December 4, 2022

Taylor Daily Press

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Ahrend is now making video call cell in office cabinet factory

Ahrend is now making video call cell in office cabinet factory

On the face of it, the product launch was the worst ever. A glass cabin in which two people can withdraw to the office for a consultation just before the spread of the Corona pandemic.

“No one would dare sit in this place anymore,” says Eugene Stirkin, CEO of office furniture company Ahrend. In the company’s showroom in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, he presents the space: two seats, directly opposite each other, separated from the outside world by upholstered wood and glass panels. If there’s one place where you run the risk of infection, it’s just the two of you in this little cabin, with their heads no more than a meter and a half apart.

But when video calling became a daily activity during the Corona crisis, product designers at Ahrend reconsidered their idea. What if they redesigned a room like a video calling room? For one already, then he drew attention to the good ventilation that it contains, which the company did not explicitly indicate earlier.

Since then, these kiosks have become a success for Ahrend (1,387 employees, plants in Holland, Czech Republic and China). Roughly a fifth of requests are for call rooms, Stirkin says. “We now know that video consultations will continue. We are already used to it at home, but now we are back in offices not equipped for it yet.”

Dutch company Ahrend, one of the largest office furniture companies in Europe and active worldwide, has had to adapt a lot in the past couple of years. At first when all of the Netherlands came to sit at home in March 2020, for the second time now the country is back in the office. Stirkin says the role of the office has changed permanently because of Corona. Staff come here less often than before. And when they come, it is often to consult, to share ideas, or to connect with colleagues.

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This requires a different kind of design, which also includes better acoustics. In businesses, where hundreds of thousands of Dutch people have worked for years, sometimes unintentionally, on Ahrend furniture, fewer workplaces are needed — but more furniture, such as video-conferencing booths, sofas and seating areas for consultations. At the same time, several “new” offices were added in the attic rooms, which also needed to be furnished.

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Then you get spaces like Ahrend spaces.

The staff at Sint-Oedenrode makes, among other things, upholstery for chairs, sofas and telephone booths.
Photo by Merlin Dallman

Informal seating area

For a company like Ahrend, these products represent a major change that affects the very core of the organization. At Ahrend, about a third of the time is about repairing and replacing “classic” office furniture: desks and chairs. The company knows this market in detail. In the early 1950s, she produced the Revolt Chair, a classic by designer Friso Kramer. Hundreds of thousands of office workers and students sat on the dead simple design every day.

The exchange market has stopped due to the pandemic. Of the 347 million euros in turnover in 2019, 268.5 million remained in the first year of the pandemic. In the meantime, income is recovering. And Ahrend announced on Tuesday, that trading volume rose last year to 284.6 million. Gross profit also increased again, from 10.9 million euros to 17.5 million euros.

Going back to 2019 levels, but with different products, for the “hybrid” office – that’s the goal now

Sterken sums up the spring of 2020 saying, “It was a big hit.” Returning to the level of 2019, but with different products, for the “hybrid” office – that is the goal now. Developments such as working from home and video calling were already on the rise before the emergence of Corona, but the pandemic has speeded up that process, according to the CEO.

In addition to call rooms and work from home, Sterken also refers to a homey atmosphere in the office, with informal sitting areas. The Amsterdam showroom now offers a wide range of colorful sofas, coffee tables and stools. At first glance, the furniture looks like every home furniture chain sells, but according to Sterken, the products are distinctly different from the sofas and chairs in Dutch living rooms.

For example, there are mannequins with very high backrests, which protect the user from the rest of the room – and are good for chatting without disturbing colleagues. And inferior models may also look home, but they are definitely designed for the office. “When you sit on this, you can’t sit down. You can just sit on it actively.” Well: good for meeting, but not very suitable for watching TV.

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In the factory, office chairs are assembled on an automatic production line.
Photo by Merlin Dallman

Three high . delivery

Ahrend, owned by investor HAL, has seen the office change drastically before. The company’s history dates back to 1896, when Jacobus Arend, who was still a minor at the time, started a painting and drawing supplies shop in his mother’s living room. First products: a compass and a drawing board.

In 126 years, Ahrend has seen the replacement of wooden chairs with steel ones, the emergence of ergonomics, and the arrival of the flexible workplace. Ahrend’s most important factory, a huge complex of halls curved in the zigzag of Dommel in Sint-Oedenrode, still made many office cupboards a few decades ago.

100 years after Ahrend, the company organized an exhibition. Read here about the long history of the largest office furniture

Since documents are now stored digitally, they have disappeared from the halls – Ahrend has done their work by others. The five hundred production staff of “Oed” chairs work together on an automatic production line, or they use sewing machines to manufacture the upholstery of chairs, benches and call booths. In the rear of the building, glass is stored for the doors of the communication cabins – a new material for Ahrend.

Now it may seem as if the post-Corona office plan has been around from the start, but in practice, it has often been a research process. How, for example, do you deal with all those domestic workers to whom the employer offered a chair in the attic? “Up until then, we’ve fitted entire facilities with trucks,” says Sterken. “Now we have to go to the home addresses, three behind us.”

This also requires a completely different logistical approach. “You can make an appointment with a professional client that you will deliver in ten weeks. Consumers want such a chair right away. So we rented a warehouse and started building inventory, because we knew working from home would be big.” Last year, Ahrend sold work-at-home premises for €32 million.

Sometimes it was also about choosing what not to do, says Stirkin. For example, Ahrend also provided splash screens for a short time in the first corona wave, but that soon stopped. These screens would create a false sense of security, and moreover, they weren’t a long-term solution. Sterken prefers to put his energy into thinking about what an office should look like after the hand-held gel pumps and floor-mounted lines. Over the past two years, the company’s customer surveys have revealed increasingly clear needs – such as more work from home, call booths and seating areas.

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Now that the scientist has been back in the office for a few months now, shouldn’t employee turnover have recovered that much already? Sterken: “There are a lot of companies that have looked at the problem. Also, requests for workplaces to work from home only started in 2021, when employers made working from home a structural part of their policy. Not in 2020. We had a lot of questions last year about how It will go. A meter and a half economy, yes or no? Now you see companies pressing the button.”

Good office chairs will still be indispensable in the new office, according to CEO Eugene Stirkin. Sitting comfortably at work is “the most important thing,” he says.
Photo by Merlin Dallman

Indispensable office chair

Call booths, home workplaces, and benches may sell well, but the office chair remains indispensable in the new office. If Sterken had to reduce his entire desk to one thing, he would always opt for the modern, comfortable chair in his office. He says firmly that sitting comfortably at work is “the most important thing”.

In Sterken’s office in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, one of the first designs for the Revolt chair was placed in a corner on a podium. Two boards, connecting rods – no more. Sterken loves to look at it and draw inspiration from it. “Friso always said, ‘The worst design was the design where you can see the designer was working on it.'” Thinking away, that’s what it was all about. Don’t be too stressed.

Regardless of how much time Ahrend spent designing the perfect office chair, even seventy years later, it’s not over yet. It should be more “intuitive,” as they say in Ahrend. In fact, this is becoming even more important in the current office, according to the CEO. “We are now working with Ben van Berkel to develop a new office chair.” Van Berkel designed, among other things, the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam.

The idea? As few levers and buttons as possible, as is the case now with many office chairs, and materials that adapt to the user’s body. Very useful in a mixed office, where colleagues sometimes use the chair in the morning and afternoon in a completely different position. “So he should really sit down right away. A bit like putting on sneakers.”