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Getting Up Off the Floor

For those in the office furniture and design sector, the past 18 months have been a long and extremely challenging stretch. Looking ahead, while the pandemic has eased to some extent, new challenges and question marks loom. The questions concern everything from how many people will return to the office to whether they will have their own space if and when they return. And the challenges involve everything from long wait times for ordered products to the specter of skyrocketing prices and the impact they will have on business.

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors makes it difficult to project what will come next for this industry.

Mark Proshan says the e-mail found its way into his inbox earlier that morning. It was short and to the point, but it clearly articulated one of the many challenges still facing those in the office furniture and design business.

“‘I’m in the process of closing my office and moving employees to fully remote work,’” wrote the business owner and client that Proshan, president of the West Springfield-based Lexington Group, opted not to name. “‘I have a lot of office furniture I’m looking to sell.”

As he commented on what he was reading, Proshan started with that last bit of news. He said there are a number of business owners and managers looking to unload unneeded office furniture these days. They should know first that there is already a glut, and, second, that the price they have in the back of their mind is not likely to be the price they’re going to get for what they’re looking to sell. “With the massive amounts of furniture now on the market, selling furniture isn’t something that’s going to realize an amazing return on the investment.”

But that’s just a small part of the story now unfolding, said Proshan, noting that, while this particular business owner knows just what he’s doing with his office, many do not.

Indeed, a full 18 months after the term ‘COVID’ entered the lexicon, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what will happen at many offices, colleges, hospitals, and other kinds of businesses moving forward. Proshan has his theories, and we’ll get to some of them later, but he and others believe there will certainly be some downsizing, some hybrid work schedules for many employees, and more of the outright closures and conversion to remote working described in that e-mail.

But at the same time, some businesses and institutions that are waking up (for lack of a better phrase) from COVID are ready to advance plans for new furniture and accommodations.

And they are running into strong headwinds in the form of supply shortages, long wait times for desired items, and, almost certainly, higher prices in a nod to the laws of supply and demand — and the skyrocketing cost of shipping items from abroad.

“We can’t get the products out of where we need to get them from,” said Fran Arnold, owner of Holyoke-based Conklin Office Furniture, which, in addition to selling new and used furniture, manufactures its own lines of products overseas and remanufactures used furniture here. “Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold, new challenges include supply-chain issues, soaring shipping costs, and long wait times for ordered products.

“On the import side, we’re running with massive delays in shipping and huge increases in the cost of shipping,” he went on, with some noticeable exasperation in his voice. “Our shipping costs have gone from $3,500 to $5,000 per container all the way to $23,500 per container. That’s a massive increase for freight; it’s now costing us more money to get the stuff here than to manufacture it over there.”

Proshan agreed.

“Because most of the manufacturers have employee shortages and raw-goods shortages, everyone’s lead times have been drastically pushed out,” he noted. “You try to stock up on what you think might make the most sense for when the floodgates open, but you just don’t know, and it’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

Overall, while the worst of the storm might be past for those in this sector — that’s might — there is still considerable cloudiness and general uncertainty about the forecast, and challenges ranging from those inventory issues to simply finding people to drive delivery trucks, to a huge merger in the industry between manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll, which only leads to more question marks.

Indeed, what happens next is anyone’s guess, as BusinessWest learned as it talked with Proshan and Arnold about has transpired and what is likely on the horizon.

 

Measures on the Table

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest in his huge showroom, Proshan noted that he’s selling a number of items to be used by people working at home, especially chairs — “they want good seating, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it” — and sit/stand desks, because they’re smaller and also because many people want the option of sitting or standing.

Meanwhile, he said he’s also been selling more large conference-room tables — those for 12 to 20 people — than would be considered normal.

When asked why, he gave a quick and definitive “I don’t know, exactly, but we are,” before joking that companies might need bigger tables for all those meetings that will decide what they’re going to do next.

Overall, this interest in large conference-room tables and the possible reasons behind it comprise just one of the many unknowns for this industry. What is known is that the past 18 months have been an extremely difficult time, and the challenges are far from over.

They may just be different challenges.

“Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.”

Looking back, Arnold said Conklin, like all businesses in this sector, saw business evaporate early on during the pandemic as businesses shut down and then hunkered down, with buying new or used office furniture, or redesigning their space, the last thing on their minds.

“We were flying just before COVID, and then we just hit a wall,” he explained, adding that, through a number of efficiency and austerity measures — including a four-day work week for all employees — the company managed to slash expenses to an extent that it was nearly as profitable in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Elaborating, he said that, in hindsight, the timing could not have been better for the company to consolidate operations and move into new facilities on Appleton Street in Holyoke in late 2019.

“We’re able to do more with fewer people,” he explained. “We’re much better organized, and we’re not so spread out. We’re much more efficient.”

Now, as it emerges from those very difficult times, there are new and different challenges to face, including supply-chain issues and a lack of inventory, just as some larger corporations are in a “panic mode,” a phrase he used a few times, to move on from the pandemic themselves.

“These corporations are working our sales teams to the limit,” he explained. “They want numbers, they want to know when things can be delivered … and a lot of the news we have to give them is not good; prices are going up, and deliveries are being postponed.”

Overall, Arnold said, inflation and the skyrocketing cost of shipping product are just starting to impact prices within the industry.

“We’ve just had our first price increase on our imported products; we just couldn’t hold it where it was any longer,” he explained, adding that, as the cost of shipping continues to escalate, more price hikes are likely. “It’s been quite an experience, and I don’t know how it will all play out; it’s a perfect storm that’s developing, and where it will go, I don’t know.”

 

Looking ahead and projecting what might come next, Proshan said this assignment is difficult because many companies are still very much trying to decide what they’re going to do.

“At the moment, business leaders are trying to figure out what their employees want, and employees are trying to figure out what their employers are going to be expecting,” he explained. “With all of that taking place, not a whole lot has happened yet. People have been talking about business getting back up to speed in the spring, and then the fall, which is not here yet, and then, the first of the year. We still have those mileage markers out there in front of us, so there’s a whole lot more that’s unknown than known.”

Proshan theorizes that many companies will create more space for each employee in efforts to create safer environments, and that, in all likelihood, there will be fewer people working in the office and more in remote settings.

“Every time you have a space that was occupied by three people, that had three work environments, they might cut that back to two to create a bigger gap between people,” he explained. “So now you have a work environment that’s going to be for sale or is going to become surplus; that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

“And I think that when it gets sorted out as to who’s going back and who’s not, and how often they’re going back,” he went on, “I think a lot of personal space is going to disappear. If you work at home, you’re going to have your own workspace; when you go to the office, you may or may not have your own workspace. It may be a space that’s occupied by someone else on the days you’re not there.”

 

Bottom Line

Proshan, who does a good bit of sailing when he’s not working, made a number of comparisons between what’s happening in his industry and what transpires on the water.

Specifically, he talked about wind.

“You can’t see wind,” he told BusinessWest. “What people experience as wind is what they see as the result of wind and its impact on objects. When you see wind blowing through the trees, you don’t see the wind, you see the result of the wind. When you’re on a boat and there’s no wind, if you look at the water and see it start to ripple, you know that wind is approaching you, and it can either knock you over or make you go faster, or help you determine which direction to go in.

“It’s almost as if we’re sailing,” he said of the current conditions in his business, “and not able to see the wind in the trees.”

That was Proshan’s way of saying that an industry that has been blown about for the past 18 months, and not in a good way, is still very much in the dark about what will happen next.

The mission, he said, is to be as prepared as possible, even with all those unknowns.

“If you don’t pay attention to the possibilities,” he said in conclusion, “you’re going to be too late.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Shot in the Arm

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll off production lines, many questions remain — about how quickly they’ll reach the general public, about long-term efficacy and safety, about how many Americans will actually want one.

But on one issue, there is no doubt, Dr. Andrew Artenstein said.

“This is a spectacular achievement just to get where we’ve gotten so far, and I think we should appreciate that,” the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health told BusinessWest. “It’s been a whirlwind, and I mean that in a good way.”

Everyone in healthcare understands the upside — the dramatic promise — of a vaccine as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 10th month.

“A vaccine is a major component of getting on the other side of this,” Artenstein added. “It’s not the only component, but it’s an important and necessary piece of shortening the duration of this pandemic and possibly preventing future waves.”

With Pfizer gaining emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to begin distributing its vaccine — and Moderna expected to do the same — the Baker-Polito administration announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of vaccine shipments to Massachusetts, expected to begin around Dec. 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across eight counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for frontline medical workers. Another 40,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled-nursing facilities and assisted-living residences in Massachusetts.

In all, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 doses of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna to be delivered by the end of December. Both vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart. While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, state leaders expect to receive and distribute more than 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the public should not let down their guard when it comes to masking and social distancing while they wait for the vaccine.

“It does make perfect sense,” Artenstein said of the prioritization plans, which reflect judgments on the federal level and ensure delivery to groups like healthcare workers, first responders, the elderly, and people with co-morbidities before the rest of the public. In the case of seniors, for example, “it’s not that they’re more likely to get the virus, necessarily, but they’re more likely to die if they get infected. They do worse.”

Meanwhile, he added, healthcare workers have a greater risk of coronavirus exposure than most other people.

“We’ve been inundated — inundated — with calls from other groups that they want the vaccine,” he said, placing heavy emphasis on that word. “But the truth is, it isn’t available for the general population now, and it may be several months before it is.”

Artenstein, an infectious-disease expert who founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, has been one of the public faces locally of the fight against COVID-19, and he was careful to temper optimism about a vaccine with a reality check on the timeline — and what people need to do in the meantime.

“A vaccine may eventually be the answer, but it’s only going to be part of the solution for the next six to 12 months, assuming we continue to get vaccines that are safe and effective. It’s going to take a while — even if all goes well — before we get enough immunity in the population to really put an end to this thing.

“In the meantime,” he went on, “we would benefit greatly by continuing to push the classic ways to interrupt transmission: masks, distancing, avoiding gatherings. All those things will continue to help us because, even after we start vaccinating parts of the population, it will take the better part of the year to roll it out to everyone, and we need to continue to interrupt transmission.”

Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, agreed, even though it can be a challenge getting through to people suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue,’ who feel isolated and weary of all the changes in their lives over the past year.

“I’m sorry people are tired,” she said. “But the basic messaging isn’t hard — wear a mask, wash your hands, and don’t be inside spaces with a mask off with people you don’t know. I do think the holidays have created a tremendous sense of urgency to remind people again, especially with students leaving schools and coming back to their homes.”

Hopefully, health leaders say, vaccines will put a definitive end to the crisis. But that day is still far off, Collins added. “People need to wait it out.”

 

Making a List, Checking It Twice

In announcing the Commonwealth’s vaccine-distribution plans, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that Massachusetts goes further than national recommendations by prioritizing all workers in the healthcare environment, not only providers, but also food-service, maintenance, and other facility workers. Similarly, home health workers, including personal-care attendants, are prioritized on the list, recognizing their important role providing services to vulnerable individuals and the fact that they often reside in communities highly affected by COVID-19.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins

“Messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical. Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Phase one of vaccine distribution — which, as noted, includes healthcare-facility workers; police, fire, and ambulance workers; congregate-care settings, including not only senior-living facilities, but shelters and jails; and home-based healthcare workers — is expected to last into February. Phase two, expected to run from February to April, will prioritize individuals with co-morbidities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications; all adults over age 65; as well as workers in the fields of early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health.

Phase three, expected to follow in April or May, will see the vaccine more widely available to the general public.

Baker’s announcement noted that vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves the vaccine, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

All this is necessary for emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Artenstein said, but the testing process is far from over, and long-term effects won’t be known until, well, the long term.

The emergency-use ruling “is not licensure, but allows the immediate use of the vaccine pending more information that leads to licensure down the road — because we’re in a pandemic,” he noted, adding that he’s optimistic about further testing, as trials so far have shown about 95% effectiveness across all age groups, with no serious adverse effects.

“The data I’ve seen is pretty impressive for efficacy and safety of the vaccine. And there were around 40,000 people in the trial, so that’s a good sample,” he said — enough to start delivering some immunity to high-risk populations now.

The question, especially as distribution widens in the spring, is how many Americans will actually take the vaccine. Collins said the Public Health Institute has conducted preliminary outreach and found some skepticism and mistrust of the government when it comes to vaccine advice, especially in communities of color.

“In order to counteract that, we have been trying to find and lift up messengers in the community who are trusted people, whether faith-based leaders or other trusted messengers, to counteract skepticism and fear about getting vaccines, whether the flu vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine,” Collins told BusinessWest, adding that the institute held a virtual town-hall event two days before Thanksgiving and asked 10 such messengers to share their wisdom on prevention measures.

Artenstein breaks down vaccine attitudes into three distinct groups of people — two of which are those champing at the bit for a vaccine, and a small but robust community of anti-vaxxers who express skepticism at vaccines in general.

“Then there’s a whole middle group who could be convinced to get the vaccine, but they’re concerned about safety and effectiveness,” he explained. “It’s a risk-benefit calculation, and based on what I know about vaccines, the risk seems low, and the risk of COVID seems pretty high, especially right now, with such high rates in the community.

Hampden County, in fact, currently ranks third among Massachusetts counties for transmission rate, with more than 50 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Typically, around 70% of people in a community — or a nation — need to be exposed, either through natural infection or a vaccine, to reach the desired herd immunity, he added. “In the U.S., that’s a big number. But the risk-benefit calculation is obvious. You’d like, over time, to have enough people willing to get the vaccine to help the general population.”

 

Anticipation and Reality

While surveys currently suggest about 60% of Americans are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, that number could rise higher if early results from the priority groups demonstrate both effectiveness and safety.

“The U.K. is going first, and then U.S. healthcare workers have to go — which is obviously the right thing to do — then people over 65,” Collins noted. “It’s not like the general public is being made guinea pigs. We will actually be able to see a lot of people getting the vaccine, and the companies will see the reactions.

“So, messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Artenstein agreed, adding that, for the group of Americans ready to line up right now, the wait may be longer than they realize, but that’s OK.

“We’re a little over our skis on this,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, but it’s going to come out as more of a slow roll; there’s a manufacturing process, an approval process, and a safety process. There won’t be 300 million doses available tomorrow, and that’s hard for some folks.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest, questions, and anxiety, and rightly so,” he added. “We’re living in a very different time, and people want to move very fast. But we have to make sure we do things in the safest possible way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Alex Zlatin

A company’s intention in a job interview is to find the person who best fits a particular position. But quite often, the candidate who is hired fails, and usually their exit is related to attitude issues that weren’t revealed in the interview.

That raises the question: are interviewers asking the wrong questions — and consequently hiring the wrong people? Some traditional styles of interviewing are outdated, thus wasting time and resources while letting better candidates slip away.

It still astounds me to meet HR professionals who lack the basic skills of interviewing. In 2019, ‘tell me about yourself’ is still a way to start an interview, and that’s absurd. The only thing you get is people who describe the outline of their résumé, which you already know.

Here are some interview approaches to help HR leaders, recruiters, and executives find the right candidate:

• Make it a two-way conversation. Traditional interviewing focuses too much on the candidate’s skills and experience rather than on their motivation, problem-solving ability, and willingness to collaborate. Rather than making most of the interview a rigid, constant question-and-answer format that can be limiting to both sides, have a two-way conversation and invite them to ask plenty of questions.

• Flip their résumé upside down. Surprise them by going outside the box and asking them something about themselves that isn’t on their résumé or in their cover letter. See how creatively they think and whether they stay calm. You want to see how a candidate thinks on their feet — a trait all companies value.

• Ask open-ended questions. Can this candidate make a difference in your company? Answering that question should be a big aim of the interview. Ask questions that allude to how they made a difference in certain situations at their past company. Then present a hypothetical situation and ask how they would respond.

• Don’t ask cliched questions. Some traditional interview questions only lead to candidates telling interviewers what the candidate thinks the company wants to hear. Interviewers should stop asking pointless questions like, ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ or ‘why do you want to work for this company?’ Candidates rehearse these answers, and many of them are similar, so that doesn’t allow them to stand apart.

• Learn from the candidate’s questions. The questions candidates ask can indicate how deeply they’ve studied the company and how interested they really are. A good candidate uses questions to learn about the role, the company, and the boss to assess whether it’s the right job for them.

• Don’t take copious notes. The tendency by interviewers to write down the candidate’s answers and other observations is a huge obstacle to building a solid two-way conversation because it removes the crucial element of eye contact.

 

Alex Zlatin is CEO of dental practice-management company Maxim Software Systems.

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