Workplace Issues

The Steelcase Finance Team: a Moveable Feast

Not only has much of the finance staff given up dedicated workstations in favor of an open-space collaborative environment, they’re also “performin...
David McCannSeptember 27, 2012

In the killing-two-birds-with-one-stone department, $2.7 billion office-furnishings maker Steelcase has created a more collaborative work environment for its finance team: one that also serves as a showroom-like setting for viewing by prospective corporate customers that visit company headquarters.

In the course of consolidating its two major worksites in western Michigan, Steelcase was looking to modernize and get more efficiency from its work settings. The finance department happened to be in the oldest space at headquarters in Grand Rapids. It was also the space that consumed the greatest per-employee square footage in the company, says CFO Dave Sylvester. So finance, together with the supply-chain and quality-control teams, acted as a guinea pig in advance of a broader space reinvention.

The build-out, which has been taking shape for the past couple of years, includes establishing a variety of spaces designed to help employees work more effectively in teams and provide individuals with better options for tasks and projects requiring deep, sustained concentration.

With more open space, it was necessary to lower the number of single-employee workstations at headquarters. But that dovetailed with Sylvester’s observation that many people were already very mobile in their jobs, or otherwise had jobs that didn’t require a permanent, dedicated workstation.

Now, among 178 finance, supply-chain, and quality-control employees at headquarters, 108 don’t have an assigned workstation. Sylvester offers his assistant controller as an example. “She goes from meeting to meeting throughout the building for most of the day,” he says. “At other times she might be on conference calls or videoconferencing with other locations. Some days she travels. What she needs to drive her effectiveness is not a dedicated space, but the right tools.” So she has a laptop, an iPad, a cell phone, and access to spaces suited for facilitating different kinds of meetings.

Sylvester himself does need a dedicated workstation. But even his space should be reimagined, he says. “If we trained a video camera on my 10-by-10 cubicle, which is a three-walled cubicle in an open floor plan with the rest of the executive team, we would first determine that it’s probably too big. I don’t leverage the storage in that space often enough to warrant it being dedicated to me. And based on how infrequently I’m in the space, we would likely redesign it to be shared with another executive.” Those things haven’t been done only because there are higher priorities with regard to the continuing space renovation.

Finance’s space now includes a “work café” where employees can eat and work, “university settings” for employees in training or continuing education at the learning center adjacent to the headquarters building, “media:scape” settings that let teams view up to four monitors with information from mobile devices, “library settings” for focused concentration, “benching applications” consisting of rows of work surfaces that are parallel to each other around a central technology infrastructure where users can sit face-to-face or side-by-side, and more.

Although Sylvester insists that the motivation for the renovation was “heavily tilted toward driving higher levels of collaboration,” the project definitely had a more directly mercenary aspect. Steelcase’s business model includes “bringing in customers in an effort to take them deep into the research and insights behind our products and the applications and experiences we’re experimenting with. But it’s also to disrupt their thinking or help them imagine progressing toward moving from private cubicles to a more open floor plan, unassigned workstations, and nomadic workers,” he says.

The presence of customers in the work environment points to another objective of the redo: getting the finance organization to be more in tune with company strategy. “For an enabling function like finance, it’s sometimes hard to be close to the front lines of the business and strategy,” Sylvester says. “What better way to do that than make our space a disruptive stop on customer tours, where our finance can interact with customers.”

But while employees were attracted to the idea of collaborative work environments, they were also concerned about exposing confidential information and discussion to visiting customers. “They were saying, ‘How in the world are we going to collaborate in the open if customers are coming in and out? We’re a public company and constantly evaluating confidential information.’ But it turned out to be a moot point. That’s not what the customers are there for. And people adopt new behaviors, like lowering their voices when collaborating in the open floor plan.”

Customers’ reactions to the space give Sylvester a clue about how their own finance teams operate. “They can hardly believe it’s finance people they’re seeing,” he says, evoking the common image of corporate accountants as heads-down number crunchers with quiet, behind-the-scenes roles. But other nomadic workers in the company are using the space, too, and the sales team’s work area is being renovated along the same lines.

Meanwhile, can a return on using open space for collaborative purposes be quantitatively  measured? “Customers ask that all the time,” Sylvester says. “I tell them that we haven’t quite figured that out yet. But I can share with them the square footage that was dedicated to these employees before, what they’re using today, and the preoccupancy and postoccupancy surveys on how people feel about their work environment. I can’t yet tell if productivity is higher, but I think it is. And I feel pretty good about what we’ve done.”