GRAND RAPIDS — As business leaders across industries grapple with their approach to the workplace in a post-pandemic era, The Economic Club of Grand Rapids provided insight on the topic from some of the most influential players in office furniture.
In a rare event, the CEOs of West Michigan’s big three furniture makers — Haworth Inc., Herman Miller Inc. and Steelcase Inc. — shared a virtual stage on Monday afternoon to offer their insights into the post-pandemic workplace and the effects COVID-19 has had on the industry.
Moderated by Deirdre Jimenez, president and CEO of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (BIFMA), the event covered recent industry trends as well as topics including sustainability, environmental responsibility and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
A year of pivoting
Prior to the pandemic, the commercial furniture industry was already in the midst of a transformation as it leaned into the concepts of remote work and collaboration in the workspace.
Furniture makers that had a foot in the residential market made an easier transition into the pandemic era, the executives said. This included Zeeland-based Herman Miller, which had already established retail locations and bolstered its e-commerce infrastructure.
“For those who don’t know, we started as a residential furniture company and we’ve morphed over the years,” said Andi Owen, president and CEO of Herman Miller, which made headlines last month when it announced plans to acquire Knoll Inc. for $1.8 billion. “Before the pandemic, we had already developed products and channels really suited toward our residential customers. …We were pretty well positioned to respond when the pandemic drove us all home to work.”
As vaccination rates creep up and safety guidelines begin to ease, the three companies have spent time consulting with CEOs to anticipate their return-to-work strategies.
Jim Keane, who is serving as president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase before his planned retirement from the position in October, said media coverage has seemed to focus on companies that either want to bring their entire workforce back or ditch their offices all together. The more accurate snapshot, Keane said, is somewhere in between.
“Honestly, while they make great headlines, that’s not where the bulk of customers are,” Keane said. “Most CEOs are embracing this concept of hybrid, and for most of them it means the office will remain primary — it will be the primary place they work.”
Keane added that many of the companies he has consulted with will begin their return-to-work plans beginning on Memorial Day and gradually get to a finalized structure by Labor Day.
Keane said much of the urgency tied to bringing employees back to the office is to re-establish company culture.
“Some of the skills and relationships we acquired over all those years of working together, we benefited from (them) over the last year, but they’re beginning to atrophy,” Keane said, adding that virtual meetings have led to less collaboration among workers. “There is less chit-chat and less connections happening between people.”
Franco Bianchi, CEO of Holland-based Haworth, said hybrid models of remote and in-person work should be familiar to furniture makers.
“We were already hybridizing, so to speak, way before the word ‘hybrid’ was on the front page of (newspapers),” Bianchi said. “This idea of increased variety — creating an environment where an employee can make different choices of location or spaces to do tasks — was already there.”
While Keane admitted that the three companies are “fierce competitors” in the marketplace, all three CEOs spoke to the importance of working together.
“When all of this hit, some of the first calls I think I made were to Jim and Franco and some other businesses in the community because it really doesn’t matter whether you’re competing or not, we’re all in the same community and we all need to work together,” Owen said. “We exist to make a profit, but we exist to make a profit so that we can feed that back into the community and make this a better place.”
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