CEOs Talk Workplace – Interview with Steelcase’s Jim Keane

Find out how Steelcase CEO, Jim Keane, has transformed the culture of the global organization by utilizing their space as an engagement tool.

Jim Keane © Jill DeVries Photography

Bob Fox: Describe Steelcase and what you’re experiencing in your industry.

Jim Keane: Steelcase is 105 years old and I’m the ninth CEO. I’ve been with the company for 21 years. We’re the number one office furniture manufacturer in the US and in the world. Our mission is to unlock human promise by selling furniture and partnering with our customers to help them use space to achieve their business objectives, enhance their culture and help them grow. We do more than support people at work — we help people at work reach their full potential.

Can you give us a sense of the demographic of Steelcase and tell us a little about your culture?

We have about 13,000 employees in 45 locations all over the world, and we’re the market leader in many of those locations. Our organization is very global and we have people from various countries working in each of the local markets, some who move from their starting location to another part of the world. Here in the US we have several members of the leadership team who began their careers in Europe, for example. We think this helps us build cultural agility amongst our leadership team, and I believe that will continue to be very important for global companies in the future.

What I appreciate about our culture is that we celebrate curiosity. I think we have fascinating people who work at Steelcase. We want people to bring their whole brain to work — not just do creative things at home. This helps keep the workplace exciting and enriching but also helps solve problems in new ways. It’s one of the reasons we move people around globally and also functionally. In some ways, they start all over with a new learning curve. Over many years they accumulate many broad and diverse experiences, and that makes them better problem solvers. Because of that, we have very low turnover. People join and stay for a long time, and that has a cyclical effect on the culture. When you hire someone, you expect they’re going to be here for 15 -20 years, so you invest in them. People feel the genuine interest we have for them as individuals.

You mentioned the ‘bring your brain to work’ idea. How do you create an environment for that? Is there anything unique that you’re doing?

First of all, we celebrate it when people do it. It’s the idea that you are a whole person, and that we didn’t just hire you because you’re good at accounting or something, although skills certainly matter. We hired you because you are interesting and we want you to bring that to work.

Sometimes we will also provoke each other. For example, I have a Chief of Staff that likes painting with water colors. You would think that has nothing to do with work, but we were doing a presentation together recently, and I challenged her to subtly bring color into it to integrate and communicate another layer of information. In the presentation, she brought in that layer of color as a kind of “code” to guide the audience’s understanding. Afterwards, people commented that they’d never seen us use color that way before. Sometimes by just asking people to reach a little deeper, you’ll see how they can bring in their other life skills to work.

You’re in the business of creating the physical environment. The way you think about space is probably very different from a traditional CEO. Is there a way you set up your space to attract that brain power?

Thanks to resources like your publication, CEOs are far more equipped today than they were five years ago to be able to think about how space connects to their strategies and culture. For a lot of leaders in general, their current view is about the symbolic power of space. Let’s say you used to work in a corner office and decide to get rid of that and move into an open plan. People in the company will see you sitting at a bench rather than in the corner office. This concept is better than five years ago, but it’s also a bit cliché. In some ways it dismisses what you were trying to do.

A few CEOs are seeing the authentic power of space as a scalable tool to help advance their culture and business, and one of the ways to start is by talking about it with their boards. CEOs are all interested in growth right now, and many are realizing that if you want to sustain growth, you have to figure out how to innovate. If they study innovation, they start to realize culture is super important, because it’s shaped by experiences employees have day in and day out. If you don’t get the culture part right, you won’t amplify your growth.

I think the next big thing we’re going to start hearing more about from CEOs is their effort to define their culture. Once culture is defined, if people go back into a department or an environment that doesn’t line up, your words won’t matter. If you want to advance culture, you must connect that verbal language — your definition of culture — with the body language, which is space. The employee experience must be shaped by that body language. Once you understand employee experience, you realize how directly space shapes it every day. Space is a massive tool for scaling culture. I’m seeing leading CEOs recognize this, and they’re beginning to make that transition in a big way. I’m hopeful that’s the future.

How is Steelcase helping people recognize the power of space to change culture?

When I became CEO four years ago, I wanted to figure out how to grow and become a truly globally integrated enterprise. We had enormous potential, but because we had not really integrated across all of the capabilities we had, there were some underutilized areas. We realized if we integrated, we would capture scale, but we also knew we had to be careful to not over-complicate the organization, which would slow things down. So we debated how to leverage scale but also become more innovative and agile. We studied lots of people and read the book, “Team of Teams. From that we knew we needed to distribute decision making across the organization and accelerate the speed of decision making — particularly with senior leaders. We also realized we needed to spend more time curating culture. Our job as leaders is to create an organization that makes great decisions, and that starts by fostering a more distributed culture.

As we began changing our old behaviors and got more in touch with our culture, we realized the space we leaders were using was getting quieter and quieter. We weren’t inviting people into our space for meetings anymore — we were leaving and meeting with teams wherever they were. It was really becoming a dead space, and we started questioning whether we even needed a leadership community.

After months of discussion and work with our internal research group, we decided a central location was still important, because leaders do need to stay connected to one another. We needed a place to meet in the morning or at least see each other at the end of the day. But instead of this space being a destination, we started to wonder what would happen if we moved the leadership group to where the rest of organization passed through as they moved from one place to another. We used the analogy of a river and realized if we relocated, we wouldn’t have to leave our workstation to talk to people or get a pulse on culture — the culture will just pass through. People wouldn’t feel like they had to “go” to the leadership community, they’d already be there.

So about two and a half years ago, we left our quiet fourth floor offices and moved to the “crossroads” on the ground floor of our learning + innovation center — LINC, for short. Our new space has a very non-hierarchical culture with an open plan, and I sit there with the rest of our executive leadership team. We eliminated the word “headquarters” and have since opened a LINC in Munich as well. It’s been working really well for us and it’s probably the most visible evidence of our commitment to curating culture.

How do you communicate with your teams? What tools do you use?

There’s a whole communications architecture for that. We have town hall meetings that I participate in, but it’s not just about me. We have people at every level who get to talk about things that are going on in the company. We will have 700-800 people gathered in Grand Rapids, and we record the meeting for employees around the world to watch.

When we rolled out a new strategy framework last year, we wanted to engage people in it. We created this thing called Strategy Jam. It was a 48 hour, around-the-clock, live conversation about strategy. There were a few buckets to leave comments on, and it was fun to watch the whole organization reason through the strategy and also challenge us to fix things.

Was this a running series of comments or a Q&A?

It started with a few questions that we used to prompt the discussion. It was an online, live threaded discussion. As certain topics took shape, the team running it would separate discussions out into new topics. There were 2,700 employees who participated! It was amazing, but also super risky.

Is there any ongoing form of that or was the strategy jam a moment in time?

Some people wanted to keep it going but I felt something like that has energy for a couple of days and then it loses it. So, while the strategy jam itself isn’t ongoing, we have events like that all the time.

This year our focus is shifting from culture and strategy to the role of leaders, so this spring we hosted a Leadership Forum. Even though that event is over, we’re still asking ourselves what should leaders do more of rather than less of. At a series of round tables I host with our global leaders, we’re discussing the need for leaders to provide clarity. We want to be clear about what is expected of employees so they will know what to do. It’s amazing how much clarity impacts speed and agility and our ability to be productive.

With regard to your space, where do you get the most value out of your workplace?

We have begun to value space as an ecosystem. Something I think is interesting when it comes to leading large organizations is how to be more mindful of policies, rules, dress code, etc. If you tell everyone you work in non-hierarchical culture, but the size of your office is based on your pay grade, it won’t work.

I think the area where people will start to see more value, because of the shift away from private offices, is with deep work. This is when an individual spends a portion of their day uninterrupted by technology and human interaction. But deep work is more difficult when you’re in an open office. Similarly, for teams, there are times when teams need to come together and be completely uninterrupted. Those workspaces are really valuable because that’s where the toughest problems are being solved. People need to prepare for intense work, perform intense work and then recover from it. Providing an ecosystem of spaces is important. It allows people to find places that support the specific types of work they’re doing throughout the day.

Where are you most willing to spend money on your physical space?

I encourage people to focus more on ergonomics. The ability to have a chair that supports your work is important. It’s not rocket science, but we are still human and need to be supported in physical ways.

Secondly, technology in spaces that help people connect with each other is important — especially using technology to sustain relationships. Video conferencing is a good example. We have made a huge investment in video conferencing in our business centers and have it in almost every meeting room. Sometimes it gets to the point where you almost take it for granted. I encourage our customers to invest in technology that because it’s important for everyone to be fully present, especially if team members are distributed across geographies.

I believe people also need to make investments in private concentration spaces that are available on demand for individuals and teams to use to concentrate deeply. No one should have to worry if is one available. That costs money because of the architecture, but I think those spaces are the most valuable. The most utilized spaces in our building are the spots where employees feel they get the most work done. Companies should choose and invest in the spaces that support the employees best.

What do you see in the future as the next iteration of the workplace?

When people ask me questions about the future, I think about what leading CEOs are worrying about that’s different from everyone else. In addition to culture, digital transformation is at the top of the list. Everyone is thinking that either a startup will disrupt them, or they will do it themselves and disrupt their own industry. Over the last 20 years, CEOs have questioned how to build new business models to extend what we do because of the power of technology. To get this right you have to have coders, people who understand IoT and user interface, and privacy law lawyers, etc. But, will these people want to work for your company? CEOs are now looking to change their culture to attract these people. They also will have to figure out how to transform existing employees to fit the new cultural model. I think this will dominate the next five to 10 years. There’s new technology and agile working, but the people side of it and culture side of it makes digital transformation unique.

How are you measuring performance in the workplace?

We now have new tools to measure the performance of space. We have a product called Workplace Advisor that we have been working on in partnership with Microsoft, which uses array sensors in the workplace to understand what’s going on in your work environment and which spaces are getting used. The sensor information then feeds into a data base where there are analytical tools to help us make sense of what’s happening. We use that information to understand how humans work in the work environment to draw deeper insights. We can help facility managers understand how the space is being utilized, and therefore prove the utilization of that space. If you have spaces that are underutilized, you can figure out how to rebound and make more fact-based decisions on what to do next from a design or real estate perspective. If you compared this data with observational metrics or other data that could come forward in the future, you’d start to be able to understand not just how your space is performing, but how people are making choices about space.

All images courtesy of Steelcase
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