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Kevin ButlerAt first blush Steelcase is an unlikely wellbeing leader. Innovation leadership is a different story however. The organization began in 1912 as the Metal Office Furniture Company, rebranded as Steelcase Business Equipment in 1921, and quickly reinvented office furniture – desks, chairs, file cabinets, and the like – by producing it using steel rather than wood.

Today this same drive for innovation has Steelcase asking significant wellbeing questions. Believing that people don’t perform to their full potential in large part because workplaces aren’t designed for human thriving, the company now goes well beyond office furniture. Customers are asked to consider how their physical work environments foster – or hinder – the wellbeing, engagement, and performance of employees.

Who’s doing the asking? People like Kevin Butler, Steelcase Wellbeing Consultant. I’m intrigued at how a company in such a seemingly traditional industry – manufacturing – can use its core capabilities to advance wellbeing. So it is a delight to share Kevin’s perspectives in this week’s Face of Wellbeing Leadership.

Me: In our work with clients, we notice companies actively involved in workplace wellness but their efforts frequently fail to build cultures of wellbeing. What do you see?

Kevin: The state of “workplace wellness” is very much one-dimensional and is quite defunct. It usually resides in Human Resources as a benefit and is buried deep within an organization. This doesn’t give it the prioritization or attention it deserves. In most cases, workplace wellness programs also focus on monetary incentives to get people to participate, let’s say, to prod someone to walk for 10,000 steps or eat vegetables. This essentially buys employees off for a period of time yet they typically revert back to their default, often poor, health habits. A big problem for the individual and the company.

Me: If I said “workplace wellbeing,” what that mean something different to you?

Kevin: Yes! Workplace wellbeing encompasses a multidimensional look at what people care about and how they actually change behavior. Most companies that talk about wellness are usually hell bent on one dimension, for instance, physical wellness, mental health, or stress management. Why? Because then correlating health risks and cost is much easier to do, and it’s what insurance carriers will measure. But a focus on wellbeing in a workplace means multiple dimensions – financial, community, social, physical and career, for example.

All that said, trying to measure impact using a multi-dimensional model of wellbeing gets noisy. So at Steelcase we’re simplifying our approach to those dimensions we can actually measure and improve. Right now our focus is on the connection between physical, cognitive and emotional wellbeing and the engagement of our employees throughout the company.

Me: What wellbeing practice at Steelcase do you believe is truly pioneering a new standard?

Kevin: The role of space and place is an incredibly underutilized lever for catalyzing and reinforcing employee wellbeing. For instance, most CEOs understand it’s wildly important members of their executive team stay connected. What do they then do? They build a floor and put all the executives on it. Mission accomplished! The problem is this: nobody else feels comfortable enough to go up to the “golden floor.” As a result, no one else sees their executive leaders role modeling wellbeing personally or using wellbeing practices as a senior leadership team.

I’m inspired that at Steelcase we’ve been willing to rethink the role space and place has in our own organization. For years we’ve experimented with a leadership community space that’s open and customizable, and it’s worked well. On one hand, it’s a center of gravity, a place where leaders come together to stay connected; yet on the other hand, it encourages leaders to fully engage with their employees. As a result, people see Steelcase leaders set an example of wellbeing in action. And when it comes to building a culture of wellbeing in our own organization, seeing leaders as wellbeing role-models is key.

Me: That’s terrific! It will be fascinating to find out what impact comes from this “space and place” wellbeing innovation. Are more companies moving in this direction?

Kevin: Not quite yet, but that’s part of the reason why I’m so stoked to be working at Steelcase. We’ve always been a market leader when it comes to understanding space and place, and now we’re applying that know-how to building thriving workplaces for our customers. Most companies dumb down the notion of space and place to a furniture purchase – an operational expense that’s all about cost, cost, cost. My job often means shifting this cost conversation to, “How can you help your people thrive so that you get more out of them for your business?”

As Steelcase, in a way we’re a victim of a +100-year-old heritage and reputation for selling a commodity product: furniture. This hampers us in yet being seen as a wellbeing leader. In truth there are literally teams of Steelcase people thinking about how our company will best serve the world in the next 50 years. In 50 years, there may be fewer desks than there are today. Based on the ubiquity of technology, people around the world will be able to work from anywhere at anytime. We are continually forecasting these trends and rethinking our value proposition for the betterment of business and society.

When I share what we’re up to with others, most say, “I had no idea you guys do this! This is not the Steelcase that I thought of!” So while we’re helping customers build cultures of wellbeing with our space and place expertise and we’re envisioning what our business can bring to a healthy future, we also have to shift the perception others have of us.

Me: Your passion for wellbeing and Steelcase is palpable, Kevin!

Kevin: At this point in my life, I’m so happy to be at Steelcase. Because as a market leader, if we’re not going to use our capabilities to advance wellbeing, who is? Thank god we care about this. Thank god we’re all in.