Focus, Human Resources, and Manufacturing

Designing work spaces for the future

Herman Miller strives to bring workers back into the office building.

June 14, 2013
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Designing work spaces for the future
Empty offices and conference rooms don’t necessarily mean that work isn’t getting done. Much of that work is being accomplished in spaces where employees are more comfortable.  ©Thinkstock.com

If you have ever wandered down a desolate corridor of your office building and wondered, “Where is everyone?” — you are not alone.

Ryan Anderson, director of future technologies for Herman Miller, said more data is becoming available from sensor studies conducted at multiple companies, including Herman Miller, showing traditional office spaces are being used less and less.

In a blog post on the topic, published on wired.com, Anderson pointed out that results from Herman Miller’s own sensor studies show private offices are unoccupied 77 percent of the time, workstations are unoccupied 60 percent of the time, and conference rooms are often too big or too small for the groups that use them.

“As more organizations have given their people mobile technology and loosened up some of the cultural mores about having to be at a particular location, people have embraced those freedoms,” Anderson said. “They find themselves other places, and so we get this empty-workspaces syndrome …”

Anderson said the sensor studies could help in the creation of better workspaces by getting to the bottom of why people aren’t working in the spaces provided. He added that the prevalence of these studies shows businesses want to find out how to make spaces to accommodate their employees’ needs and wants.

“They want to understand where did everyone go, and the answers are often quite positive: They went to be with each other,” Anderson said. “They went to someplace where they can work with one another without anything inhibiting them spatially.”

Though the immediate inclination might be to get rid of unused space, Anderson said instead the question should be, ‘How do we make the space desirable?’

“The better answer is to evolve into something that is better than what people are finding,” he explained.

People and technology are the two key factors in that evolution.

“There are a couple of key things,” Anderson said. “It starts with people. You ultimately have a group of peers that you are in deep relationships with, and that is what constitutes the productivity of an organization. The company isn’t its facilities; the company is its people. So being together, learning to trust one another, understanding how to work more effectively is what, by and large, will draw people in. It has to be a people first, or people-centric space.”

Anderson said another factor of designing spaces employees will use is creating an emotional connection.

“It’s amazing to me to see how, in many instances, people will bypass spaces that are really beautifully provided to them to work, in favor of a space they really just connect with emotionally.”

Anderson says his own such space is on his sun porch where he can prop his feet up on one of his children’s abandoned toys and enjoy a view of his favorite tree in his backyard. Though ergonomically — working with his tablet resting on a pillow in his lap — the space is awful, it is still his first choice.

“We have to provide space that provides that degree of emotional connection,” he said. “That has to do with the objects in the space, materials, color, but there is something beyond that. What was really driving the creation of the space? Was it about taking a chunk of real estate, divvying it up into little blocks, allocating X percentage of space per person and then assigning someone? Or, was it creating a space that feels like ‘this is about creating a community and something that is living and evolving?’

“Our former design director George Nelson said 60 years ago that the office should be like a daytime living room. It is about that spirit of ‘you don’t bring a guest from your front door to your formal dining room, you bring them to your living room.’”

Anderson uses an analogy for how to think about the design of an appealing workspace.

“It’s similar to how we view buying a house. Kitchens have become so critical, and if we look at the adjacency of a den, a study, family room, backyard — what’s the hub where we are all going to connect? But then if I need to do something, is there enough range of spaces to support all those things? That is the approach we’ve taken here.

“When an organization begins to look at its facilities and say, ‘How will we live here? How will we grow as an organization here? Who will we become?’ then we’ve hit a major crossing point where the conversation changes from ‘this needs to be a safe investment where we mitigate risk’ to ‘this needs to be a really smart investment that ultimately is a competitive advantage for our folks.’”

Technology needs have altered substantially. Offices used to offer the technology workers needed to get their jobs done, but now consumer technology is altering the role of the office. For some people, a personal desk space is more like a locker — a place to drop off a jacket and a bag and maybe display some family photos, but not a place to produce work.

“We have experienced a monster flip in the way that we think about what it means to create a great technology experience,” Anderson said. “For years and years the thinking was you have to provide resident technology in the space people love or need enough that they will come to the space.

“It was not too long ago that you had to come to work because you had a desktop computer, or you might have had a laptop but then you had to come to work for a printer or a fax machine or a wireless network or a video conferencing set-up.

“We’ve undergone — and this is really what guides our entire strategy — a flip to believe that most of the technology, if not all of it, that people really need, they have with them — literally, on their person in some cases, but certainly within a backpack or purse.”

Understanding consumer technology is now even more integral to creating a desirable workspace. More organizations realize they must provide options for employees versus dictating the technology that will be accommodated in the workspaces.

“Sixty percent of organizations have made it a top priority to better accommodate consumer technologies,” Anderson noted. “The net of this is that when you have that amount of personal choice — I’ll use my tablet as an example — my reliance on this thing goes way up because I got to choose it for what I do. I know exactly how to tailor this thing over time to do what I need to do. My emotional connection is much higher.

“This trend toward people’s high degree of attachment and reliance on personal technology is only going to increase, and our belief is that the workplace should begin to acknowledge how important these things are and think much more effectively about how do we systematically eliminate your headaches using your technology in the space that you’ve come to.”

Anderson said the key is to create spaces that make employees feel welcomed and are easy for them to acclimate to using whatever devices they’ve brought.

“It’s anticipating and acknowledging that you are carrying with you tools that are of critical importance to your productivity, and we need to get out of your way in using those and enable those.”

By making spaces to accommodate the way employees work, Anderson said employees are more likely to choose those spaces.

“Hopefully we can create spaces where, when people say, ‘Well, we can meet at the coffee shop, or we can meet at a co-working facility, or we can meet at our vendor’s office, they say (instead), ‘Let’s go into the office because where else would we want to be?’”

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