In a 2012 short film commemorating Steelcase’s 100th anniversary, a young girl from Mumbai talks about the future. With the simple wisdom and clarity that children often exhibit, she says, “Think about the world before making new things.”
Angela Nahikian, Steelcase’s director of global environmental sustainability, is inspired by that little girl. When Nahikian was a little girl herself, she lived in an idyllic agricultural corner of northern Michigan. Her grandfather was a small-scale organic farmer whose fresh produce fed her and her extended family. Nearby, a different story played out. Her family friend grew up on an industrial fruit farm with older siblings, and each of them developed a rare and fatal form of cancer by their 30s. “As children, they all ran through the pesticide spray,” Nahikian says.
“Think about the world before making new things.”
Steelcase is a global name in office furniture and a leader in sustainability. It makes more Cradle to Cradle-certified products than any other company in the industry, relentlessly drilling through the product chain to find out exactly what questionable chemicals might be lurking in an adhesive or a screw. Not forgetting its own inefficiencies, Steelcase has set ambitious goals for in-house waste and energy reductions.
Behind the product innovations and workplace solutions is a group of researchers known as WorkSpace Futures. This arm of the company is manned by engineers, scientists, market researchers, designers, and others who borrow techniques from the fields of ethnography and cultural anthropology to discover what exactly people need from their work environments to be healthy, happy, and productive.
Nahikian, along with Chris Congdon, Steelcase’s global director of research communications, joined us for a conversation about how sustainability informs what Steelcase designers think about before they make new things.
The interview begins after the break.
gb&d: Angela, how does your department connect with the rest of the company?
Angela Nahikian: I remember a salesperson saying to one of our team members early on, “Oh, I get it—sustainability touches everything.” It does. Sustainability touches everything and everybody in the company. Our corporate sustainability steering committee is made up of members from everything from product to financial, legal, social, and technical. We have people focused on driving the environmental performance of our products, and we have platforms around materials chemistry and life cycle assessment. We also have a communications platform creating transparency around what we’re doing—they’re our storytellers.
gb&d: What does sustainability mean to Steelcase?
Nahikian: Like our research, our strategy is very people-centered. Humans are at the center of sustainability. For example, we’re precautionary about the material choices we make. A chair might have 200 or 250 separate parts, and we’re so committed to materials chemistry that we drill all the way down to the bottom of the supply chain to get the chemical formulation.
gb&d: I’m imagining that with all the research you have at your fingertips and Steelcase’s reputation for workspace design, you must have an incredible office.
Chris Congdon: (Laughs) We’re spoiled.
Nahikian: We wouldn’t be sincere if we didn’t tell you that. We’re sitting here in the conference room overlooking a Dale Chihuly sculpture in our courtyard. We have a pretty great environment.
Congdon: We do. And our spaces are patterned after the years of research we’ve put into understanding what people need to be able to work their best. In addition to great exterior views and a lot of natural light, one of the key concepts we embrace is giving people control and choice over where and how they work. We often talk about the notion of a palette of place, a palette of postures, and even a palette of presences. There needs to be a range of all kinds of different spaces for people to choose, based on what is most conducive to what they have to achieve.
gb&d: What types of different spaces are we talking about?
Congdon: So some of the time I might prefer to be in an open environment where people are walking by, and I feel very energized and part of the organization. But other times maybe I need to really focus on something together with Angela, and we need a place where we can collaborate without being disrupted. If people feel like they have control and choice over where they work, it’s much easier for them to be engaged, to feel a sense of belonging and purpose, and to feel a sense of authenticity that they can be who they are.
gb&d: It’s interesting that this wide, overarching philosophy of how people work is a part of the discussion, when Steelcase is best known for the furniture part.
Nahikian: It’s really a result of the people-centered research and the thinking processes that we go through to arrive at product applications. When I was in research, we had something we nicknamed “crimes against users”—things that we would see that were clearly not working for people in the workspace.
gb&d: What are some examples?
Congdon: There are millions of things that we do to people that aren’t that great—like make it cheaper to buy a burger than get a salad; confine them to a chair all day, instead of making it easy to get up and move around and get their circulation flowing; create environments that are dark and dull and drab without natural light or good views to the exterior; meet at long rectangular tables where people are leaning back and forth because they can’t see what’s going on at the other end. All you have to do [to see this] is watch Office Space (laughs).
gb&d: How did you arrive at this concept of a “palette of choices” as a solution to some of these issues, rather than following one model for what’s good for us—like, this is the healthy way of sitting for the human body, or this is what it looks like to encourage creativity for everyone? You take something like Steelcase’s Gesture chair, which adapts to literally any posture you want, and that looks like a place we weren’t at ten years ago.
Congdon: We’re big believers in observing how people work in their natural habitat, and watching how they deal with these “crimes”—rather than doing a bunch of surveys. People may or may not be able to tell you what’s working or what doesn’t work. We’ve watched people move their chair at a certain angle or pile up boxes on top of their desk. Why would they resort to piling up boxes? We found out later it was because they needed some privacy and didn’t have any way to get it.
gb&d: What kind of approach does Steelcase take to creating solutions?
Congdon: We often do something we call a behavioral prototype, and build out these spaces—oftentimes in our own facilities—as a way to test a concept. Then we observe our own people working in these environments and see what happens.
Nahikian: Sometimes the changes are dramatic, but sometimes they only need to be very subtle. A simple change in the radius and contour of a work surface, for instance. We combine ergonomics and insights around work process and what natural human behavior would be if we didn’t put obstacles in the way.
gb&d: What’s an example of a product you’ve tested in this way that worked?
Nahikian: Chris mentioned being at one of those long tables in a meeting. You’re leaning backward trying to see the information on a screen at the other end of the table; you can’t see people’s faces and read nonverbal cues; and only one person is controlling the content of the meeting. We found that if we took the elongated table and curved the edges, and put a display at each end, then people could see both one another and the content. To democratize the meeting and generate dialogue, we integrated technology that allows you to plug in where you sit. Anytime during the meeting, with the permission of the person whose content is currently up on the display, you can flip your content up. This makes the exchanges in the meeting much richer, and the iteration of ideas and decision-making much faster. And the final problem was, “What about some alternative postures?” Like you were saying with Gesture. We want people to be moving and get their circulation going in the blood—not sitting. So a lot of the tables are at standing heights with elevated stools around. You can stand or sit, but everyone remains at eye level.
gb&d: After creating something like this, how do you approach sales? Are your customers coming to you and saying, “I need a table where everyone’s at eye level, that’s very important to me,” or are you, with that deep understanding of what people need to feel comfortable, providing context for them?
Nahikian: Customers will articulate their needs in ways that are perhaps seemingly unrelated to a table. They’ll say, “Things are too slow in my company. We need to accelerate the speed at which we implement.” Or they might say, “One of the things we have trouble with in our culture is really aligning.” Or, “We have a global organization, and we need people to have trust.” So an object like a table might help, or perhaps technology, like telepresence for a global team so they can meet face-to-face. It’s a holistic level of design we’re going after, with many elements supporting the overall capabilities of humans.
gb&d: Steelcase had in-house goals of 25 percent waste and energy reductions by 2012, and it looks like you’ve set new benchmarks for 2020.
Nahikian: Yeah, another 25 percent reduction across the board. We made a conscious decision never to make 100 percent or zero percent goals around sustainability. People ask why we don’t, but those goals are misleading and cause you to become complacent about the fact that you still have a footprint.
gb&d: I’m sure the first 25 percent was challenging, but compared to the next few years, I bet it looks like low-hanging fruit. What are some concrete ways you’re going to hit that next target?
Nahikian: It’s going to be a lot harder. We’re looking at a carbon reduction strategy. We’re moving and consolidating plants to optimize our footprint. We’re regionalizing plants so we’re not shipping things around the planet that don’t need to be shipped around the planet. We’re significantly increasing our renewable energy commitment in the form of supporting the growth of those markets around the world. We’re not thinking of it as offsetting; we’re thinking of it as creating a renewables market as big as we are.
gb&d: What was it about that child’s quote from the 100th anniversary interviews, “Think about the world before making new things,” that so inspired you?
Nahikian: I think children understand better than we do in some ways. Their minds are very open, and they experience the world differently. For young people today, the world is very small. The average age of my team is probably 30 years [old], which isn’t typical. But that age has a deep literacy of how the various aspects of sustainability come together to form a virtuous cycle. We can’t design for half a business system anymore—we have to design for the societal level.