Steelcase uses coworking sites as living lab spaces

January 15, 2010
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If you walk into 654 Croswell Ave. SE, a collaborative workspace in East Grand Rapids, you’ll see a café-style setting: a couple easy chairs and a couch framing a fireplace, and wooden tables next to the windows. A little farther back are some desks with small dividers in between for privacy.

Sit awhile and you might see members of the collaborative shuffling furniture across the wood floor — and that’s exactly what Turnstone, a Steelcase Inc. company, is hoping for. The furniture at 654 Croswell is from Turnstone and the workspace functions as a research center for the company. The space itself is owned by Mike Smith of designvox, which also owns the neighboring Jersey Junction.

“This movement called co-working has come up, and within that, it’s potentially a pretty big shift in how people do work,” said John Malnor, vice president of Steelcase’s Growth Initiatives, which focuses on finding new opportunities for growth.

Typically, a co-working space offers either short- or long-term memberships to those who may be self-employed or may just want an alternate place to work in addition to their office.

“We believe there are a lot of great places for people to do work. For some people, especially independent workers … this co-working movement has been a place to go to work — but also to connect.”

Those connections are what Malnor’s group and Turnstone have been studying.

“As students of the workplace, we’ve engaged in this space to learn and hopefully try and create a community, and learning about other co-working spaces, as well,” said Malnor, referencing The Factory, which is located above San Chez restaurant on Fulton Street in downtown Grand Rapids and also is filled with Turnstone solutions. Before becoming part of the Steelcase Growth Initiatives team, Malnor was president of Turnstone.

In both locations, members are encouraged to move the furniture around to see what works and what doesn’t. If a piece of furniture or a particular setting doesn’t seem to get much use, Turnstone tries something else.

“Most of the changes that have been happening are driven by people that are using the space, so we’re actively asking them what’s working and what would you like different,” he said. “We’re not designing new products for them, but the way we’re applying them is changing based on their feedback.”

Feedback is obtained not just by talking with members, but also by making keen observations of activity the members might not realize is going on.

“We have a pretty strong capability to understand, observe and learn through user observation, through more formal research. We have an internal process that we follow that goes through a number of stages of where you’re at in the process. How much analysis do you do, how much synthesis?”

Through that process, the company utilizes research to capture and synthesize the data. Then, the emphasis shifts to how to catalogue the information so other groups within the company can leverage it.

“We’re continuously trying to get better and better at learning in one area and transferring that learning to another area, so everyone can get better,” said Malnor.

“Specifically for Turnstone, (it) works to reach small companies. This is a place where very small companies come to work. Learning what products, applications or settings get the most use, learning how to help people be more productive with their workspace is really core.”

Malnor stated that since 654 Croswell opened officially in November, the data collected has led to new product ideas. One discovery occurred in a back room equipped for telecommunication, where some 2-by-4’s were stacked under a monitor.

“See my wonderful prototype? … At the easiest level, we were trying to figure out where will people like to have the camera and the monitor? We’ve had different people come in here, and I just put more boards in or take them out,” he said.

“We have a whole division called Details that makes and sells stuff that perfectly adjusts. … But members here are participating in where they want that to be and there’s an engagement there. … It’s a way to engage the users to design it the way they want it to be and taking the simplest possible approach.

“Then we can bring in some of the best experts in the world on that stuff through (Details), and they’ve got the right application. We can go to them and say, ‘Here’s what we want to do.’ And they can say, ‘We’ve got exactly what you need.’ But if we can’t go to them with what we want to do, there’s a piece missing.”

654 Croswell’s guiding words are “art, work and life.” The space also known as the “Work Cottage” is full of experimentation that combines those three guiding principles in a way that not just influences the community it is in, but also the global corporation that is learning from it.

“One of the things that I love to see is when I come in and the sofa or the chair or the tables are moved around. I’ll say, ‘Why did you move them?’ and they’ll say, ‘I didn’t like the way the light was.’ Or, ‘It felt better this way.’

“It’s not necessarily about it being better or worse,” said Malnor. “It’s about the people who are using it feeling engaged in their workspace.”

Mike Smith of designvox was the driving force to get 654 Croswell off the ground. Designvox had an existing relationship with Steelcase, so the two companies came together on the project.

The idea for a coworking space came from knowing numerous people who wanted a place to work, but didn’t want to rent a whole space. Smith had received requests for the space at 654 Croswell and decided to create a space to work, but that was also connected to the community, so he opened it up as an art gallery as well.  The first exhibit hosted paintings of flowers from the neighboring Wealthy School kindergarten class. 

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