A conversation with Libby Ferin, Vice President of Marketing for Innovative Ergonomic Solutions, the parent company to HAT Collective.
We’re always interested in finding out what’s new in the contract furniture market. What intrigues us is the back story as brands evolve and grow. We also love to introduce our readers to companies they may not be familiar with but should add to their list of resources for the best in what’s in the market. As we emerge from the pandemic the office as we know will have changed as well. We had a robust discussion with HAT Collective’s Libby Ferin, and she has given us some great insight on what the future may hold, not only for her company but the workplace in general.
Elise Shapiro: If we have learned anything over the past year, it is how to adapt in unexpected ways. As a society we have moved from office-based work to working from home. As a company, what were your initial thoughts and reaction when reality hit?
Libby Ferin: Everyone in the industry has had to pivot in some way or another. Projects were put on hold and rethinking the new “safe office” started to emerge. Immediately, we introduced our “Safe Spaces” program, which identified all of our products that create a more socially distant, “COVID-friendly” environment. Introducing cleanable wrap dividers in PET or acrylic, slide dividers, mobile workstations for separation are just a few of our in-office solutions. Our home solutions include a wide variety of products from desk converters, height-adjustable and mobile desks, monitor arms and other solutions that can work extremely well in a home environment – whether that’s a 600 square-foot apartment with limited space or a spacious home.
Additionally, our thoughts were that if companies were going to thrive, they had to support their workers from home, which meant getting the right working environment set up for them. We’re all accustomed to working from the dining room table from time to time, but not necessarily nine hours a day. Providing ergonomically sound products for at-home workers was the next step.
We simply want our dealers to succeed.
A big challenge we faced is that most of our dealers, who are truly our life-blood, were not equipped to be an “e-commerce solution” for their customers. Selling individual workstations and shipping to a residence is not the way many of our dealers work. They are not Amazon. Moreover, many dealers were losing business to third-party, e-commerce sites to customers purchasing direct-to-home solutions. That’s when our team got to work and created a new program called “HomeWork.” With HomeWork, we began to create custom, individualized dealer e-commerce websites complete with in-stock, ready to ship-to-home product selections. We did, and continue to, supply these individualized e-commerce sites for our dealers at no charge. We simply want our dealers to succeed. HomeWork was our way to support our dealers and their customers with beautiful, commercial grade, ergonomically optimized products for the home during this shockingly disruptive time.
On another note, we had begun to build HAT Collective during the onset of the pandemic. The shift of how and where people worked only reinforced our brand story even more. Providing options and choice of not only how but where we work for is core to what HAT Collective is all about. The word “Collective” describes our brand lines coming together to create a broad portfolio. It’s also a term to describe our dealer and design community and how we can support each other.
ES: In reading through your product information, it’s clear you’re focused on thinking about the individual and recognizing we all have different needs when we work, work in different circumstances and that meeting the needs of the individual are key to your philosophy and are designing products to meet a variety of needs. How did you come up with the tagline “Work Your Way”?
LF: What COVID did for us as we were developing the HAT Collective brand is reinforce our ethos of how important it is to empower the individual worker. This idea of supporting work, wherever and whenever work happens, was essential. Home or office, individual or group, mobile or stationary – all of these variables are key when supporting the worker. So, even if the worker is in a large group setting (what I affectionately call the “sea of we”), designers can still provide levels of choice. Providing the ability to sit or stand, adjust their monitor screens closer or farther from their view, maybe provide additional dividers for privacy or distancing…these are all considerations easily adaptable in a group setting. Additionally, providing mobile workstations for employees to grab and go to a quiet spot or a “work enclave” that provides privacy are all elements that provide greater choice to the user.
Especially in today’s working environment, we know that there is a greater need for flexibility both in the office and at home. We’ve learned that the more empowered one feels about their environment, selecting the product or space they want to work in, the more productive they are, which results in an enjoyable experience. Work Your Way celebrates the idea of choice. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another. Inherently, the more comfortable a worker is in a space he or she creates, the more productive and positive the experience one will have.
ES: The history of your company is an interesting story starting out in the manufacture of ergonomic products like monitor arms. Evolving to a company with a larger portfolio of products built on the original premise that making people comfortable, and working in a way to promote a healthy work posture – when did the lightbulb go off to create a comprehensive line that included not only the ergonomic support items but bring in a furniture component that worked well with your other products?
LF: The founding company, Innovative Office Products (IOP), always had a focus centered on ergonomics. First, it was monitor arms, which provided the ability to adjust the monitor allowing for an optimal viewing experience. A natural extension of the brand would be to continue the ergonomic story for a full working environment. In 2018, IOP acquired HAT Contract (HAT is an acronym for height adjustable tables). HAT Contract, a company known for simple, quick-ship and affordable height adjustable tables and accessories, added a comprehensive ergonomic solution for the office. Last year, IOP acquired Danish design and manufacturer SiS Ergo to the mix. SiS brought a lovely, desirable European flare to the portfolio where their claim to fame was making custom solutions easy. With three brands, there became the need for greater simplicity and ease of doing business for our dealer and designer communities. Foundationally, that was the beginning of creating HAT Collective, a new brand experience for the contract office industry.
Fast-forward to today and HAT Collective is a brand with a North American, European, and Asia-Pacific presence. For a company that started out making just ergonomic monitor arms to a brand with a global footprint and a full portfolio of product solutions is something we’re quite proud of. We’re excited to grow and build upon this foundation.
ES: Also interesting is your innovations in providing sales solutions that make it easy to create an individualized workspace solution that can be tailored at a small scale and easily procured for a work at home space, and the tools for designers to specify furnishings for corporate spaces at any scale.
LF: Our sales solution is a fairly unique offering – to be able to offer direct-to-home solutions as well as solutions for corporate spaces. We have identified and developed core products that can satisfy not either or, but both environments. The WFH piece is achieved through our HomeWork Program, which we launched in the summer of last year. I love the idea that, today, a designer may be asked to design an office space but also accommodate a plan for at-home workers as well. Why not? We have tools for our design community to help visualize any space – and at any time of day. Our website provides all the key resources and tools a designer would need. Our configurator allows one to develop and specify a full quote, product typicals and thought starters, as well as a full library of CET symbols.
ES: Working with the premise that “happy at work” is based on employees having a safe, comfortable, flexible space to work is a win-win situation for employers. Can you let us know more about the research you engage in to find solutions that can promote that sense of wellbeing for a company’s workforce?
LF: Our insights have been curated via several angles – not just from a contract office perspective. From understanding the science and psychology of what makes workers happy in the workplace to thought leadership at UC Berkeley and other science institutes to workspace experts in the industry, HAT Collective is based on these collective insights. It’s a holistic approach – not just to space but our behavior and need for choice and control of our surroundings that make HAT Collective special. Again, I think designers can easily plan dynamic spaces with this understanding in mind. The smallest allowance for individualization in a space makes a difference.
ES: Can you describe the easy “one stop shopping” experience you have developed to make it easier for employees and their employees to manage the need to provide a workspace that makes what formerly could be a complex process to an easily navigated transaction?
LF: Yes, HAT Collective is all about the idea that we are making lives easier for both our dealers and designers. With multiple product lines with a “good, better, best” product offering, and service (in-stock to custom solutions made easy) combined with the right tools and resources – such as configurators that generate quotes – this is truly an easy, delightful experience. Additionally, HAT Collective is a one-stop shop for an organization trying to accommodate both the at-home and in-office worker. As mentioned, HomeWork acts as an e-commerce platform for dealers or customers needing to serve at-home workplace needs. When combined with our in-office capabilities from our design team, we aim to make the process of managing the “new workplace” incredibly easy. We understand the challenges and are ready to help our dealer and design partners make working through this incredibly challenging time enjoyable.
ES: How does your design team develop a concept for new products?
LF: I’d have to say that we have an incredibly open collaborative environment when it comes to new product development – it’s not the responsibility of just the design team – it’s any and all of us within the organization – local and international – to bring fresh ideas to the table. Through the observation and behavior of workers, combined with understanding the pulse of the industry, it leads us to questions on how we can improve a worker’s experience both from an ergonomics and overall function and aesthetic perspective. It may be something as simple as a power solution to a new workstation. We embrace the design-thinking process and, I believe, we take great care and time to honor the process to create leading innovative solutions for workers.
ES: What are the three key components of a truly innovative design?
LF: I appreciate what Steve Bowman, our Director of Engineering, believes are the main factors. Truly innovative designed products are ones that use the latest technology, human factor designs, and solve a problem that allow a company to disrupt an industry. I completely agree with his perspective: True innovatively designed products use the latest technology, human factor designs, and solve a problem that allow a company, like HAT Collective, to disrupt an industry in a beneficial, positive way.
ES: What’s next in design?
LF: Our team is always iterating and thinking through the question “what’s next?” We have exciting products in development and our design team continues to be inspired about the future of the workplace. In addition to new product development, we’ve also been developing engaging CEUs (continuing education units) for the design community. Our first CEU will revolve around the theme of “happiness at work,” which explores the many factors of how we can be happier workers when we holistically consider this concept from an environmental, psychological and personal perspective. It’s the right theme and conversation for us at HAT Collective to have with the design community, and we’re anxious to engage with them on this important topic.
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This article was done in partnership with HAT Collective