Weekly Editorial

Modernizing the Industry

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • July 5, 2023

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Someone asked me recently: “How can we modernize our industry?” Of course, software and technology will go along way to modernize it (see this month’s issue of viewpoint magazine). But what I thought I’d do in today’s column is set traditional technology aside and examine other ways in which we can modernize the industry.

I’m going to focus on just two areas in this column: Our need to recruit young professionals and our need to spread our research and innovation to the masses.

I was heartened by NeoCon this year. It seemed as if the industry was younger than it’s ever been. New faces were everywhere. That is good news, but doesn’t solve the problem of our ever-aging industry.

The age problem seems to be most acute in sales. Many sales reps and dealer salespeople seem to be about my age (53) or older, which isn’t a surprise since the best salespeople thrive on personal relationships. Those relationships take some time to build. But it would help our industry greatly to start recruiting young salespeople now so they can work alongside the veterans to learn the ropes. Young salespeople also have unique skills they can bring to the table. They understand how younger generations communicate and purchase things. They are usually more comfortable with technology.

I’m not suggesting we put the veterans out to pasture. In fact, veterans are critical to the sale process as well, bringing deep institutional knowledge to the job and the relationships that turn opportunities into sales.

And while you might think most of the youth in the industry comes in the form of interior designers, it is an aging group as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of an interior designer is 42.2 years old. More young people are needed in interior design too.

The industry can modernize by embracing the next generation of office furniture industry professionals. It can also modernize by continuing to push for diversity. It is not enough that the industry attract young workers, we also need to continue to diversify by recruiting more people of color and promoting more minority candidates and women into leadership positions.

Another way in which the industry can modernize is by spreading its research and innovation to the masses.

Our industry, especially the largest companies in it, have lots of research, but we do a lousy job getting it out to the public. That needs to change. Other than its own magazine and its own salespeople, I don’t see Steelcase promoting its research or sharing it with the public. MillerKnoll does a lot of research as well and it does a bit better job sharing it through podcasts like “Looking Forward,” which is hosted by Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights, and other periodic webinars. OFS is definitely a leader in podcast production as well.

Other than that, I don’t see a lot of our research making it to the public. That’s a shame, especially since we are in a time when it is needed most. I’ve railed about this in the past, but it is worth repeating: Our industry needs to be in front of the public, leading on topics like hybrid work, productivity and attracting and retaining employees. An office furniture maker should be quoted in every single mainstream media report on workplace issues, in my opinion.

When introducing the third season of his podcast, Anderson said “research exists to be applied.” I couldn’t agree more. Our industry’s research is critical to help the world move to the future of work. It won’t do any good though if it is siloed into company-specific publications and podcasts that never make it to the mainstream.

Let’s modernize the industry by making it meaningful and necessary to the general public. What you do matters and everyone should know that.

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