Photo credit: Herman Miller

Work has changed. Most offices haven’t.

Live Grey’s Head of Culture and Strategy, Dara Blumenthal, PhD, sits down (and walks around) with Joseph White, Director of Workplace Strategy, Design, and Management at Herman Miller. They discuss everything from the corruption of the cubicle to what people need and want in their workplaces today.

Live Grey x Herman Miller: At the Design Yard

Hi, I’m Dara from Live Grey, and today we’re in Michigan at the Herman Miller Design Yard. We’re here today to talk about what the Living Office is doing for our workplace experience.

Dara Blumenthal: Thank you for inviting us here today to the Herman Miller Design Yard. I’m very excited to speak with you.

Joseph White: I’m glad to finally have you come take a visit.

Dara Blumenthal: So we were just talking about the Living Office, some of the framework of it, some parts of it. So I’m just gonna jump in with a question I had about it: There is implicit in what we talked about in the framework that, or in assumption, that people will continue to co-habitate in terms of work. So offices will continue to exist, and people will continue to come to and work in spaces together.

Joseph White: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true; it’s the reason why people coming to those places has changed over time, but those places will always exist and be very important. You know, previously, I think people came to workplaces to get access to specific tools that they could only have there. That’s no longer really the case, and things like community are becoming really important; that cohesion to a group of people that are aspiring to a larger purpose that you want to contribute to as well. That becomes one of the ultimate goals of the space, rather than going because you need to use that computer that’s only at that desk, which is no longer the case.

Dara Blumenthal: Uhm, thinking about that, I’m curious if there are other… Like if there were dials, are there other dials that are being turned up as you look into the future, and you think about what that workplace will be like, and others are being turned down? So using this metaphor, the way that we interact with technology is changing. In some way there’s a dial that’s moving up, in another way a technology dial that’s moving down, so that it’s no longer place-based in most cases.

Joseph White: I think that, in terms of dials, what we’re gonna see is that a level of awareness that is going to change, specifically for individuals in terms of the awareness that they have of themselves, not only in terms of who they are but also what they’re seeking to do: what is their ultimate objective, what do they want to get out of their investment in time or effort that they put in to something. Having an awareness of that and then an awareness of what they need in order to meet that objective, and then being able to find organizations that can help them in that purpose. So, it requires awareness for the individual as well as, awareness for the organization: how the organization can create that outward manifestation and people can find it and be attracted to it. And when you talk about new models of organizations and how they’re coming together, organizations have to be ready to embrace individuals who are getting that fulfillment from other places, but still contributing value to the organization’s objectives. And the truth is that there’s not one answer and people need to be prepared to address the different needs of different individuals. You’ve got certain people that are gonna be all about a company: they’re fully invested in what a company’s doing. It is their life to a large extent. And that’s fine for that person but that may not be fine for someone else and we shouldn’t expect everyone to function in the same way. There are other folks who are going to have other things that they can contribute. How do you make it possible for them to come into that organization and contribute what they have to offer in a way that’s comfortable to them, where they still feel that they have a sense of belonging with that organization. Be able to kind of get in or get out, if you will; they’re not fully resident in there all the time.

Dara Blumenthal: So one of the threads of conversation that we’ve been in is something that I enjoy and I find I’m really connected with, is this idea that technology should make us more human. And I think that as we are exploring that, socioculturally, that is a backdrop for the work that I do and for the work that you do too. And we starting to have more sophisticated inquiries and conversations about the human. And so we’re actually starting to understand how sociality is so important to being human and to the work that we do.

Joseph White: There are so many important points there and I think we have to be very very careful in language, and this is something that I trip up with myself all the time in that I don’t really think that there’s anything out there… I don’t personally like the phrase “being more human” because I’m already as human as I’m going to be. Nothing is going to make me more human than I am. But there is something to be said about creating conditions that are more natural for me to exist with as a human. So one of the other threads that come in to that is that people talk a lot about “work is gotten so much more casual today.” And I don’t think that is the word that we actually mean when we say that, because when you look at what the definition of “casual” is, it means done without care, without thought, off the cuff. And I don’t think that that’s what is meant that “work has become more casual.” I think what we really mean is that work has become more natural and it’s allowed us to communicate in a way that is more natural to us as people: communicating with our full bodies and a full range of emotion. Technology is a part of that, and also things like posture are part of that as well, so the reality of work is no longer “sit here and work.” Sitting is no longer the only serious posture of work: you can now stand and work, you can lean and work, you can perch, recline, relax, these are all valid, and part of the development of a product or an idea or a business objective.


Herman Miller created the work station, right?..

Dara Blumenthal: Yes, which is lovingly referred to as “the cubicle.” That’s how people know it. Lay people.

Joseph White: I don’t know how loving that term is…and it kind of became this terrible thing. It was never supposed to be this box that you put people in. In fact, when you look at some of the initial concept sketches, there’s this diagram that shows one wall and a person in front of the wall, and they’re like, “This is bad because the person feels exposed.” And then there are two walls and the person is kind of in the middle, and it says “ok, this is a little better, but it’s still not very good.” And then there’s three walls and it says “Ah, this is ideal” because the person has some refuge, they still have some degree of privacy where they can look out into the environment. And then there’s a diagram that shows all four sides and then there’s a big X through it, like you should never ever do this: you should never put people in a box. But that’s what it became.

So today we have spaces like this, which are pretty much standard work stations and in the older reality of work it was, “sit here and work.” But now, like we were saying earlier, sitting is not the only posture of work. People work in many different ways, and the reality is no longer one individual in one desk, but one individual and many work points. So there are lots of different places that you can work from, whether it be this area over here. There are three different interactions going on in this space at the same time. We have someone taking a phone call, two people meeting, we have three who are here on the side, and you can even see further back in the space. All of these different types of interactions that are happening in this environment! And notice: that station that we were just at, is empty.

Even going into environments like this, where we have these individual haven spaces where people can get access to privacy when they need it, as opposed to privacy being allocated based on seniority or status.

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah, I think privacy is really interesting. My partner has worked as an engineer for many years, and the open office became this thing, and he’s like “I always just want privacy! I just wanna be heads down and avoid the distraction.”

Joseph White: Well, and that’s an important point in that some people need privacy more than others based on who they are and what they do. So, those are really the two qualifications for creating that focused space for someone when it’s either in their character in terms of how they interact with people; are they easily distracted? Do they need that enclosure? Or, is their work sensitive? So, in either case that’s a valid claim. But it’s completely separate from seniority and status.