How Steelcase is designing now for the future of work

BlueprintMore and more, big corporations are focusing on how to increase the interactions between employees, and look to coworking as a possible model. Steelcase, one of the largest designers of office furniture and workspace environments in the world, is definitely taking note of the growth of shared workspace formats like coworking and incorporating that into their designs. As the co-founder of two coworking spaces in Minnesota — and, full disclosure, having stocked one of our spaces with some of the company’s more unconventional, collaborative furniture — I was curious about the thinking that was driving some of their designs. I recently spoke to Chief Experience Officer Mark Greiner and Principal Researcher Frank Graziano over the phone about the changes that they see sweeping over Cubicleland.

What is the impact of coworking on larger corporations? How are they responding?

Mark Greiner: Businesses are recognizing the importance of choice to their employees. By providing options in how and where their employees work, they’re noticing increases in workplace productivity and morale. Corporations can’t ignore employees and their individual choices anymore. If they do, it will be at their expense.

Frank Graziano: The importance of meeting with others and collaborating in a very intentional way is also rising. In the future, you’ll likely see more shared spaces, and less square footage dedicated to individual work areas.

How is Steelcase responding to this shift in work patterns?

Graziano: We often say “space matters.” And more and more, you’re starting to hear the heads of large corporations say how important their spaces are. It helps them attract and maintain the best talent.

In the past, we’ve spent quite a lot of time implementing designs to raise efficiency. Now we are also looking at how we can use design to galvanize the culture of an organization. What kinds of shared assets might we put in place that evoke new behaviors on campus and help our employees understand the larger details of the projects they are working on? I would say that we, and many of our customers, are beginning to understand that communal spaces — really well done communal spaces — are central to an organization.

Can you describe some of the types of corporate workspace experiments you’ve seen?

Greiner: One example is right here at Steelcase, where we just remodeled our cafeteria. Now we call it a “WorkCafé.” It’s not just a place to have a healthy meal; it is designed as a productive retreat throughout the day. From a range of settings and postures to a Barista serving cappuccinos; employees have lots of choices.

Graziano: We have the same things that you would have in a coworking space, but, of course, we don’t charge memberships. And the interesting thing is, our employees seem to be selecting this as one of their preferred places to work. It’s become a rich place for fostering interactions across departments.

Why do you think companies are now willing to invest in these shared spaces?

Graziano: Technology is one factor. As corporations move their desktop technology to handheld devices and the cloud, it’s now that much easier for employees to have the independence to work from anywhere. But ironically, with these new freedoms, we are still dependent on ‘place’ to situate our work.

What do you mean?

Greiner: Well, since we can work anywhere, when we do consider where to work we look for a place or space that supports us in achieving a productive outcome.

Graziano: We have to look at how individual devices work and how they can bring content to a group situation. For instance, if five of us are meeting in person, we all can’t look at your iPhone. Collaborative environments require technology that allows each of us to share our individual cloud connection so it can be reviewed by the group.

How would you describe your personal work style?

Greiner: Certainly Frank and I are both highly mobile workers. Even when I’m in Grand Rapids, I’m mobile between the various buildings of the campus, moving from a project room to a more communal space and then to my home base. I start almost every day at one of four cafes in town. I have my breakfast, I read the paper, I do some e-mail, and I plan what I’m going to do for the day. So I often arrive on the corporate campus around mid-morning.

Graziano: We refer to this as being ‘on’ work vs. ‘at’ work.

Steelcase works with hundreds of large companies. Are most of them evolving in the way you’ve described?

Greiner: Absolutely. The pattern used to be that you’d go to the office, sit at your assigned desk, go up three floors for a meeting, walk down to the cafeteria for lunch, go back to your desk, and work there the rest of the day. Now employees have a choice. And as a result we see corporations embracing many new patterns of what we have categorized as alternative work. Within this broad landscape, coworking is becoming a viable option for many.

Don Ball is the co-founder of CoCo, a co-working and collaborative space with locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user Todd Ehlers.

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