Steelcase aims to give teams more control


Steelcase’s Flex Collection is an integrated assortment of furniture and accessories meant to create “dynamic team neighborhoods.” Courtesy Steelcase

Steelcase says today’s hyper-collaborative teams have moved from a relay race to a soccer game format, and the company’s NeoCon showroom will display products designed for that evolution.

The Grand Rapids-based office furniture maker will take part in the 51st annual NeoCon, the commercial design industry’s premier North American trade show that will run June 10-12 in Chicago.

It is held in Merchandise Mart, aka The Mart, a 4-million-square-foot art deco building on the Chicago River that houses permanent showrooms and 500 exhibitors from around the contract furnishings world on 10 of the building’s 25 floors.

In its permanent showroom on the third floor of The Mart, Steelcase will spotlight products made for today’s “fast-paced and hyper-collaborative” forms of teamwork, which the company said defies the rigid, fixed-in-place office settings of previous decades.

Rebecca Charbauski, a communications project leader at Steelcase, said part of the showroom will be dedicated to the company’s new Flex Collection, an integrated assortment of furniture and accessories the Business Journal previously reported on that are meant to create “dynamic team neighborhoods.”

The products in the collection are designed to be movable, adaptable, and mix and match to meet the needs of the team while also supporting the needs of the individual.

Charbauski said teamwork is “different than it used to be.”

“It’s less like a relay race, where I do my piece of the puzzle, I hand it to Carey, she does her piece, she hands it to Patrick and at the end, we have a product. It’s more like a soccer game or a hockey game, where it’s like Carey, Carey back to me and me to Patrick,” she said.

“There’s a lot of review and iteration and changes and launch-to-learn and all of these kinds of ideas in order to get faster and a product that is more in line with what the customer wants. … So instead of place being this fixed environment where the team is expected to do all of that shifting from activity to activity within an environment that can’t shift, (Flex is) about creating dynamic neighborhoods where (people’s) space can be fluid with their process.”

To be effective, team neighborhoods have to support the collective but also the individual’s need for privacy and focus, Charbauski said.

“(People) need the ability to pull back from the team and develop their own points of view and then bring it forward to the team,” she said.

Carey Potter, a global launch communications manager at Steelcase, said the Flex Collection contains “a broad range” of desks, tables, whiteboards, smartboards, visual screens, acoustic boundaries and more.

“All of the pieces are really great on their own. We know there are going to be some customers or organizations who say, ‘Well, we just want this part of the collection.’ The great thing about Flex is that all of the pieces are integrated to work in perfect harmony,” she said.

“It can be reconfigured on demand quickly as a team’s needs and activities are changing throughout a day or a week. You can take a kit of parts or products and make it work for a workshop or for a brainstorm or for setting up some focus space. That’s one of the key features of the collection is its reconfigurability and the ability to give those teams that empowerment.”

Potter and Charbauski said the privacy features within Flex are meant to be more of a psychological division and are not a perfect solution to noise reduction.

“You are able to get a certain amount of privacy in order to do your own work without people around you gathering and looking to see what you’re doing,” Potter said.

Charbauski added: “Our researchers went out into the field and observed creative and high-tech teams around the world, and they were looking at what are they struggling with. Acoustic distractions are one for sure, but so are visual distractions, then you have this desire for psychological privacy, which is literally just a boundary that lets you know where your team space is and where it’s not, and keeps people from just walking through and breaking your concentration.”

She said besides what’s in Flex, Steelcase will display at NeoCon pods made by Orangebox — a company Steelcase acquired last year — as well as pods from one of its partners, SnapCab.

The Orangebox pod is an architectural pod that takes about a day to install and is free standing within a room. The walls are glass on two sides, but it acts as a booth or room that provides sound masking. The pod comes in different sizes to offer solo, duo and group privacy spaces.

“It’s how do you create these private spaces within an open-plan environment so that people have the choice to get away or go take a phone call or have some really intense focus time,” Charbauski said.

Patrick Vander Kolk, a launch communications project leader at Steelcase, said another teamwork solution to be displayed at NeoCon is Roam, a mobile stand and easy-to-hang wall-mounting system that interfaces with the Microsoft Surface Hub 2S, a large-scale collaboration device for teamwork that rolled out in April.

Roam’s mobility cart is designed to allow teams control over where they meet. It is powered by a battery that lasts up to two hours before needing to be recharged, so the devices are cord-free unless recharging.

“It’s more equal, it’s more active and it can be used anywhere,” Vander Kolk said. “People are now able to collaborate anywhere, anytime and in any way.”

The other side of Steelcase’s NeoCon showroom is referred to as the “work-life” area, designed to answer the question of how workers “can do great work in a more casual and informal setting without sacrificing performance,” Vander Kolk said.

It will feature a work café patterned after spaces within Steelcase’s facilities that are not just for socialization and other purposes but for getting stuff done.

“The work café is in large part dedicated to a lot of our partnerships and the kinds of informal spaces Patrick was talking about,” Charbauski said.

She said the researchers for Flex Collection looked mainly at teams that practice agile and design thinking methodologies, including technology, product development and other fields that need a structured process “with a bunch of activities that get you to faster execution and closer connection with the customer.”

But other types of workers have started pulling out pieces of the agile approach to use in their functions, including Steelcase’s communications team. Potter and Vander Kolk said they could see Flex and the other teamwork elements being useful for educators, the health care industry and in manufacturing settings.

Charbauski said the main takeaway is Flex is cut out to roll with the fast-changing marketplace.

“For a lot of companies, I don’t know what my team’s going to look like next year. I might need to add people; I might need to reconfigure the way that my people are set up, depending on my project. I’m not planning five years out anymore. I’m planning six months to a year out because the market is changing so fast,” she said.

“So, for startups or for organizations that have departments or projects that are going to shift, it just gives you that ability to not be locked in by infrastructure.”

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