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Published in Manufacturing
A home office concept by Steelcase Inc. A home office concept by Steelcase Inc. COURTESY PHOTO

Pandemic sends furniture manufacturers’ work from home plans into overdrive

BY Sunday, February 14, 2021 06:00pm

For the large West Michigan-based office furniture manufacturers, remote working was a familiar concept and a demand they were prepared to fulfill.

While names like Steelcase Inc., Herman Miller Inc. and Haworth Inc. were keeping an eye on the transition to higher percentages of remote workers, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing mass exodus from traditional offices lurched that evolution forward.

Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights for Herman Miller, pointed to the fact that the Zeeland-based furniture maker developed its first work from home solutions back in the 1950s and — despite always catering to that growing market — the company had to make some adjustments to accommodate the seismic shifts caused by the pandemic.

“I think 2020 acted as a major catalyst toward where we already thought it was going,” Anderson said. “And from our standpoint, we had already developed a work from home offering — a dedicated e-com(merce) channel. 

We redesigned packaging to fit through residential doorways and was easy to break down. All that happened well before the pandemic.”

“We stepped on the gas for sure in terms of promoting it and talking about it, and it worked out great because we saw an over 270 percent increase in work from home sales last year,” he added.

Grand Rapids-based Steelcase found itself in a similar position. While the furniture manufacturer’s core business centers on large enterprise clients and central offices, it also filled remote work and work from home niches.

When the pandemic hit and nationwide shutdowns seemed potentially temporary, Steelcase was compelled to react.

“We didn’t have a choice — consumers pulled us,” said Rob Poel, Steelcase’s general manager of work from home and new business innovation. “Orders just started spiking. We had a team in place at that time that was focused on our online store and retail business. But it was sized appropriately for the market at that time.”

“We had to quickly marshal resources from a number of areas of the company, and after that we formed a newer and enhanced team to focus on that market,” he added. “That’s when I came into my role here.”

New products, e-commerce race

When it came to addressing the physical needs of working from home, a few specific items emerged as top sellers. An ergonomic work chair was at the top of that list.

“Not a large portion of the population has a dedicated home office,” Poel said. “Many are creating temporary spaces. These are the people who might be sitting on a folding chair or something else. … An ergonomic seating solution is clearly the No. 1 thing.”

Poel said that height-adjustable desks were another in-demand item in addition to small tools and accessories, like a second monitor or a phone charging solution that would be readily available at an office.

During the pandemic, Steelcase launched a sit-to-stand desk called Solo, which has proven to be popular among clients and fits the needs of this new brand of customer.

“Some of the products that we developed before were being installed in an office by a professional installer,” Poel said. “Now, you’re shipping it FedEx, it’s being dropped on your doorstep and it needs the average consumer to be able to assemble it. (Solo) is one product that we launched … and we envision more in the year ahead.”

Not only were in-demand products changing, but also the method in which clients were buying swung to e-commerce, where many furniture manufacturers found themselves enhancing their digital presence.

It’s a frontier in which Haworth has been especially active over the last year.

The Holland-based furniture maker launched an entirely new corporate website in July 2020 and updated its e-commerce site in the second quarter.

“Everything (in the online store) is in inventory,” said Paul Nemschoff, Haworth’s vice president of global strategy and marketing. “They’re able to order and take delivery literally within days. We’ve seen good success on it.”

Nemschoff said he plans further enhancements to Haworth’s e-commerce site, which will roll out before the end of February.

Workplace consultants

Haworth has also harnessed its digital presence for more than just selling furniture. Through a web series called Haworth Connect, the company welcomes guest speakers to talk on topics ranging from resilience in challenging times to engagement and inspiration. The events never mention Haworth products.

“As much as we believe that it’s important for us to give people at home, or anywhere else, a great product to work with, there is a huge mental component to this,” Nemschoff said. “And that’s where we’ve really tried to be a good corporate citizen in helping our clients and those in the community we live and work in to be better prepared and better oriented as they work forward.”

Office furniture manufacturers are finding themselves as go-to consultants for businesses that are struggling to pin down the right approach to working from home, an office or a hybrid of the two. 

Herman Miller, which staffs in-house consultants, received so many requests that it launched a digital tool to assess the health of a person’s work from home setup. Since launching last summer, 17,000 people have used the tool, Anderson said.

“We learned a lot from it, too,” Anderson said. “We (launched it) partly because of this tidal wave of requests. Now the requests (from clients) are really around, ‘How do we help people work wherever they want?’ … People are starting to figure it out.”

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