Building the Idea Factory

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Technology won’t shape the office of the future. People will.

Imagine the office of the future.

What pops into your mind? Maybe it’s an artificial intelligence system that reminds you of your schedule as soon as you step foot in your workspace. Or virtual reality technology that allows you to be “in” the meeting room while working remotely. Or perhaps it’s something simple, like a coffee maker that always has a fresh cup waiting because it can sense when you’re on your way.

While the functions of the futuristic office you envision may differ, chances are that they revolve around technological advancements. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, and other technologies will undoubtedly play a central role.

But designing the office of the future isn’t really about technology. It’s about people.

The Era of Ideas

“If we’re going to talk about the office of the future, we have to start with people. It’s not about things. It’s about designing the response to social change.”

So said Brian Walker, the recently retired CEO of Herman Miller. He and several other panelists shared their wisdom at “Future of the Office,” the inaugural event in Southwest Michigan First’s “Future Of” series, in June 2018.

Walker feels that we are entering a new era in office design.

Offices in the era of industry were designed to facilitate process, he explained, resembling shop floors. Upon entering the era of information, the approach changed to designing around technology.

“As technology became dominant, offices were really about moving data and power around,” he said. “It was less about housing people and more about what technology they are going to use and how we get the technology to the people.”

Now the approach is the opposite.

“In today’s world, you have to flip that upside down and start with, ‘What do the people do? What are the connections they need to make?’ It’s less about starting with technology, because the technology is going
to be carried around.”

If the office of the future will not be designed and organized strictly to improve process
or integrate technologies, what is the goal?

“We’re organizing to get better ideas,” Walker stated. “Our job as companies is to be factories for ideas. How do we get ideas to move faster and faster through our organization? We’re in this world of disruption, so our number one objective as organizations is to get more ideas to prevent being disrupted by somebody else, or to in fact disrupt somebody else.”

Experiences Over Spaces

How does one design an office for the era of ideas? First, create spaces that draw in people who have great ideas.

“If you think back eight or ten years ago, we were trying to figure out how we were going to create jobs,” explained Walker. “Now we have exactly the opposite problem.”

A well-designed office plays a significant role in attracting and retaining employees, not to mention enabling them to be as productive as possible.

“The data is pretty conclusive that the next generation will move for employment based
as much on the things that you provide to them as for pay,” said Walker. “If they have
to choose between the two, they’re often going to choose community and the place they want to work over pay.”

To create an attractive office environment, Walker said, “You have to go from designing spaces to experiences. If you’re going to get your people to come [to your organization], you have to create experiences that are better than those at the other places where they could go work. Yes, space is important, but we have to think of it as an experience layer, or how you put things into the space.”

Transforming the Workspace

A critical part of the office experience is, of course, workspaces. Brian Walker and his fellow “Future of the Office” panelists shared their thoughts about how the office of the future will be organized to provide people with the spaces they need to generate and share ideas.

For one, offices will move from an assigned seat model to more shared work points.

“Data tells us that, across North America, about 60 percent of individual workstations are empty at any one time,” Walker shared. “We’re building lots of excess capacity.”

Herman Miller employees are able to work from home regularly, although the office is the workplace of choice for many. When in the office, Walker could be found in a group work area more often than not. “I’d sit right out in the open. Why? If I’m there 40 percent of my week, it would be a waste for me to have a private office.”

Adapting the office for the future could also mean moving toward an open floor plan.

Panelist Robb Smalldon, executive vice president of development at Landscape Forms, shared that his workplace has been doing just that.

“We are refreshing our office into a more refined open space,” he said. “For us, [cubicles] are very one-dimensional: this is my job, this is my desk, this is my space. Today, we are looking at spaces where we can collaborate.”

Even facilities that may traditionally be seen as incompatible with an open office plan have been adopting them. Mike Roeder, president and chief operating officer of Fabri-Kal Corporation, discussed the transformation of the company’s plant to an open plan.

“We used to have offices in our building. They are now out in the plant. It’s an open area for everybody. It’s no longer a supervisor going out to the line to see what’s going on.”

He explained that this new dynamic has had a positive effect on energy and interaction in the plant.

“How do you relay that good idea that you have? If you have an environment that’s got a lot of walls and hallways and offices, and you have to go up the hierarchy to [share] that good idea, then it doesn’t work. To me, it’s [about having a] whole culture and mentality of [creating] energy. We’re here to interact and to think of a better way of doing things.”

Walker mentioned that the resistance some may feel toward open workspaces could be due to poor implementation in the past.

“I think there was a time when [talking] about an open plan really meant, ‘We’re going to set up a room and throw benches in there.’ It wasn’t that the idea [of an open plan] was bad. It’s that we [went to] a spot of one size fits all. That’s when you should raise your red flag—the minute somebody tells you everybody should have the same thing.”

That is to say, the days of private workspaces are not over.

“It’s not about taking away space for individual work; it’s about building the right blend so that the office is not an individual thing but a collective set of systems,” stressed Walker. “Do you need private offices? Of course. Do you need conference rooms? Absolutely. Do you need group spaces? Yes.”

The allocation of spaces shouldn’t be determined based on hierarchy or status; it should depend on what an individual needs for the work that they do. “You have to optimize for the network. This is a little bit hard for the people who have grown up in organizations that optimize space based not on need but status.”

It takes listening to the needs of the individual, agreed Roeder. And perhaps some trial and error.

“We’ve gone through every case study of what not to do. We started off with ‘What size [space] should everybody get?’ Now we have a team of leaders talking to people and asking: ‘Whom do you interact with?’ ‘What do you need?’ ‘What does your space need?’”

For instance, Walker explained that Herman Miller’s chief legal counsel works from a private office for a considerable portion of the time.

“He’s almost always on the phone with somebody, working on a legal issue. He has a private office. It isn’t because of his status or mine. He would actually like to come and sit with the rest of us in the open space because he realizes that we’re moving faster. He’s trying to keep up with us because he’s not in the middle of the flow.”

Walker likens determining the mix of spaces needed in the office to designing a home.

“When it comes to office design, we often think it’s either/or. It’s either my space or your space, but it can’t be our space. If you think about your own home, can you imagine if you designed every room as individual rooms for each person? You wouldn’t think of it that way. You’d think of each room having a special purpose.”

By cutting down on the space needed for individual work areas, there are more opportunities to include the spaces that employees are asking for.

“If you asked your people, what would they tell you they don’t have?” Walker asked. “Enough spaces to meet.”

Just like open office plans, group meeting spaces can facilitate connections that need to be made and the conversations that need to be had to accelerate idea-making.

“It’s all about idea sharing,” emphasized panelist Meghan Boyer, manager of interior design at TowerPinkster. “It’s about creating those connections, bringing people together so they can talk and share ideas.”

Building Cultural Hubs

The office of the future will also be designed to encourage connections outside of workspaces.

“[We want to provide] an environment that has a tremendous amount of energy that promotes positive interactions,” said Roeder.

“Google recognizes that you have to get people excited by work and by the people they work with,” Walker added. “Increasingly, we’ve got to think about that holistic experience when you are deliberately trying to attract the best people.”

Employees are more likely to stay in their place of employment if they have formed connections.

“There was a big study done on churches years ago that said if you [attended] more than three times without making a friend, you’ll never stick with the church,” Walker shared. “Work is exactly the same. If you don’t have a shared experience, then you’re not going to stick.”

“The research is proving that it’s about forming those relationships and creating those opportunities for connection,” concurred Meghan Boyer. “[If] you have that trust and you have those relationships built, that’s what keeps you at work. It’s not necessarily the work you’re actually doing. It’s the people you’re working with.”

To encourage those necessary connections, the office of the future will include more intentional gathering places outside of work areas.

“You’re seeing progressive companies today not think about the office and break room, but they are thinking ‘How do we build cultural hubs within the space?’” Walker said. “If you came to our place, we have this giant coffee bar right in the middle of the Design Yard.”

It is a space that deliberately invites people to gather.

Walker described a moment at the coffee bar with a colleague who hadn’t visited the Design Yard, Herman Miller’s corporate headquarters, in a while:

“He said, ‘Where did we get all the young people? You guys must be hiring like crazy over here.’ The answer was no; we’ve just taken the covers off of people. Now people are in this central neighborhood, starting to gather together, and you can feel the energy rising in the place.”

Walker noted that seemingly insignificant circulation space—the pathways that people use to move through and around a space, such as hallways, stairways, and mezzanines—will also play a key role.

“We know that about 25 to 30 percent of space is circulation space,” he said. “We tend to think about that as dead space. But we can deliberately design those spaces as a way to get people to walk into each other and have conversations.”

By designing the office to foster connections and community, an organization can provide a space in which people want to linger. Walker shared that his objective while at Herman Miller was to encourage people to stay in the office after their meetings, which he said was especially important now that the internet allows people to work from virtually anywhere.

“If you’re one of our designers and I get you to stay longer in our building, I get more ideas out of you and more time with you bouncing ideas off our people than any of my competitors. If you’re a supplier, when you come to that building to work on a new product, we want you to stay because I can bet someone in our research and development process is going to see [you] and think of another idea.”

Herman Miller’s Design Yard was created with that objective in mind.

“We thought, ‘How do we make this feel like it’s the hub of the network?’ When people come here, we don’t want them to think they’re outsiders. We want them to think they’re invited guests in the middle of the network.”

Technology’s Role

While providing the spaces that each employee needs to create and connect is key in designing the office of the future, technology will still play a significant role, Walker assured.

“Technology ultimately does change the way offices and people work and how people orient themselves towards work.”

However, technology integration will be focused on supporting people.

“Increasingly, we’re going to see technology that is more ambient, in the background, learning from us and beginning to anticipate our needs,” Walker said.

He mentioned Herman Miller’s focus on furniture that is part of the “connected tool network.” Imagine a height-adjustable table that automatically rises or lowers based on your schedule.

“If I stand, it automatically rises with me,” he described. “If I turn my chair like I’m leaving, it knows I’m leaving and doesn’t rise. It reads my calendar as well, and it knows I have 15 minutes in between meetings and I’m going to come back and check my email real quickly, so it rises to greet me at a standing height.”

Connected devices could also provide clues about which spaces are underutilized.

“One of the advantages is that we’re going to get data. What’s being used? What’s not being used? How can it be better? We’re able to reduce space, by 20 to 25 percent, by thinking about it more deliberately. That means we could spend more money on the experience.”

Any technology has to be incorporated into its surroundings intelligently, Walker added.

“Companies hire architects to design [their] building. Then they hire a furniture company. Then they hire somebody to put in the technology.” If these aspects are not combined well, “you get a room that’s been designed as a box, and then people put technology and furniture into it.”

Walker emphasized that the groups have to be brought together to design spaces as integrated experiences.

Change is Inevitable

If you’re part of a progressive organization, perhaps you’ve already seen steps taken to transform your office in the ways that Brian Walker, Robb Smalldon, Mike Roeder, and Meghan Boyer described.

While there will be common threads, like those that the panelists shared, the office of the future doesn’t look the same for every business. Plus, it will constantly be evolving as society and technology advance and change how people work.

“I’m sure we’re going to see more disruption,” said Walker. “There are going to be more societal changes coming. I think we’re in a great spot, where productivity is going to move at a fast pace in the next 10 years. I think we’re almost on the cusp of another change as we start to see things like artificial intelligence.”

That doesn’t mean that offices will need to be updated only when society or technology leaps forward. They should be changing incrementally along the way.

“Generally, when we redesign spaces, we get done and think it’s over,” Walker said. “We wait 10 years to come back and touch it again, no matter how productive it is in the intervening years. It just sits there, rather than us asking ourselves, ‘Is our work changing?’ You can spend less on physical assets, but you have
to be more active with changing and making sure it’s being used.”

For offices in the era of ideas, the only constant is change. But one thing will stay the same: a focus on people.

“If you can think about your company being a factory for ideas and a magnet for the best people who have ideas, and that’s your overarching goal, that’s where competitive advantage will come from,” said Walker. “It won’t be from technology. Technology will be your secret sauce [for] getting the best people together.”

As long as people come first in the design process, the idea factory will be more likely to send plenty of ideas down the production line.

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