Published in Economic Development
From left: Ryan Anderson of Herman Miller Inc.; Raj Mehan of Steelcase Inc.; Paul Nemschoff of Haworth Inc.; Michael Davenport of Jireh Metal Products. From left: Ryan Anderson of Herman Miller Inc.; Raj Mehan of Steelcase Inc.; Paul Nemschoff of Haworth Inc.; Michael Davenport of Jireh Metal Products. PHOTO: KATE CARLSON

West Michigan CEOs emphasize DEI, flexible offices in first post-pandemic gathering

BY Tuesday, June 22, 2021 08:39pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Executives from across West Michigan gathered Tuesday to discuss the labor shortages permeating across industries, lessons learned from COVID-19 and the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in company culture.

The West Michigan CEO Summit hosted by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce was one of the first major in-person events to take place indoors in the region. The Michigan business community was severely affected by business restrictions, but the lifting of most capacity and mask restrictions on Tuesday is a “cause for celebration,” said Grand Rapids Chamber President and CEO Rick Baker. 

“By moving forward together and continuing to collaborate, we have a tremendous opportunity to address the pressing issues that have come to light,” Baker said. “Issues such as child care, inclusion, inequities, public health, the future of work, infrastructure and talent.”

Among the key themes of this year’s CEO summit was how diversity, equity and inclusion has reshaped corporate governance. 

Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights for Herman Miller Inc., acknowledged the shift, and how it can improve company culture.

“The opportunities they have and empowering them to have more choices isn’t just a great way to retain them, it’s a great way to make sure they are the most engaged they can be, and the most healthy and productive,” Anderson said. “There is a win-win there, but doing what’s right for employees is what is best for organizations.” 

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Michael Davenport, president and CEO of Grandville-based Jireh Metal Products Inc., said while talent shortages persist, companies should keep diversity issues front of mind. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, and the galvanizing effect it had in the U.S., should cause reflection among business leaders. Those reflections include: assessing a company’s workforce diversity, seeking counsel from experts, and supply chain spending.

“We talk about it being hard, but when you break it down, those three things are very simple,” Davenport said. 

Ken James, director of inclusion for the Grand Rapids Chamber, said companies should avoid a “checking a box” approach to the issue and instead pursue top-down, ongoing engagement.

“As you think about what your next step is in DEI, and how that impacts your return on investment and having that culture to retain this rich workforce we’re talking about, I ask respectfully that you need to have a ‘Niagara Falls approach’ that is top-down and never ceases,” James said. “As opposed to an ‘Old Faithful’ approach where this big eruption takes place that is exciting when it happens.”

Ana Ramirez-Saenz, president of Rockford-based LaFuente Consulting LLC, said connecting and investing in workers are key for employers.

“People are a reflection of your company, internally and externally,” Ramirez-Saenz said. “They are the ones that drive your behavior, that drive your culture and exhibit your core values so it’s really critical to understand the powerful impact that people have in your organizations.”

Choice matters

This year’s CEO Summit also included a focus on the future of the workplace, as shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Workers had already spread out their workplace settings over the past 15 years, Anderson said. 

“People were already beginning to do their work in a wide variety of locations,” Anderson said. “The challenge was really that most organizations didn't have a strategy to support it.”

The few companies that were already working on strategies to support remote work had the upper hand when the pandemic hit. But for most, these companies saw a pendulum swing and found out remote working was productive, Anderson said.

“By about January, about two-thirds of organizations had landed on a hybrid (model),” Anderson said. “That is not some people working remotely and some working in the office, it’s empowering employees to choose for themselves what location might be best for them on a given day.”

The hybrid work model has major upsides for workforce productivity, engagement and equitable outcomes, Anderson said. Employers need to give their employees more freedom and choices in how to work, but it is more complicated to implement, Anderson said.
“It’s way more than just a facilities thing. It involves (human resources) policy, cybersecurity and a whole host of things,” Anderson said. “Most of my team’s time is spent helping organizations through that transition.”

The two main questions Haworth is seeing from customers is how to re-occupy office space and what the future of work will look like years from now, said Paul Nemschoff, vice president of global strategy and marketing at Haworth.

The most important thing Haworth learned in re-occupying its own offices was that amenities need to be in place, and technology needs to be able to support employees, Nemschoff said.

“Ultimately, as we’re going forward, people are inherently social and want to collaborate,” Nemschoff said. “That, and culture, will be key to why people come back to the work environment.”

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