Architecture & Design, Manufacturing, and Technology

Steelcase to showcase Microsoft-infused workspaces

Grand Rapids-based furniture manufacturer will display workspaces using technology at NeoCon.

June 9, 2017
| By Pat Evans |
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Jim Keane
Steelcase President and CEO Jim Keane is testing a Microsoft-enhanced office space at the company’s Innovation and Education Center. Photo by Pat Evans

A partnership with Microsoft is at the forefront of Steelcase’s approach to NeoCon this week.

The Grand Rapids furniture manufacturer will have a display of five workspaces using Microsoft technology, as well as virtual reality sets, at the trade show today, June 12, to Wednesday at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

A partnership between the two companies is mutually beneficial, said Jim Keane, Steelcase president and CEO. For Microsoft, they can no longer rely on software sold in plastic-wrapped boxes. Instead, the company must focus on how often its products are used, Keane said.

“The key for them isn’t how many users, it’s how much do people use the software they sign up for,” Keane said. “A software’s use is the long-term growth indicator.”

Keane said Microsoft’s software is some of the best in the market and used by many of the same clients, but the technology is often not used to its full capacity.

“It’s a lot easier to approach customers together when they’re already buying from both of us,” Keane said.

How an office is laid out is a way to help shift human behavior, including how they use technology, Keane said.

The first step Steelcase took was to outline some principles of working with Microsoft’s technology and came up with the five different spaces centered around working creativity, from one-person environments to collaborative spaces. Principles of the design are rooted in privacy, posture and proximity.

“It’s what kind of space enables creativity,” said Christine Congdon, director of global research communications at Steelcase. “(The principles) are things we believe are consistent, but there’s a lot of freedom for designers and organizations. The sky is the limit on how you might design.

“We created the five typologies to begin with, but there’s no one to say it can’t be six, seven or 10.”

The partnership doesn’t have to end with the creative place, Keane said.

“It’s a beginning of a relationship that can take different forms over time,” Keane said.

A cool moment for Keane was seeing Steelcase’s name on a board among dozens of technology companies listed as Microsoft’s Internet of Things partners. There’s a sense workplaces have long been underutilized because of the old form of thinking with linear working environments and cubicles.

IoT isn’t about the hardware in the furniture, Keane said, rather the data and how to use it.

“What can we read from that and tell us about how people work,” he said. “Maybe there are things to consider outside of utilization. Right now, offices are pretty much a data desert, you didn’t need it before.”

Eventually, data could help workers fine tune their workspaces for their optimized work and help facility managers better equip their offices for those workers.

“I’m hopeful it all comes back to the user,” Keane said. “We want the spaces to be more responsive and predictive.”

Steelcase is emphasizing its innovation in the workplace market, as the office furniture market is relatively flat and has been for a few years. Keane said no option is wrong — like competitors going more high-end or direct to consumer — but Steelcase will continue to innovate in the arena it knows best.

Among the investments include opening an innovation and education center in Munich, Germany, this summer and hiring another 100 employees at the Innovation and Education Center on 44th Street in Grand Rapids.

“We’re out of parking, that’s not because the industry growing, it’s our commitment to product development and innovation,” Keane said. “Product we develop here is sold all over the world. When we grow our business in Asia (where Steelcase’s top line growth is), it creates opportunities here in Grand Rapids.”

Steelcase has long thought about and worked to change the cultural shift of how work is changing, Congdon said. Now, more companies are catching up.

“Now, work is an organic, fluid process,” Congdon said. “The work we did with Microsoft is we wanted to really think deeply about how you might embed tech in space.”

The shift is led by Generation Y, or Millenials, but also by the technology industry, where startups often are known for their company culture, led by open and collaborative office spaces with a variety of work settings, said Brian Shapland, general manager at turnstone, a Steelcase brand.

“We’re seeing insurance companies, financial companies, manufacturing companies all say, ‘We want to act like a tech company. We want our space to reflect that and use it as a tool,’” Shapland said. “Leverage space to attract and retain talent.”

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