamental way. How do I create harder working spaces?

The first force behind that is globalization. More people are working globally -- conference calls that start before and after the traditional workday. Twenty-four-seven is becoming a reality. The border between personal and work life becomes very blurry. The old rules are gone for good.

Collaboration is another big deal. A lot of office jobs were about entering data into a computer; even now, it's about reading e-mail. Now the high-value activities are important -- creating, debating, human-type things. The desk jobs have moved overseas.

Mobility is important. People are becoming untethered. You no longer need to come to work to get what you need to do done. People have a lot of choices where to work; that's not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of these workers are very aware of their carbon footprint.

If you keep trying to sell them the old product, you won't. On the other hand, we're studying these patterns and telling people to think differently about their office. Instead of loading up with cubicles, the office has to be attractive -- people like being with other people. Collaboration is important to the future of these corporations. Instead of cubicles, build around collaboration first. It's a place to have great meetings. It's a place to have teleconferencing. It's a place to network with colleagues. It's a place that companies can create a stronger culture. Sure, you have to provide spaces for e-mail. But you have to rethink it, and maybe not use as much real estate as you did in the past.

If we do our job the right way, we listen to our clients. When they visit us, we start by asking them how they're feeling in their space. They can already see it. They can see how their spaces don't support the way they work. You can often ask a customer whether the office they have today better reflects where they want to go or where they come from. Often, it's the latter.

That's one of the most satisfying things we get, when we take all this research and help a client discover what's right for them.

Twenty years ago -- 10 years ago, even -- clients visiting us would expect to take factory tours. These days, it's very seldom a part of their visit. Now they meet with researchers and designers and talk to people who manage change for others. We really consider it a part of our engagement process with our customers. It usually isn't about the choosing of the furniture so much as discovering what's right for you.

AN: We talk a lot about insight-led performance. A lot of people are concerned about wellness -- people are working longer hours and don't have the punctuation between personal and performance. How they can communicate wellness and how they're supporting employees as people. That's part of retention and attraction.

SmartPlanet: Let's shift gears and talk about emerging technology. What's around the bend for the 21st century office?

JK: One of the most powerful trends is the use of videoconferencing in the office. It meets a lot of needs -- putting people on airplanes for a day or two for a two or three hour meeting around the world is a terrible idea from an efficiency perspective.

And yet, the way people have solved that is through these dedicated videoconferencing rooms -- very formal rooms that you have to book. It's not a room you'd normally meet in unless you had to use the technology.

One of the things we're working on -- MediaScape -- is designing a room around videoconferencing. A more comfortable, natural table that lets you share content with others. It's videoconferencing for the rest of us.

We actually partnered with Cisco to work on a product for GE -- GE bought teleconferencing from Cisco and furniture from Steelcase. We did it understanding the reality that, at GE, people don't just sit at the desk the entire time during a meeting. GE said, "This is the way we work, we don't want a solution that forces us into a way." It was a great challenge.

What gets me up every day is that we want people to love how they work. We love having that impact. By taking those insights and understanding the user at a very deep level, we can create environments that we know can help them do their jobs right.

We learn a lot working from clients, no doubt about it. We pick up on explicit needs -- a particular problem, like ergonomic issues. But the most interesting problems are the implicit needs -- the things people will never tell you is a problem. But if you watch how they work, they're working around something. You only get this through observation.

We learned this through IDEO, which is a part of Steelcase. They take pictures, videotape, observe. They're trying to look for patterns of behavior. They tease out different issues -- weak signals -- where eventually they see patterns.

With new technology, you often have to look at an extreme case. Long before laptops were popular in corporate America, we knew it was only a matter of time. But then, nobody was asking for it.

So we find a college --- Carnegie Mellon [University] -- where students were each issued a laptop. What happens when everyone in an environment uses a laptop? Students were gathering for meetings in lobbies of buildings. That never happened before, because you could never get a computer there. They were sitting in lecture halls, in funny straight lines -- we realized they were sitting next to electrical outlets. We noticed people walking around, holding their laptops without closing their lids. It's because if you'd close the laptop then, the power would go off. Those patterns of behavior help you anticipate how it would affect corporate America. We started working on furniture right away.

As an example, a few years ago we designed a product called i2i (pictured at top) -- we put a tablet arm on a chair so you could do work in one of these in-between spaces. People will tend to sit in those spaces and collaborate, without being in a conference room. It's a new kind of chair -- we call it "collaborative seating."

We originally acquired IDEO in the '90s. We had them do projects for us, but we were really developing internal competencies.

AN: The interesting thing is, working with IDEO when we hadn't built that competency inside, you can see now as our research teams go out and take that as a baseline or evolve different practices or tools or methods. We're trying to create an environment. It's a much broader context.

We're looking for crimes against the user. Those crimes are usually found at the intersection of completely new environments and extreme users. The fringes and the crossover. There's a lot of nuance to this work. Not being intrusive and changing behavior -- there's an art to that.

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