Steelcase general manager Jim Keane jokes to Grand Rapids furniture maker who has partnered with Microsoft is as surprising to some as his predecessor, Jim Hackett, recently named CEO of Ford Motor Co.
But both are tied to Steelcase being an industry leader when it comes to the intersection of office furniture and technology.
Microsoft wanted to work with the world's largest office furniture company, as the software giant began looking for ways to stay relevant to its customers.
"If you are in your business, they are realizing the days when they sold the software in a shrink box wrapped long ago," said Keane. "And even now, as they move to more subscription models, the key to success is not how many users are registered - but ultimately, how much people use the software they signed up for."
Microsoft realizes that the use of its software is tied to productivity. There is nothing wrong with software or devices, but people are using a very small percentage of the capacity in those tools, says Keane.
When Microsoft launched its Surface Hub product line a few years ago, companies were interested in the technology but had questions about how to integrate the larger devices into their workspace.
"We learned very quickly that we have to think of this as an architectural component," said Julia Atalla, senior director of surface marketing at Microsoft.
Microsoft customers had questions about the best environment for Surface devices.
Atalla, who has been one of Microsoft's top executives in collaboration, is at the NeoCon this week in Chicago. Participated in a "Conversation on Creativity" at the Steelcase showroom at Merchandise Mart on Sunday, June 11, with James Ludwig, vice president of global design at Steelcase.
The issue was about how space and technology can lay the groundwork for creative and ultimately more productive work.
Keane has been at the heart of the company's growing relationship with Microsoft, and has had discussions with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as they have laid the groundwork for their collaboration.
"We can actively and intentionally shape human behavior by changing the way the offices are designed, changing the types of furniture they choose ...," Keane said.
The thought is that Microsoft can develop technology that creates new potential and Steelcase can design environments that shape behaviors around use.
The first area that companies are focusing on is how to inspire creativity. In March, the companies unveiled five "Creative Spaces" at Steelcase's WorkLife Center in New York City.
One reason the partnership makes sense is that Microsoft and Steelcase have the same customer base.
"When we talk to our customers, we ask about technology," Keane said. "We were attracted to a technology discussion with our customers, Microsoft was hearing the same thing: they would talk about software and people would want to see their offices to see how it would work."
In New York, Microsoft takes its customers through the Steelcase showroom to demonstrate how their Surface Pro product line is used in an office.
"It's much easier to get close to customers when they're already buying the two," Keane said. "We're not trying to move from one company to another, we're just trying to bring you ideas about Microsoft products that work together."
As the demand for office furniture has flattened in recent years, manufacturers have responded differently. Some are expanding into the retail sector while others are designing more sophisticated furniture and some competitors are moving into new geographies.
"I can not think of a time when this industry has gone under the changes that is happening (now.) It's a great time for strategy," said Keane. "We think there are a lot of opportunities."
He says Steelcase will remain focused on the evolution of the worker and the workplace. The company is increasing its development investment and plans to hire 100 people to work at its Grand Rapids Learning and Innovation Center, where Keane and the leadership have moved their offices from the company headquarters to the side.
"It's not necessarily where the industry goes, but it's part of our commitment to product development and innovation," said Keane.