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CoCo visits Steelcase

CoCo visits Steelcase

Earlier this week, Kyle and I went on a road trip to Chicago and Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were on a quest to see the state of the art in collaborative work spaces, as designed by Steelcase, the world’s largest commercial furniture maker.

Did you know that Steelcase owns the industrial design consultancy IDEO? Well, neither did we until recently. And as it turns out, IDEO’s human-centered design process has had quite effect, not only on Steelcase’s product line, but its prognosis for the future of work, a future in which cubicles and corner will give way to open, flexible floor plans where workers can work, meet and socialize freely. This is being driven by pressure to reduce real estate costs (the 2nd largest cost for most organizations, after payroll) as well as increased mobility among workers, thanks to laptops, mobile phones and even increased acceptance of telecommuting.

What does it all mean? That someday most corporate offices will look like coworking spaces! Only, from what we saw on our field trip, the work environments and collaborative technologies that Steelcase has developed are light years ahead of the humble Ikea sticks we’ve been able to assemble at CoCo.

Below are some highlights from our trip, in which we visited Workspring, a collaborative offsite meeting center in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, followed by Steelcase University and Steelcase headquarters, both in Grand Rapids Michigan. Enjoy!



Meeting space with a media:scape unit, which allows meeting participants to share one or more laptop screens.

Meeting room with a double media:scape setting. Notably, this table has an unusual bowed shape that ensures good peer-to-peer communication as well as screen visibility.

The hallways at Workspring are designed with seating/standing areas that allow meeting participants to have ad-hoc conversations, which research shows is just as important to the collaborative process as the meeting itself.

More casual seating areas in the hallways.

The view from Workspring. A private courtyard? This is a rare setting in Chicago’s Loop!

Steelcase University and headquarters

Steelcase University is a former manufacturing plant that is now a training center for the company’s employees, customers and dealers. Just as importantly, the university serves as a living laboratory, where Steelcase can try out new work and meeting settings using its product lines and prototypes.

First, a note on the lost art of hospitality…

Coming to Steelcase University, we didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps we’d get to look around, sit on some furniture…who knows. But to our astonishment, the whole day had been thoroughly planned out, including chef-catered meals and a meeting with the company’s SVP in charge of new ventures.

They even took the time to put our website up on the big screen!

This was the dining room where we were served a killer two-course breakfast. The chef was personally on hand to tell us what he had prepared.

Debra Shrontz, a 30-plus-year Steelcase veteran, was our guide for the entire day. She personally made sure that we had a great experience.

The first course included steel-cut oatmeal with cranberries. At about this time, we had to ask: had Steelcase mistaken us for a couple of Fortune-100 procurement managers with multimillion-dollar budgets? Nope. They hadn’t. This is just how Steelcase treats visitors: by attending to all the details that add up to a great experience.

After breakfast, we progressed through different areas at Steelcase University and the nearby headquarters.

Diner-booth-like seating is a common sight at Steelcase. The high seat backs help enclose the space and make the setting less like a lounge and more like a workspace.

Same story in the company’s executive suite, where a large kitchen/coffee area provides ample room for impromptu information exchange and casual meetings.

Another type of furniture system we saw is called “Post and Beam.” As the name implies, it’s a series of posts with crossbeams that together help define areas, which can then be used or formal or casual meeting spaces, work enclaves or whatever. In the picture above, you can see two meeting areas. To the left, a perforated curtain serves as a visual “wall” that provides a subtle sense of privacy.

Another Post and Beam setting.

Partway through the day, we were lucky enough to talk to Frank Graziano, who, as the head of Steelcase’s Futures group, is the company’s resident futurist. He sought us out in a far corner of the building, where we proceeded to have an hour-long chalk talk about collaborative work trends, social networks and lots more!

Finally, we toured one of Steelcase’s office buildings where they were in the midst of performing an experiment on themselves. This looks like a coffee lounge, but it’s actually a mobile work area that once held cubicles for some 70 employees. Now, the same number of workers use these and other seating areas to work on their laptops, drink coffee, socialize and have meetings. Sound familiar? See, like I said earlier, eventually everyone will work in a coworking space!

Another view of the same space. Note the countertop in the background, which was full-up with focused workers typing away on their laptops.

So, all in all, a pretty inspiring trip. While we don’t have corporate offices, we learned a number of lessons that are applicable to our own collaborative space, including the importance of hospitality and customer experience. What’s more, before going, we were pretty firm in the opinion that the people side (community, networking, etc.) of the equation was far more important than environmental factors, such as decor or furniture. Now, I’d say that we’re looking at both sides as equally important.

Finally, a huge thanks to the folks at Steelcase, including Darren Shavor, Debra Shrontz, John Malnor and Frank Graziano for their tremendous hospitality. And last, but not least, thanks to Kris Hansen of Target Commercial Interiors for having made the initial introduction!

Sneak preview of the new collaborative space in St. Paul

Here’s a glimpse of the new collaborative space covered in my previous post. Admittedly, it’s hard to tell what’s what, but you gotta admit, it has a great view!

Want to learn more?
We’re planning on hosting a super casual open house the week of 12/14, where you can get a tour and help us brainstorm how the space will work, especially for co-working. More deets to come soon!

The view from the coworking area

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