Dancker helps companies build office of the future — and of today

From our print edition

By Tom Bergeron
Somerville | Dec 7, 2017 at 9:23 am
dancker
Steven Lang, the CEO of dancker.

Attached to the wall at the end of the mock conference room is the latest Microsoft business creation: an 84-inch Surface Hub.

Think of it as a laptop on the wall, complete with features you would expect (internet access, easy connectivity to a laptop or tablet), features you would hope for (advanced teleconference capabilities with state-of-the-art visuals and sound) and features that are just cool (a touch screen that can be doodled on as needed).

It’s a piece of technology any business or corporation in New Jersey would love to have — but it’s one whose value cannot be fully realized on its own.

So said Steven Lang, the CEO of dancker, as he gave a tour of the company’s new Experience Center in Somerville.

The center, which opened in October, is a working showroom that allows dancker to show clients how it can help them be more productive with a workplace built for today — and the future.

It starts, Lang said, with the marriage of furniture, architecture and technology.

“It’s inevitable, it’s not going away and, if companies don’t figure out how to deal with it, they are behind: How do you make sure that you’re integrating technology, architecture and furniture, because if you just have one or just have two, you’re missing an opportunity to connect people and to leverage your space to get better business results,” he said.

“That, to me, is probably the most critical thing that’s happened in our industry in the last 20 years: Thinking about the epicenter of architecture, furniture and technology. Because, for the first time, they’re actually all working in concert with each other.”

The mock board room is a perfect example.

The 84-inch Surface Hub anchors a room that has two tables — think of the traditional board room table cut in half.

More than that, the table fans in slightly on both ends (enabling everyone at the table to be visible to a viewer at a remote location, interacting with them through a teleconference).

And the table is not set at normal height. Instead, it’s much higher, at barstool level. This enables a presenter to walk around the room and not appear to be lording over the occupants. It puts them all at eye level, which encourages collaboration, Lang said.

Why is the table cut in half?

To encourage people to move about. Separating the table actually brings people together, Lang said. As does a space that makes sure there is enough room around the table to walk about.

“All of this is intentional,” he said. “We think about this stuff. This is more a team war room where work is done in different modalities than just an executive board room, where you’re sitting.

“If I stood up in a traditional board room and walked around the room, others might feel a little uncomfortable. But if it’s a bar height table, you’d be sitting at my level as I’m standing.

“Those simple little things, in a very human behavior kind of way, make a big difference. I think, in our industry, we’re starting to study what those differences mean in the manifestation of space.”

In other words, you need more than just the latest gadget.

“It’s really cool piece of technology,” Lang said. “But can we create the environment around which it actually gets used in a really effective way. And that’s about more than just the screen, but what’s the space surrounding it, does it have the right acoustical properties, does it have the right seating requirements, the right desking requirements?

“If you’re doing creative work, is the room set up in a way with the right products that it supports the creativity?”

***

The mock board room, and all the spaces dancker has assembled, address what Lang calls the fundamental question facing companies today:

What’s the purpose of an office, anyway?

“Fundamentally, that’s the big challenge we’re starting to see,” he said. “We spend a lot of time with the big corporations of New Jersey. We are effectively their corporate real estate or facilities arm. We help them create the space that supports the business they’re in, irrespective of what business they are in. And one of the biggest problems in regard to space is attraction and retention, and do I really have to go to work to work anymore?”

Work from home has become a common request. Lang gets it.

“I’ve got a laptop, I’ve got a cell phone,” he said. “I’ll call you from Starbucks. If I have a little camera on my screen, I’m good to go, just dial me in.

“That, fundamentally, is what big companies are dealing with. They are asking, ‘What is the office?’

“It used to be a place of efficiency, how many people can we fit in? Can we rack them and stack them in the Dilbert cubicle of the ’80s and ’90s and the early ’00s. Four to six years ago, when everyone was trying to figure out millennials and five generations in the workplace, everyone said, ‘Open plan.’ That doesn’t work, either.

“What works is a space planned for what you do, not who you are, and how you work, not where you work. And if you’re creating the right space, it’s a place to want to go to rather than have to go to. That’s what corporate real estate executives, corporate managers who are thinking about spaces are now thinking: ‘What do we actually do here?’ If we really figure out what we do here, now we can create a space that supports it.”

Lang calls it bring home to work.

“A huge trend we see is taking the corporate cafeteria and creating a work café,” he said. “How do we make it feel a little more Starbucks? How does it support the different modalities of work? I can have a sandwich and work at a standing high table, or grab a cup of coffee and go into a quick enclave or small space that we can connect in, yet I still have this soft seating that feels almost like my living room and I can sit down and have a real conversation.”

The office, Lang said, needs to be a place where workers want to be — because many aren’t there nearly as much as they used to be.

“This is what companies are going to,” he said. “Imagine if you followed the day in the life of a knowledge worker, they’d be checking email, they’d be in a meeting, they would run to see a client, they have a conference call. They’ll be working all over the place.

“So, the question is: Does the building do a great job of supporting how people work?

“And that’s really just one slice; the other is attraction and retention. Look at (clients) Withum and EisnerAmper — they care about attraction and retention, getting the best and brightest and being a strategic partner to their clients. And they are selling more than accounting services.

“Can they create an image and have the best space that not only attracts employs, but attracts clients that make them say, ‘They are leading edge?’ ”

***

The Experience Center at dancker includes numerous options at all price points.

Lang said that’s key when designing an office. No two are the same. And within each company are different needs.

“The right answer is that there is no right answer,” he said. “It’s a range of settings based on your corporate culture and what you do.

“If you’re an engineering firm and you need heads-down work because you are designing bridges, you don’t need big open space and a lot of noise and collaboration. But if you’re an ad agency that really needs to be up on the latest news, be really innovative and work in teams and groups, then you need a space that’s more dynamic and can support a group setting and group work. Within a big company, there are all those divisions.”

And, Lang said, companies need to be prepared to change on the fly.

Lang said dancker’s modular setup creates a flexible floor plan that’s needed.

“Here’s another huge trend,” he said. “The minute you build it, is the minute you’re going to change it. When you’re done with a project, typically there’s something wrong because from the time it started to when you finished it, the business changed a bit.

“If you don’t build with change in mind, you are making a mistake. The way you build with change in mind is thinking more modular construction that’s movable and malleable than metal stud, dry wall, stick build.”

In addition to being able to change on the fly, Lang said the modular process has the same first-cost price since time costs are more controlled and shorter.

“Before you go build traditionally and start knocking studs and doing dry wall and hiring tradesmen to do the work, stop for a second,” he said. “Take a timeout and ask yourself, ‘What if you need to change?’

“All of this stuff is modular. It literally can deconstruct and reconstruct in a matter of hours. That is a huge trend. Can you fill out space that is modular and malleable? It’s not like the modular construction home of the ’70s, it’s highly specifiable. Highly design sensitive. All these things can be incorporated. It’s really a build-better solution. You can dial it up or dial it down depending on your budget.”

In fact, modern technology has enabled dancker to streamline the cost process even more, Lang said.

Eighteen months ago, dancker introduced virtual reality to the process, allowing clients to see their space before it is built — and thus allowing them to make changes before the process starts.

“We’re teaching them how to use the space and we’re asking them, before we order it, does this work, do we want to move the wall, do we want to change this?” he said.

“When we’re specifying this modular construction, it’s changing the bill of materials on the fly. It will tell you how it changed the budget.”

Lang said this ability to change helps building owners.

“If you’re talking to the tenant, they care less, if you’re talking to the building owner, they care way more,” he said. “We want to get to the landlord and say, ‘Do it, but do it in a modular way because when that tenant is gone, you’ll have somebody you have to bring in there and it’s going to be so easy for you on the lifespan of this building to make those changes and modifications.’

“If you’ve got drab space that’s circa 1995, you’re not doing a good job of attracting and retaining millennials.”

Lang said dancker even helps with the change, storing a company’s inventory of furniture that’s not be used in its 300,000-square-foot warehouse.

“We help clients manage their existing assets,” he said. “We bring them back here, we clean them and refinish them or we just hold onto them when summer turns into winter and they need to get all of their outside stuff in, or when the project got delayed and they needed to move things into storage for six months.”

***

For as much passion as Lang displays about the industry and dancker, he’s very self-effacing.

“I picked none of the finishes, because I suck at that,” he joked as he toured the showroom.

As for dancker, he said, “We don’t invent anything.

“We are a reseller, a distributor, a service provider and a facility management real estate company that, on the front end, is a trusted adviser to our clients, and, on the back end, is a distributor, supplier or service provider for these world-class manufactures. We sit right in the middle. And we serve two masters.”

Don’t be fooled. Lang and dancker are industry leaders, too.

The company’s client list reads like a who’s who of the top businesses in the state: Public Service Enterprise Group, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Ferrero, Daiichi Sankyo and Atlantic Health, to name a few.

“Our core business is direct to big corporations in New Jersey,” Lang said. “If you looked at our Top 20 accounts, big pharma, banking, financial services, telecom — that’s our base business.

“But another 20-30 percent of our business are the developers and brokers and real estate managers who are saying, ‘I have to develop this building, or I have a major renovation and I’m gutting this place.’ That’s a big important part of our business.”

The company doesn’t scream about its success.

In fact, when it went through a rebranding earlier this year, changing its name from Dancker, Sellew & Douglas, or DS&D, to just dancker, the company opted to go with a lower-case ‘d.’

“We just wanted to be understated,” Lang said. “The name is the logo and the big ‘D’ was just too big, not what we wanted to represent.”

Lang, who was elevated to CEO in 2012, was one of 11 honored with the prestigious EY Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016, taking the B2B category.

The award is said to acknowledge entrepreneurs “whose ingenuity, spirit of innovation and discipline have propelled their companies’ success, invigorated their industries, and benefited their communities.”

Lang said it’s not about the honors, but the work.

It’s why he’s made this his mission. Not just for dancker, but for the economy.

“I’m passionate about helping people think differently and applying different thought to their space,” he said. “It’s what we do.

“If people are building more spaces like this, it’s a great thing for the state and a great thing for us.”

Conversation Starter

To learn about dancker email at: info@dancker.com or call (908) 231-1600.