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Work-from-home boom hits office furniture makers

By Reuters | August 20th 2020

America’s biggest office furniture manufacturers got the rug pulled out from under them by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For decades, producers like Herman Miller and Steelcase focused on selling through their own dealers to companies that bought ergonomic chairs and desks by the truckload and employed teams of designers and technicians to deliver and install them.

None of them was prepared for a flood of orders for a single adjustable desk from stay-at-home workers suddenly trying to figure out how to conduct Zoom meetings from spare bedrooms.

Early in the pandemic in late April, 52 per cent of employed Americans said they were always working from home to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus, while another 18 per cent reported sometimes working from home, according to a survey by Gallup.

A later survey found that half would like to continue doing this permanently - including 27 per cent who cited both a preference for remote work and fear of the coronavirus.

When Google told employees in May the company would reimburse up to $1,000 (Sh108,000) to outfit home offices, most of the options they found were inexpensive imports sold by big box stores or Amazon.

“A Tsunami hit this industry with this pandemic,” said Ron Wiener, chief executive of iMovR, a maker of adjustable desks in Seattle. “The big companies simply weren’t structured to serve people from home.”

Steelcase, the largest US office furniture maker, and Herman Miller, the second largest, both reported steep losses and double-digit sales declines in the three months ending in May.

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Investors have figured out how dire their situations have become, as some experts predict the virus will largely kill off large offices as more companies find they can operate with workers dispersed, saving on costly real estate.

Herman Miller and others say they have made strides in expanding their online options since the pandemic hit and have found other ways to sell to individuals.

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