Herman Miller: How To Make A Brick And Mortar Office Maleable [Future Of Work]

PSFK chats with Ryan Anderson Director of Future Technology at the office furniture company about what the ideal office of the future will look like.

The Future Of Work

As part of our Future of WorkPSFK labs reached out to experts to get their take on the changes we’ve identified that are currently going on in the workplace. We recently caught up with Ryan Anderson, Director of Future Technologies at office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, who discussed how new methods of working are altering the way we furnish our work spaces.

How has the proliferation of mobile computing and the reality that people can now work from anywhere changed the way people are using office spaces? 

Well, it’s interesting because one of the traditional differences in barriers between what constituted residential design, corporate design, hospitality, or even higher education design, are beginning to disappear. What we’re seeing, I think particularly on the corporate side, is that because people have a lot more choice than they did a decade ago about where they might work, that desirability is a really key factor. I straddle the line between the technology world and the furniture world. In the technology world, we talked about the consumerization of IT, the way that consumer technology infiltrated the workplace. In a sense, there’s a consumerization of the workplace going on, meaning that people come in to work, and they require it to be a desirable place to be socially. They want to be able to connect with other people in a meaningful way. When we start doing interviews and observations of people about their favorite places to work, what usually registers is that people will gravitate towards places that have a high degree of emotional comfort, or a high degree of visual inspiration. People want to work on their back porch. They want to work overlooking a lake. They want to go places where they love to be. There is tremendous opportunity to make the office something much less sedated and much less focused on order, and much more organic, interesting, and desirable. Because the office is now in competition with all those other places, it’s going to have to evolve in that way.

We’re seeing this drive for an active workplace – treadmill desks, etc – and an overall curiosity around being more active during work time. What have you noticed around that?

Well, we see it. I think there is a change of taking people that are fixed in real process‑focused work, and allowing them to do those processes in another posture. What we see is there’s a real desire for movement, and to have a degree of fluidity throughout the workplace. It’s very similar to how you might view a home. When you’re shopping for a home, you think well, I’m not going to spend all my time in the bedroom. The bedroom is just where I sleep. I want to assess each zone in a residence knowing that I have a fluid set of behaviors. I’m going to go into a kitchen. I’m going to be social. I’m going to get a little bit of quiet time in the den. I’m going to go have some fun in the rec room. The workplace now has to support this fluidity, this range of movement, and it’s causing everyone to rethink the old one‑size‑fits‑all assumption that you do most of your work in one place. I think the movement is good for people. It’s good from a human factor standpoint. It’s good cognitively. And it certainly is good socially. And probably that, more than anything else, I think is behind a lot of the motivations that people use in the office, which is, the workplace is becoming more social.

How is the need for workers to be social influencing the design and physicality of the workplace?

It’s probably too simple of a bifurcation, but if you think of work being sometimes more focused, and sometimes more social, both are required. These days, most people’s work, not everyone’s, but most people’s work is divided into projects, whether that project is creating an advertising campaign, or designing a new product. Projects usually have a flow to them, where you get together as a large group, and you define your objective and your process. The actually generative part where you get stuff done is remarkably fluid, and a lot of it is done in an unscheduled way. If you were to look at a typical cubicle, if you look at the way they’re applied, the way they’re actually kind of designed for a specific customer, and you ask yourself, “What are you supposed to do there? What’s the cubicle good for? Is it good for focused work?” Well, not really, because they’ve gotten really open. “Is it good for social work?” Well, not really, because they’ve gotten so small. A lot of the times, the answer really is, “Well, we assumed you’d do everything there,” and that assumption has to go away. What we see happening is that we can create a more balanced workplace, but these open areas, if they’re going to be used for social activities, should be made more social. They should be made more interactive, more comfortable, and then you can take other zones of the facility and really dedicate them to more focused use. It harkens back to something that our design director, George Nelson, said 60 years ago. He suggested that the workplace should be viewed as your daytime living room. And it never really achieved that, because fixed technologies, among other things, kind of assumed that you were just static. But not today.

How do you see emerging technologies changing how Herman Miller designs for offices in the future?

It’s really about identifying the emergent behavioral patterns. Furniture designers can’t get caught up in that minutia. For a lot of them, technology is complex enough, so we don’t want to make it more complex. What our team does is look to see if there are any trends happening technologically that we really believe are creating behavioral change? Tablets and slates, for an example, they want to be held close to you, usually under shoulder height. You’ve got to get them close enough to touch. Most of them are used quite actively for video, which usually causes people to want to push them away and push them up. Neither of those positions are great for long‑term use ergonomically. Other examples would be we see the rise of touch interface with Windows 8, tablets, and circuit plate and large, multi‑touch displays really happening mainstream. It’s fascinating to watch what happens when you get a couple of people standing in front of a large, interactive display, because it challenges all of the old assumptions of the conference room that you should stick a big, large display at the end of a long skinny table. That’s not the way people want to work in an era of multi‑touch. In fact, you almost want to open the room way up and get that conference table out of the way. Much like in a room built for whiteboarding‑‑you don’t want a big table in the middle of it. If we cannot focus on a software platform or a device, but instead we go, “Gee. What kind of patterns of behavior are going to be exhibited in the office today?” Then we can question all the old assumptions about how we plan a space and how we design the furniture, and create better designs as a result.

Are there any other realms that you see changing and augmenting the interior design world?

One of the things that we’ve been talking a lot about is we’re quietly seeing almost the design of the social web beginning to influence the way that we view space. This gets kind of up there a little bit, but if you think about both a social site, like Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter, being a construct to enable interaction, the workplace is essentially a physical construct to enable interaction, but the way that the interface is changed on a social site, it could change every few weeks or every month, and it’s driven by actual behaviors. We can see how people clicked, and so you can redesign the interface of a particular site and try to create a better user experience. That has not always been the case in the workplace. There has been kind of a “build it and leave it” mentality, where you take your best guess and you hope that you know how people would like to interact, and then you build out a space and you leave it for 15 years, until your lease is up, and then you try it again. People are beginning to realize that actual use patterns should be helping to inform the evolution of a given space or the workplace in general. And some of the principles that I think are pretty well understood in web design are now creeping into interior design in new ways, and I think it’s really exciting. I think that it’s great, because it’s meant to continue to try to foster and support the interactions that people organically have. That’s just not been the case in the workplace for a real long time.

Thanks, Ryan!

If you’re looking for more trends, innovative ideas or themes changing the Future of Work, check out our full report for sale here or join us for our Social Media Week discussion with leading experts and industry innovators on Feb 20th. More information here

For more exclusive PSFK Labs’ ideas, watch the summary presentation and see everything that you’ve missed so far here.  Feel free to join the conversation and share your ideas about the future of work with the #FoW hashtag on Twitter.

PSFK Future of Work report

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