The Office Renaissance: Part 4

October 28, 2016 | | View Comments

Best Place Strategy

By Christine Congdon

Editor’s note: We’re excited to partner with Christine Congdon, Director of Global Research Communications at Steelcase, for this four-part series on The Office Renaissance. Christine will share her team’s research as a keynote speaker at our Workplace Innovation Summit, November 3rd in Boston. Here’s Part 4, check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.


For more than 20 years Steelcase has researched the changing nature of work, including the explosion of technology, an overload of information and the global and mobile nature of communication. Designed as prototypes to test theories and push the boundaries of how work happens, these spaces have resulted in radically reimagined ways of working, both as individuals and as a team. The latest research has identified how physical space can impact how people feel in the office and, in turn, how people perform at work.

Therefore, when it came time for Steelcase to reinvent their global headquarters campus in Grand Rapids, MI, designers envisioned a bold plan. In an era where people can work from anywhere, they decided to leverage global research and design principles to create an office where people desired to come to work every single day. Designers set out to create and test human-centered spaces where employees could feel inspired and authentic at work. Spaces where people could have fun and function at the same time.

The essence of this strategy is best place. “It means you have a choice and control about when, where and how you work, so whatever your work requires, there is a ‘best place’ for you,” says Cherie Johnson, director of global design for Steelcase, whose team lead the design process for the new campus.

The best place strategy supports the wellbeing of employees in a holistic way, considers emotional and cognitive needs as much as physical ones and results in a range of spaces that support the varied ways knowledge workers work today: focused work, collaboration, learning, socializing and rejuvenation.


Prioritize Social Spaces

One of the most important new spaces is the WorkCafé, an on-site third place and neighborhood crossroads. The headquarters campus is the neighborhood and the WorkCafé is its hub, a combination of workspace, cafeteria and coffee bar. It has the easy functionality of a well-planned office with the vibe of a neighborhood pub. Here people meet, work, network, socialize and reenergize.

Most workplace strategies focus on individual workspaces first, but Steelcase’s best place strategy put the WorkCafé front and center. A prototype space, it was the first to open on campus and a hit from the start. “Everyone comes here. You see leadership, people from other parts of the company, visitors, customers. You meet people face-to-face instead over the phone or email, so it builds rapport and trust across the company, and it nurtures those qualities in your culture,” says Johnson.

“It set the tone for the rest of our campus reinvention by giving everyone the opportunity to experience what democratizing the space means, in a collective way, before anyone had their own personal spaces changed. It reflects the culture and behaviors we want people to adopt.”

Give Employees Control

Research showed engaged employees have more control over where and when they work. Before Steelcase’s reinvention, 95% of people had assigned desks. But not all employees needed or wanted an assigned workstation. Volunteers came forward to try mobile work. In fact, nearly half (45%) chose to give up their dedicated workspaces in exchange for more flexibility. Since the changes have been implemented, the number of employees opting for a mobile workstyle has continued to increase.

Despite the desire for mobility, the Steelcase Global Report showed fixed technology continues to exceed mobile. Eight-six percent of global workers surveyed reported having a landline phone and 80 percent a desktop computer. Compare those statistics to fewer than 40 percent worldwide who say they are equipped with a laptop or cell phone.

Those realities mean more work still needs to get done in the office. The choice and control over where to work cannot end at the office doors. It needs to continue inside the workplace where people need options for individual spaces to focus and rejuvenate, and team spaces for brainstorming and collaboration.

In addition to the WorkCafé, designers presented employees with an ecosystem of spaces from which to choose. For example, employees can choose a Walkstation treadmill desk to support movement, a privatized lounge space to focus or a small conference room equipped with media:scape to make it easy to connect with counterparts oceans away.


A Better Way of Working

The new global headquarters workspaces are already contributing to a better way of working. While mobile work was not uncommon before the new spaces opened, best practices for mobile workstyles, such as how workers can best collaborate with distributed colleagues, or how to keep all members of a project team fully engaged, were not common knowledge. Thanks to a combination of workplace support and changed behaviors mobile work is no longer an issue for the organization, according to company leaders.

Other aspects of the culture have also changed. Employees reported a 3.5 percent boost in engagement in three years. That’s a big shift in such a short period of time. Similar gains were seen in worker performance and external orientation, a critical success factor for becoming more globally integrated.

Dave Sylvester, Steelcase chief financial officer, says feedback from his organization is “off the charts.” Half of his staff are mobile, choosing shared benching workspaces as their daily home base, and 62 percent report their workplace helps attract and retain employees.

Most importantly there is a feeling of vitality, belonging and meaning at Steelcase enticing employees to give their best each and every day.

“We know that people don’t remember much about the words they hear in mission statements or strategy documents,” says Steelcase CEO, Jim Keane. “Instead, they make sense of the company’s direction and purpose—and their place in it—by interacting with other employees and reading the cues signaled by the environment.

“Our new work environments have changed us as an organization. It’s obvious to everyone, including visitors to our spaces who tell us they can sense the essence of our culture and brand through the space.”