Office spaces are becoming more bendable, modular and futuristic: Rawal

Praveen Rawal, Managing director, India and South East Asia, Steelcase
How has India market for workplace technology and design evolved since Steelcase’s entry in 2008?

The furniture market in India has changed and progressed substantially. We’ve witnessed customers who want to choose brands and have a better understanding of the designs, materials, and technologies incorporated in the products. There was a time when you came to your office, went to your desk and sat there till the end of your day. Those days are over. Workers in India and all over the world expect choice and control over place and posture. The India market for workplace technology and design-led products could be close to Rs 60 billion. 

When we entered the space 10 years ago, ergonomic design was more about design for static postures — sitting in an office or at the desk. The intent was to develop a product that would make you feel comfortable while you were sitting and compliment multiple postures. Now even if you have a white collar job, movement in the workplace is highly important. Hence, we are designing products in a way that encourages motion while sitting. We have shifted from static to dynamic seating.

What are the trends that characterise India’s workplaces?

Our applied research team invests a great deal in studying behaviours. Emerging trends like flexibility, agility, human-centric design are taking ground in India. Today, Indian coprporations have started spending more per employee. Well-being is gaining popularity. Height adjustable workstations are in demand. Office spaces are becoming more bendable, modular and futuristic. In India, offices can be something like a sanctuary for employees and therefore a company that wants engaged employees has to create an experience for them. 

Due to the density and real estate constraints in emerging economies like ours, people don’t have the luxury of choosing where they want to work. Hence, space has to be multi-functional and easy to reconfigure. For example, to humanise density, a lunch place or canteen also doubles up as an informal working or brainstorming space. As compared to the United Stated or Europe, workplaces in India also tend to be enclosed, private offices for individual work. According to a study in 2017, 49 per cent of work environments are a blend of individual offices and open plan. About 37 per cent are private offices and 14 per cent are configured to be entirely open plans. Also about 55 per cent of Indians work remotely. Hence, employer-provided mobile technology in Indian workplaces is higher than in other countries.

What are the IoT-powered products you have on offer?

Given that India’s Gen Y is expected to reach 475 million by 2030, we are focusing on technology more than ever. One of our most successful solutions is the Gesture, which is the first chair to support new-age technologies. The Gesture arm moves like the human arm, which allows users to be supported in any position. Arms and shoulders remain supported when texting on a smartphone, typing on a keyboard or swiping on a tablet, helping prevent what is called text neck. Think is another key product that is intelligent enough to understand how you sit and adjust itself intuitively. We have partnered with Microsoft, to build five Creative Spaces. One of them is a high tech destination called ‘Ideation hub’ that encourages active participation at a surface hub and promotes fluid interaction between people, tools and technology.

Would you agree that workplace design contributes to workplace productivity?

For the first time in 2016, we designed a new desking system to address the unmet needs of the Indian workplace with Navi. About 25 per cent employees in India, never leave the office. Our designers created Navi which is a height adjustable seating to help employees add movement to their days and alternate sitting and standing. We design the office in a way that people do 10,000 steps every day to help them reduce sedentary lifestyle and increase productivity. Employees should walk into the office and think it was designed exclusively for them.

Initially, Steelcase introduced products in India that were successful in other countries. Over a period of time, we’ve come to realise that the key is to develop solutions that are insight led and user centric. So now, we are not just modifying global products for India but also developing solutions for the Indian customer that will be relevant all over the world. We also study behaviors and tap into how people move around in the space. It’s important to understand the cultural journey to provide relevant space design solutions. There are companies that demand certain design specifications that help their employees feel most productive. For example, a call center lays emphasis on audio and video inputs, which would necessitate a large area with open space. A law firm would require a range of spaces with a major focus on private areas. For us, it’s all about the insights that are incorporated in our products that allow people the control and choice that they need.

India is a diverse workplace — how affordable are the company’s products and solutions so as to appeal to large corporates, mid size businesses and entrepreneurs? What is the company’s current revenue?

In the financial year 2017, Steelcase revenue stood at $3.0 billion. 

The Indian furniture industry is pegged at $1 billion, of which the high-end premium segment accounts for $150-200 million. Keeping in mind, our diverse set of customers like a Google, Apple, or Deloitte to smaller local organisations, I would say we provide a wide set of solutions. The launch of our manufacturing unit in Chakan, Pune, has helped expand the range of products available to customers in India and reduce costs. Our furniture range is available at conservative price points, and then moving to high-end or premium. We have solutions to support junior, to senior level management and leadership. Many of our customers in India are wary of experimenting with certain design solutions, but what they find is that our solutions are being used more than the traditional chairs.

What are the key challenges facing the company?

Work is changing really fast. But offices will remain the same for at least a decade. The exciting part of the challenge is not just being up to date and but being able to see ahead of time. When we work closely with Indian organizations, the major ask is to create spaces that encourage collective brainstorming. Creating different spaces for small or greater group discussions is a hurdle that we still face. There’s limited space and the real estate constraints hamper our ability to create collaborative workplaces.

Of course a one-size-fits-all workplace does not do justice to an Indian workforce. There are organsations where remote and mobile technologies take precedence or companies that want their space to symbolise their brand culture. But whether designing workspaces for multinationals in India or locally owned companies, there’s one big challenge - How can we support what the new generation is reflecting and affecting? The challenge is to give young workers a ‘third place’. A place that feels like home, and where real work can happen.

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