As the COVID-19 pandemic left many businesses pondering the safest, most effective way for employees to work, office furniture and design firms became central in those discussions. MiBiz spoke with Franco Bianchi — CEO of Holland-based, family-owned and billion dollar furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. — on how his business is navigating what many consider to be a defining period for the industry.
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From supply chain cramps and rising prices for goods to a crippling shortage of labor, manufacturers have plenty to worry about. Does this deluge of market challenges keep you up at night?
I actually sleep pretty well. At the end of the day, I’m still of the opinion that we don’t save lives, we only sell office, home, car and architecture interiors. I recognize that we have a very big responsibility over many families. … The best comfort that we have today — I don’t know about tomorrow — is we designed the company to be very agile. If we have to test the design of the company, we just went through two years of the hardest testing that you could have done and are coming out reasonably well with a few bruises and a little bit of a headache.
Are you assuming these problems will persist in 2022?
I actually think all of these issues, by design, are not going to go away that quickly. If you ask me: ‘Do you expect to largely have most of these issues still around in 2022?’ Sincerely my answer would be yes.
The pandemic clearly made businesses in all industries reevaluate their workspaces. Are most of them approaching the concept from scratch now?
Seems to me that there are two large categories: Large clients in major cities versus small and mid-size clients not in major cities. The second category ... didn’t make particularly huge changes to their office environment, and they didn’t make major changes to their policies. They may have increased flexibility, but not much. Where the major reset or adjustment has happened is the larger client in the major cities where the combination of the vertical offices, where you have to take an elevator, be on a narrow footprint, and squeeze with a lot of people in a location with non-operable windows.
Is work from home the default solution?
You’ll see a lot more complex messages (about work from home). I would say culture is very difficult to maintain in a fully remote environment. How can I be inclusive, mentor and develop my employees when I don’t even ever see them? … Pile on the Great Resignation — this huge turnover that is happening everywhere — and I think it’s making companies reassess, even large companies. Maybe I don’t need everyone every day. But this idea that the office doesn’t matter is really not working.
Is it tough to find a balance between leaning into both the contract furniture and work from home segments of your business?
The way we approach work from home is really kind of two-fold. First of all, how do I maintain my B2B clients, and because my B2B clients now have a lot of people working at home, how can I use them — the client and their structure — to design a solution that is for the thousand people they have that, instead of being at the office, are now at home?
But with small businesses, there are a lot of microbusinesses around. How can I intercept those that need a professional work environment at their home instead of sitting at their kitchen table or dining room chair and give them something that might take better care of them? The (contract) client is the first one we’ve always had. With the (work from home) category, the products are different and the market is different. To sell to them is a lot different than to sell to IBM. It’s successful, but a much bigger departure.