Furniture dealer leans into the future of work

Trellis assembles product packages for customers to address the rise of remote work, social distancing.
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The Trellis showroom/headquarters at 37 Ottawa Ave. NW in downtown Grand Rapids features flexible, adaptive pieces that can fit with any work environment. Courtesy Trellis

Knowing life won’t just resume “business as usual” after the economy reopens, a local furniture dealer is working to help companies shift their floor plans and/or provide remote workers with home office furnishings.

Bill Payne, CEO, and Will Payne, vice president of marketing and design, are co-owners of Trellis — a Herman Miller furniture dealer based in Grand Rapids with locations in Kalamazoo and Traverse City.

The father-son duo last year acquired the three former MarxModa dealerships from seller Joe Marx and rebranded them as Trellis.

“We think of a trellis as an element of architectural style and design within a garden, but most importantly, it is a framework, a support system for growth and stability,” Bill Payne said at the time.

Never has a framework been more called upon than now, when the furniture industry is facing as much uncertainty as any segment of the economy due to the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Paynes spoke to the Business Journal this month about the future of work — and furniture sales — in light of the new reality.

“First and foremost, I think we all have to accept it’s an extremely dynamic environment. I don’t recall any time in my 40 years of business leadership/management where there have been so many moving pieces as there already have been in the wake of this COVID crisis,” Bill Payne said. 

“For all of our customers, and even within our business, a key thing that we have identified and are talking to our customers about is the need to be flexible, adaptable and responsive to the needs of employees within the work environment.”

He stressed companies have to look out for the physical and psychological safety of their employees in their return-to-work plans.

One way Trellis is helping clients approach this, Will Payne said, is by conducting “physical distancing studies” of clients’ office environments to identify any conflicts with the need to keep everyone at least 6 feet apart.

In some cases, problem areas can be fixed by removing chairs; making certain areas, such as conference rooms or shared benching, off limits; or reconfiguring furniture and tables.

“With that, though, comes a reduced density in the workplace and reduced number of people that can come to the office. Work from home is going to continue as we potentially stagger employees that are working different shifts,” Will Payne said.

Bill Payne added one statistic he read was that about 5% to 7% of the office professional workforce were remote employees before COVID-19, and now, office-based employers expect to have about 30% to 35% of their staff working remotely going forward.

To account for that, Trellis has assembled a couple of basic product packages “to support employees in their home offices.” The packages contain Herman Miller items such as an ergonomic task chair, a height-adjustable desk, monitor arms for keeping computers at eye level for proper neck posture, and storage solutions to save space and keep work items organized.

Will Payne said Trellis has brainstormed various ways companies could make these packages available to employees, including providing a stipend or reimbursement — such as is often done with cellphone plans — or employers could send the catalog of options to employees and they could buy items at will.

A primary challenge, Bill Payne said, will be meeting clients where they are at, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines may vary based on the work setting, i.e., a manufacturer will have different requirements than a service organization or an office environment.

The difficulty is that for many jobs, personal interaction and collaboration are necessary to spur innovation, he said. Human resource departments and facilities teams will have to rethink how to foster such activities while maintaining social distancing.

He believes some protocols — such as having health screening at employee entrances, hand sanitizer stations, new daily desk disinfecting regimens, conference room occupancy limits, more stringent room reservation systems and, in some cases, a greater shift to video conferencing — will continue beyond the pandemic, and employers may choose to eliminate shared work stations and change the layout of collaborative work areas to space people farther apart.

Will Payne said he has heard from many organizations that remote work for nonessential employees was much easier to institute and maintain than they thought it would be during the stay-at-home order, and it “wasn’t that bad.” He believes many of them will keep it going.

Although Trellis has not yet had the opportunity to work with its health care clients to re-envision their spaces — due to the fact that they are still in emergency mode — Bill Payne said when the peak of the crisis has passed, he wouldn’t be surprised if medical facilities begin to reach out and seek help making changes to waiting areas, surfaces and clinical settings to increase safety and sanitation.

As businesses begin the process of coming fully back online, Bill Payne said strong top-down communication will be important.

“All businesses need to be very transparent and, if anything, overcommunicate with their employee population with regard to what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” he said.

“As far as Trellis is concerned, we’re trying to stay out in front as one of the more expert organizations with regard to providing advice and consultation with our customers on the range of options that are available that they could employ within their specific work environment. I think the key will be, over the coming weeks, we’re all just going to have to be attentive to what changes take place as we move through this fairly dynamic time.”

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