A Conversation with Shaw Contract Group’s John Stephens
We haven’t dedicated a great deal of space in this monthly Q&A column toward the commercial marketplace, and I thought it was time we did something about that oversight. That something is taking place in a conversation we recently had with John Stephens, vice president of marketing, Shaw Contract Group. We sat down with John immediately after NeoCon to get a much-needed update on developments at Shaw and in the commercial arena.
You can watch this interview in its entirety at floortrendsmag.com by clicking on multimedia and then on videos. The conversation with John Stephens was a lengthy one and space limitations of this column permit only limited excerpts to be included. If this area is of particular interest, we invite you to watch the conversation in its entirety. Here are those excerpts.
TF: We’re holding this conversation in Shaw’s Commercial Create Centre in Cartersville, Ga. It’s a beautiful three-story, 67,000-square-foot facility, which was designed by Gensler, and it houses the commercial unit’s marketing, design and innovation teams. Talk about this facility and the effects it has had on the dynamics of the teams that work here.
Stephens: This facility is really dedicated to design, innovation and creativity for Shaw. For Shaw Contract, it’s where our marketing/design teams work collaboratively to really drive innovation. It’s a place where we can host clients. We probably host over 100 groups of clients here per year. It provides us with a great workspace to talk with clients and understand their businesses better and develop solutions that are targeted to their needs. It has also been a great place to recruit to and it’s a great place for our team to work. When we had been in there about two weeks, a very important person on our team said she would leave work and for an hour after she got home she didn’t want to talk to her kids or to her husband—she said she was just mentally and physically exhausted. She said now she goes home with the same energy level she had at the start of the day, adding that it’s amazing that a physical space could have such an impact on someone’s life.
We have always believed that design matters and has an impact, and it was personally great for me to learn that it could have that kind of impact on people and their lives away from work.
TF: Was NeoCon 2018 any different than it has been in the past?
Stephens: For us, it was different for a couple of reasons. We were in a different space in the Mart and we were hoping that people could find us because we had been in the same location for 20 years. In my opinion, it was the busiest we have ever been. It was that way all over the Mart and the energy level was fantastic. We also had a lot of new things going on in terms of new materials, new product categories as well as the new showroom. I sent a note to the team after the show saying I thought it was the most important and the most impactful NeoCon for the time I have been at Shaw Contract, which is 15 years or so.
TF: You are in a great place to observe millennials in the workplace as well as in the A&D community. Give us a little thumbnail.
Stephens: As we walked around our office here, you had an opportunity to see our team, which is certainly a young group. I’m asked this question a great deal since I am obviously not a millennial. The energy, the courage, and that attitude that "I can do anything, I can figure anything out, and I expect you to give me access to information, so I can be a part of making decisions," I think puts a positive pressure on groups, brands and companies that make us more transparent, flatter, and it helps us make better decisions. I hate to categorize on demographics, but the millennials on our team provide an incredible amount of courage to our business as well as an incredible amount of expectations, such as, “I don’t want to just do the work, I want to understand the work and be a part of making decisions to make sure my values are represented.” I think we give people the opportunity throughout the company to help shape our culture, to help drive our business and help make decisions, and this is an important part of the team we are trying to create.
TF: Looking at the environment here, there are no private offices, and this concept is evident in facilities across the country. Does this indicate that office space in general is smaller than it used to be?
Stephens: It’s interesting. We saw a shift from individual offices to cubicles to a completely open office. I think people are being more thoughtful about having different kinds of spaces because people are individuals, and everyone works differently and has different needs in their workspace, depending on their roles. So, the environment is not a one-size-fits-all. Now there is a great deal more thoughtfulness put into the kind of spaces clients want. In terms of compressing real estate, that certainly has happened. The square feet per person has been reduced, although there has been some rethinking about that. More importantly, the question has become, "What is the best way to organize so our people can do their best — so, we can hire the best people, keep the best people, and they can do their best work?"
TF: I’ve heard so much about facilities managers and the A&D community specifying a variety of types of flooring for a given space. I suspect that the situation you just described is a driver of this.
Stephens: At Shaw Contract, we have a variety of options: broadloom, tile, different types of resilient. Later this summer we’re launching a hardwood collection. We have a range of solutions—it’s not one-size-fits-all, one product for the space. Instead it’s understanding the space, and part of the solution may be resilient, another part may be carpet tile, some of it may be of a hospitality influence in the workspace, so it could be a printed carpet in a given area. It is thinking holistically and how we have the best solution not only for that project but a particular part of that project and the activities and people working in that particular part of the project.
TF: Are specifiers less enamored with carpet than they used to be, or are they just more enamored with LVT and other hard surface products?
Stephens: I think it’s both. I think people are still very excited about what is happening with carpet. We saw an amazing response to the two new carpet collections we showed at NeoCon. People were falling in love with the variation and the range and interesting interpretation of design with the collections. However, we also had hardwood and resilient that saw the same type of excitement. I don’t think people are necessarily categorizing. I think they are just looking at great design and understanding where it makes sense to use one product versus another product. There is actually a great deal of excitement across the flooring category, maybe more so than the category has seen for a while.
TF: Looking at various submarkets of the commercial marketplace, I suspect the same situation you described in this building is taking place in each of these submarkets in the commercial marketplaces.
Stephens: People are rethinking space across the board. A group of top Shaw salespeople and some thoughtful clients looking at the education sector held an event at a school in San Diego. We were looking at space in the sector progressively, immersing ourselves in that world, having lunch with the staff, sitting in on classrooms, and learning how they are thinking differently. That forms the way we work. And it’s happening in healthcare, reflecting different studies as to how physical space has a huge impact on patient satisfaction, patient recovery and infectious disease management. All of that is driving different ways of thinking differently about space. And this is happening in all segments including retail.
In working with clients, we are trying to move from what to why. And getting from what to why means that one really needs to develop an empathetic understanding, connecting to the experience that clients have. One has to immerse themselves in that world, ask questions, observe and be extremely thoughtful. It takes more time and investment.
TF: Talk about problems that occur on a regular basis in the commercial sector, such as time allotments and a lack of qualified installers.
Stephens: We’re seeing some of these problems across multiple industries. Access to labor across the board has gotten tighter, and this has certainly affected the flooring industry and flooring contractors being able to attract experienced, high-quality installers. Flooring contractors are our partners. Without the contractor managing the project, providing the installation and meeting the day in and day out needs of the client, we don’t exist. Ensuring that contractors continue to have positive ability to attract and keep good talent to do that work is key. I think it’s currently tougher than it has ever been. While these aren’t new challenges, I think they now have to direct more attention toward managing moisture on a project and high moisture in a slab. We’re spending a great deal of time trying to innovate solutions for these problems that reduce the impact of these problems on the contractor, the subcontractor dealer and the client.
There are also other issues as people are using space more strategically, and more importantly, a big part of that is acoustics. How does one manage acoustics in a building? There’s a great deal more thought and research taking place in this area. We have spent a great deal of time, energy and resources understanding acoustics in space and how we can have positive impacts in developing solutions — whether it’s a multifamily unit (floor-to-floor transfer) or within a space (such as within our open-office environment) — where we can develop materials and installation techniques that help mitigate challenges with sound.