The post-pandemic office? Western Michigan is working on it.
The office is dispensable.
This was a take-away for many companies once remote working became possible. But flaws emerged as the experience dragged on beyond 12 months.
As companies struggle to define their ideal new work environments, many are turning to office furniture companies for suggestions. Three of the industry’s biggest players – Steelcase, Haworth, and Herman Miller – are headquartered in western Michigan.
âOur challenge has been an overwhelming demand,â said Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and ideas at Herman Miller in the Netherlands. “It’s like the whole world is trying to get help right now.”
This was not the case last spring. As the demand for home office furniture grew – which helped – most of the traditional office furniture business was on hold.
Temporary pandemic solutions weren’t big sellers either, said Paul Nemschoff, vice president of global strategy and marketing at Haworth in the Netherlands.
âThis past April and May, every organization – including ourselves – explored plans to put in place silos, reconfigure things, create barriers,â Nemschoff said. âOne of the interesting things – in retrospect, I’m not surprised – we’ve had very, very few clients who have actually chosen to change their work environment. Everyone just continued to work from home.
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Michigan ended its restriction on non-essential office work on May 24, although many workplaces are waiting longer to re-enlist. Steelcase, Haworth and Herman Miller sell office furniture to companies around the world.
While pandemic solutions have not sold well, companies are lining up to redesign their spaces for the post-COVID-19 world.
Sell ââthe âoffice experienceâ
It only takes a few days or weeks for humans to form new habits, Nemschoff said. Fifteen months of working from home was more than enough for most people to adjust.
But this has created a new dilemma: Companies want to get workers back, in the hope of increasing productivity. Some workers want to stay at home, however, said Christine Congdon, director of communications for Steelcase.
Employers could force workers back. But in this economy, with workers hard to find, it could convince talent to leave, Congdon said.
âIf they want people to come back to the office, they don’t have the option of doing nothing,â Congdon said. âPeople will vote with their feet. If they don’t feel like they’re in the office, they’ll try to either get home or work somewhere else where the employer is accommodating.
The solution – at least according to Steelcase, Haworth and Herman Miller – offers hybrid work environments, while reorganizing the office into a warmer and more desirable option for work and collaboration.
Sardine-style cabin wrap is still around in some companies, but most workers want flexibility and choice for where they do their jobs, Anderson said.
âThe whole, ‘being at your desk eight hours a day,’ was a function of the desktops,â Anderson said. âIt started a long time ago. “
Office furniture doesn’t come cheap. A workspace can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention a desk full of new toys to use. Where is the return on investment?
A good office convinces workers to stay and allows them to be more productive, Congdon said. And a few thousand dollars isn’t a lot, considering it costs around $ 10,000 per person per year for real estate for an average workspace, Anderson said.
âThe difference between a $ 2,000 job and a $ 3,000 job – in the grand scheme of things, if it affects your future interest, it’s justifiable,â Anderson said.
The well-being of employees should also be taken into consideration, he said.
Although we have forged closer ties with those with whom we have ‘strong ties’, over the past year we have lost many ‘weak’ relationships – such as this colleague from another department or the barista who prepares your coffee.
Weak ties mean more to our mental health than we thought, researchers say. Common areas are essential, Anderson said.
âThe spaces that we create, they have to strengthen that community, reestablish those weak bonds,â Anderson said. “I think 2021, early 2022 will be largely focused on organizations that reclaim this sense of shared purpose and belonging.”
“Me spaces” against “We spaces”
The biggest hit to remote working is the collaboration component – executives say it’s harder to innovate as a team through a computer screen.
As companies allow workers to alternate between the home office and the corporate office, shouldn’t the workplace be designed only as a space for collaboration?
No, Steelcase executives Haworth and Herman Miller said.
The commute from Congdon is only 17 minutes. Even though she’s turned her son’s old bedroom into a solid home office, she doesn’t want to be limited to home for one-on-one work. This makes even less sense for people with longer journeys.
âYou can’t go to the office and collaborate and then say, ‘Well, I’m going to commute for an hour or a half hour and go home,’â said Congdon.
Plus, the home office has too many distractions for some people.
âEven though in theory people can concentrate at home, a lot of people can’t,â Anderson said.
The workplace of the future has âme spacesâ for focused individual work and âus spacesâ for collaboration without distracting others, Congdon said. Haworth and Herman Miller have similar concepts – all from the traditional cabin.
âYou have to spend individual time absorbing ideas, thinking about them for yourself and coming up with your own point of view so that you don’t fall into group thinking,â Congdon said.
New âme spaceâ concepts at Steelcase include table or large-scale tents to provide people with an enclosed private space.
Haworth has a closed table setup that feels like the marriage of a dining room and a modern cabin.
Herman Miller presents his âFrameryâ collection, which looks like glass telephone booths. The cases are scattered throughout the workspace of the company’s Holland design yard.
âThese are really good for, ‘I’m in my team zone, but I need to take a call,â said Anderson. “Or ‘I just need to focus on this really important email.'”
Hybrid work adds a new challenge to âus spacesâ that the classic conference room isn’t set up for: having a meeting with half the employees in person and the other half at home.
Lines of sight are a challenge. Sound can be a disaster. And the advantage of better collaboration in the office is no longer acquired.
Haworth experimented with a Microsoft Teams-compatible conference room, “so that it’s not a collision of microphones and speakers from all the devices in the room,” Nemschoff said. The room acts as a participant in a video chat, microphones are set up throughout the room, and people can use a front-facing camera or their individual cameras on laptops for the visual room.
For the open plan office, Haworth’s answer is the âPergolaâ. The contemporary-looking space has become one of the most popular with employees at Holland’s head office. Partially enclosed spaces are set up so that a single camera can comfortably see all participants in person for hybrid meetings.
Steelcase works with a 360-degree camera that is placed in the middle of a workspace, so people can spread out and always be seen by everyone at home.
The future of offices will not rest on a magic chair or some stylish new fabric. This will be about “forging the bridges between the physical and the digital” if businesses want maximum productivity and satisfaction, Congdon said.
So let’s go back to the original hypothesis: are offices consumable? Maybe the bad ones, Anderson said.
âIt was almost like this silent office indictment,â Anderson said. âClearly, if you ask if they are necessary, you don’t have to have a very good experience of yours. “
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