The workplace can be so much more than just the place where employees go to clock in and clock out. Office furniture leader Steelcase believes the right use of office space can lead to happier and more productive workers

By Leon Lee

Sitting in the conference room of Steelcase, you automatically understand that they do things differently around there. Rather than having the standard long conference table that stretches from one side of the room to the other, they have two smaller tables separated with an aisle in between. The height of the tables were higher than a standard table and accompanied by tall, bar stool height office chairs.

These were all done by design as they explained it. A traditional conference table makes it hard for collaborations because if several people want to have a discussion on a project during a meeting, they would either need to talk across the table or walk all the way around. However, with the two separate table setup, they can simply walk across to share their ideas. As for the higher tables and chairs, the reason is that people normally can’t sit in one position for very long. With the higher chairs and tables, they can choose to stand or sit and switch positions during meetings, making it a more natural environment to stimulate discussion.

Its innovations like these have made Steelcase one of the worldwide leaders in the office furniture business.

“We really design products to create a great work experience for people who use our products. It’s not just about building nice or goodlooking products. Every product really makes the lives of our users better,” explains Uli Gwinner, President, Steelcase Asia Pacific.

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Uli Gwinner

“Combine this with great quality and a lot of commitment from our side with service, like our lifelong warranty scheme. I think with this consistency of product and service offerings, our customers are happy around the world. We really try to serve and help our customers worldwide.”

An ever-growing company

Steelcase started in Grand Rapids, Michigan over 100 years ago. They originally manufactured a metal office furniture such as safes, filing cabinets and wastebaskets before moving onto other office furniture. In the 1970s, they began expanding overseas to Europe and Asia.

In the beginning, the company used an export model working with dealers in Japan, China and India but eventually they began operating their own offices. In 2008, Steelcase acquired Hong Kong-based office furniture business Ultra, signaling a serious commitment to China.

Previously, their focus in Asia was on Japan and Australia but their sights have now shifted towards the emerging markets in China and India. Gwinner first realized the potential in 2005 when he was still back in his native Germany as he learned in that year, Volkswagen sold more cars in China than in Germany.

However, like everyone else, they experienced a hit during the financial crisis in 2008. They had some setbacks and declines but quickly rebounded. Gwinner saw the silver lining in the setback. “It almost helped us because in this type of cooldown of growth, you can prune your tree a little bit, you can reorganize your capacity and your strategy and then come back very strong.” Steelcase did rebound with strong growth and they still see lots of growth opportunities in Asia.

Local needs

Although they had great success in the United States and Europe, Steelcase recognized they had to make some adjustments when they started operating in Asia.

“Coming to Asia Pacific, we had to learn that the needs here in Asia can be very different to the needs in Europe and the Americas,” the president says. “We try to really understand what the needs of our customers are in these different parts of the world.”

For Hong Kong, some of the adjustments were related to that real estate is very expensive and wages for the majority of people, when compared to San Francisco or New York, are relatively low.

“We found out that there’s a certain formula of investment per employee in the workplace setting in percentage of gross salary. You have to supply relatively cost-effective workplaces into very tiny spaces because real estate is so expensive. This is for Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. This is a big adjustment,” Gwinner explains.

Because of the lack of space, Steelcase had to work with requests that would make offices feel compressed or very dense. But this isn’t part of the company’s philosophy.

“People think they can do that by giving every person a small workstation but we believe this is the wrong strategy. It’s much better to give up giving people fixed workstations. Instead, try to make your people work mobile. This gives you the opportunity to create space which you can use in a collaborative way so you have more fun, more people working together.”

They would advise their clients that instead of a spectacular conference room, they should consider creating a work café where staff can enjoy coffee or tea while working together. Companies could scale back on stunning welcoming areas and instead put in relaxation zones where their workers can relax from night shifts or overnight calls. Steps like these increase the level of engagement among workers, making for a much more productive working environment.

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It was calculated that in 2013, disengagement in the workplace costs companies in United States US$450 to 550 billion.

“In Hong Kong, China and a lot of emerging markets, there’s still this kind of paradigm that presence into performance. But I think this is a big mistake if you believe that if people are present, they will work harder,” Gwinner says.

“Our advice is all organization is to give your people more freedom, give them responsibility, give them clear targets and let them decide where they want to work. Then you can design the small space you have in a much more attractive way and then people are coming in voluntarily because they enjoy being in that office… From a corporate perspective, you would, in fact, raise the employer proposition in the view of your employees. It can be a great thing.”

Gwinner thinks most Hong Kong offices are boring as they are full of panels, walls and separation. The bosses’ offices all have windows but they’re never there as they’re always travelling. Thus, he says the assistants who are always in the office should have the windows seats instead. “The more time people are spending in the office, the closer they should be to the window. In our philosophy, the leader does not necessarily need a room or even a fixed desk. I do not have a fixed desk because I’m travelling 200 days a year.”

In his opinion, 90 percent of workplaces in Hong Kong are outdated and need to be renovated. He sees opportunities for both Steelcase and the companies who use the space. “They pay so much rent anyway so why not say this is not a cost, this is an asset I can convert into something great for my company. A lot of companies which think ahead and are open to our ideas clearly see the workplace as a marketing factor for them to attract talent and to provide a better face for the company.”

But he understands that it doesn’t always fit. Not all banks or law firms can or want to follow the Google or Facebook model. Steelcase believes that a company’s workplace strategy has to fit their corporate culture.

More and more Chinese companies are becoming receptive to their ideas. Gwinner attributes it to the new generation of decision-makers coming into power who might have been educated overseas or worked in Silicon Valley or other trendy companies.

“They say, ‘Wow, this is actually the way we want to work.’ So as soon as they move to the driver seats of companies, for sure they are driving new workplace strategies.”

Beyond the office

Besides a wide assortment of chairs, desks, storage cabinets and other office furniture, Steelcase also creates furniture for schools. However, compared to the United States, that market is not as robust over here yet. Gwinner attributes it to the teaching culture and methodology.

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“If you look into China, they’re still much more what I would call conservative teaching. What we are in fact preaching is what we call interactive learning, where the teacher is more of a moderator amongst the students. Peer-to-peer, student-to-student learning is more important than learning from the teacher or professor. If you approach the Chinese teachers with this, they are kind of open to it but it will probably take another decade or so till this gets wide acceptance.”

There have been some success with international schools and universities. Recently, Steelcase worked with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on how space design can promote learning at their chic Jockey Club Innovation Tower in Hung Hom. It’s been outfitted with Steelcase furniture in its classrooms, project rooms, design studio, staff offices and meeting rooms.

Looking to the future, Gwinner believes there is a lot to be done in creating smart offices.

“At the moment we are bringing all our smart devices to the office, but these smart devices are still not really connected to the space where we are working. We are expecting there will be a lot of development in this arena in the coming five years,” he says.

“Probably in five years, all furniture products we will be doing will carry some type of sensors. If you think about wearables, your chair is also a kind of a wearable. It’s a piece of fabric which is close to your body.”

As for the business, Gwinner is very optimistic about Steelcase in Asia. He points out that while they are very successful in the US and Europe, it took the company a hundred years to achieve that. So compared to that, they are still pretty young in Asia.

“If you look at the workforce size in China and India, we strongly believe that these two markets will become anchor markets for Steelcase over time,” he says.

“Looking at the growth which we have experienced over the last seven years, we believe we can experience it over the next 10 years. So even if it might be a little bit slower with the China growth rate, it still will be sufficient to make this business grow significantly. That’s why the philosophy is that Asia will be the significant pillar of our global business in the near future.”