Published in Manufacturing
A Steelcase Inc. home office concept from early 2021. A Steelcase Inc. home office concept from early 2021. COURTESY PHOTO

Office furniture manufacturers engage customers to navigate hybrid work future

BY Sunday, January 02, 2022 06:10pm

Ryan Anderson and his team at MillerKnoll Inc. found themselves consulting with customers much more than usual over the past year.

“It’s been amazing,” said Anderson, vice president of global research and insights for the Zeeland-based furniture manufacturer. “We’ve talked with I don’t even know how many organizations. Personally, I have had over 300 customer conversations in 2021 and members of the research team have probably topped that.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic creeps into year three, 2022 has the potential to be a relatively defining one for office furniture makers as employers make key decisions on their work spaces and approaches to work.

These crucial decisions have them leaning heavily on companies like MillerKnoll to determine what might be most effective. With the omicron variant of the virus ushering in a major spike of COVID cases, companies in many parts of the United States have some additional time to ponder.

In fact, it’s been that slow trickle back to the office that Anderson said has been advantageous for both furniture makers and their customers.

“Occupancy rates are increasing — nationally they’re at about 40 percent and they’ll continue to grow,” he said. “But the fact that it’s happening slowly is partly because employees are asking for more flexibility with where and when they can work and organizations are taking a fresh look at if their spaces are desirable.”

Hybrid work takes over

In the decade leading up to the pandemic, Anderson said he saw desk utilization fall year-over-year, indicating that the concept of distributed work was gaining steam even if it wasn’t heavily publicized. When the pandemic caused a mass exodus from offices across the country, work from home came under the microscope.

“When work from home happened, the big thing we thought was: Now organizations will see it,” Anderson said. “That work has been spreading out and work from home isn’t really new, it just hasn’t been supported. It’s been across the board in terms of the reaction we’ve seen — largely based on industry and geography.”

As businesses remained in a holding pattern throughout the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, two schools of thought emerged when predicting what would happen next.

“I think the pandemic shone a light on the weakness of both offices and work from home,” Anderson said. “There is this all-or-nothing mindset. We have to get out of that binary view that it’s remote or office.” 

Christine Congdon, director of global research communications for Grand Rapids-based office furniture giant Steelcase Inc., noted that company executives during the pandemic have seen that employees could be reasonably productive while still having concerns over connectivity and culture.

As employees started to return to the office, it became clear that hybrid work is poised to become the norm.

“Our data tells us that 72 percent globally — so, a majority of organizations — are going to do some form of hybrid (work),” Congdon said. “I think we can safely say that hybrid work will be the norm. But what is going to shake out is how hybrid actually works. Some organizations will still tend to want to have people in the office more.”

“Right now, we’re in a period of experimentation by individual organizations,” she added. “I think it’s going to be a period of time where that hybrid work is going to be defined as far as what works best for each organization.”

Industry response

Deirdre Jimenez said she has already witnessed the industry respond to this changing dynamic from her post as president and CEO of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA).

While Jimenez expected to see a return to the office in 2021, that was delayed by the emergence of virus variants and lower-than-expected vaccination rates. She is still optimistic that offices will see a resurgence in occupancy.

“To address the current desire to both return to the office and to work remotely, the furniture industry has been innovating new product solutions that provide for individual user adaptability (and) flexibility to create both open and enclosed spaces,” Jimenez said. “That was movable furniture to allow for changes in configurations and addressing the fluctuating social distancing recommendations along with designing products with residential scalability and outdoor applications.” 

“We are also seeing manufacturers expanding their sales channels to include e-commerce and retail stores to better service the individual home office,” Jimenez added.

Herman Miller, before merging with competitor Knoll Inc., had long planted a foot in the residential segment of its business and leaned in even harder when the pandemic emerged. This included an e-commerce channel called Inside Access designed to make it easy for clients to shop for work-from-home furniture for employees. They also bolstered their work-from-home product offering.

“It’s one of the reasons why Herman Miller was able to really perform and shine in new ways in 2020 and 2021 and one of the reasons why we were able to merge with the Knoll family of brands: Herman Miller never really defined ourselves as an office furniture company,” Anderson said.

Competitive edge

Research unearthed by both MillerKnoll and Steelcase points to the fact that creating an effective office is pivotal in attracting and retaining talent. And that’s something to pay attention to in an era of ongoing workforce shortages. 

“HR professionals have gotten super involved in workplace conversations, which hasn’t been the case and it’s really good,” Anderson said. “They recognize workplace experience as a subset of employee experience and they want to have a greater sense of how their workplace strategy will help their talent related goals.”

Congdon’s research also outlined how crucial a good office is when attracting the right talent. 

In a survey of companies on the most motivating factors to stay or leave a company, whether an employee liked their office was second most important behind tenure.

“That’s telling us that the physical places where people go to work are playing a huge role in terms of other really important business outcomes like employee engagement and culture and whether they’re really going to stay with the organization,” Congdon said. “I think as leaders start to understand that, we’ll see a lot of them say, ‘We have to think very differently about our workplace going forward.’” 

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