More than just part of the furniture

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2011, 12:00am


In the heart of Chang'an Town, resembling an ivy-league college campus, is the ivy-covered red brick manufacturing complex of the high-end office furniture firm, Steelcase.

From its elegant and campus-style production base in the southern tip of Dongguan city, the 99-year-old US company says hi-tech design and efficient production can generate sustained growth.

Key to this endeavour, it adds, will be a policy of encouraging its corporate clients to regard their own staff with the same care and consideration as they regard their customers.

Steelcase Asia Pacific president Uli Gwinner said products designed in the group's studios in Asia, Europe, and North America were modified to fit the demand of mainland consumers, who were broadly willing to spend more money on senior executives' workplaces or office areas where they met their clients.

'Senior executives generally have a bigger room with a view. But they travel often so the room is left empty most of the time while general staff in the office are jammed together,' Gwinner said.

'We try to bring in a new mode of thought, which is a bit provocative, that back office and administration office staff are equally important. Space design has a great impact on staff motivation.'

Dongguan is pushing local factories to upgrade by building brands, promoting innovation and boosting automation as part of a nationwide industrial reform.

Steelcase's factory in Dongguan is one of the group's key manufacturing bases in the Asia Pacific and supplies the mainland market with workstation products. It will roll out a range of stylish new generation office chairs early next year with storage space for ladies' handbags.

Gwinner pointed out that mainland companies tend to spend more money decorating conference rooms and main lobbies, or areas where they meet their clients, but leave back offices undecorated.

'It will take time for bosses to realise that a great workplace will retain workers and attract talent even as the labour market gets tighter,' he said.

As part of the Guangdong provincial government's initiative to raise workers' spending power, Dongguan will raise the monthly minimum wage in the city by between 15.5 per cent and 17.3 per cent on January 1. It will be the second general wage rise in 10 months.

Dongguan, the so-called 'factory of the world' in the Pearl River Delta, has become vulnerable to industrial action - 2,000 migrant workers at sports shoemaker Pou Chen recently protested against wage cuts while 500 workers at lingerie maker Top Form International demanded better communication with bosses after a verbal dispute between a worker and a former manager.

But while higher wages is good news for workers, producers must meet higher labour costs, and Steelcase China operations director Ken Ng Kit-hang said one solution was to lift efficiency and productivity.

At Steelcase's Dongguan plant, he said, some 360 migrant workers are organised into teams of about 10 workers who work shoulder to shoulder - the so-called 'lean' production process more commonly used in the car-making industry.

Ng said small teams can minimise waiting and handling times and reduce wastage of raw materials during different segments of production.