Episode 1: Open Office: Love It or Leave It? (Transcript)

Note: What Workers Want is produced to be heard. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio of this episode because it contains emphasis and tone that may not come across in print. This transcript is produced by both people and computer automation and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting this content anywhere else. 

This episode features: Journalist Rob Kirkbride, retired industry consultant Dave Lathrop and O+A design studio co-founder Verda Alexander.


Rob Kirkbride: The number of people who are just dissatisfied with their office. I mean there’s a certain percentage that even if you gave them a gold plated throne, they’re not going to be happy in their office. I mean, it’s called work for a reason, right? We’re not here to give you a La-Z-Boy.

Dave Lathrop: Perfect.

Host Katie Pace: Welcome to What Workers Want. The new 360 real time, a Steelcase 360 podcast about how the places we work, learn, and heal are changing to help people thrive and ideas flourish at work. I’m your host Katie Pace. I’m here today with Rebecca Charbauski.

Co-host Rebecca Charbauski: Thank you.

Katie: She is our 360 realtime producer and this is the first episode in our five part series, the Open Office Truth.

Rebecca: That sounds kind of ominous, but I’m really excited we’re doing this because we started to talk about the open office and how it’s such a conversation out there. And we really thought we needed more than just one episode to talk about the open office. So this is the beginning, and if people want to get all five episodes, they can go to Open Office Truth page. We wanted to put everything in one place. So the question is is Rob right? Rob Kirkbride, who you heard at the top of the show, which is pretty funny. Are we after a Holy Grail here? I mean, is it impossible to make everybody happy in the workplace?

Katie:  What we know is that 70% of people work in some form of an open plan. And when we asked on Instagram on our channels, 74% of people say they do. So we know that organizations want to attract and keep the best people and that the workplace is a major factor in doing it. But there are such strong opinions about the open plan.

Rebecca: So to get to the truth of it all, we embarked on this five part series and we’re going to talk about the open plan history today. We’re going to hear about the privacy science. So the neuroscience behind what people need for privacy, including new research nobody’s heard before about the open plan and what actually can help. And then designing social spaces. A lot of these informal spaces, shared spaces sit empty and people are spending a lot of money to create these places for people to work, but they’re not working. So what’s going on there? And then collaboration, which is a big driver in creating the open plan. So how do you make that work? And we want to remind everybody right now to subscribe so you don’t miss any of it. And tell your friends if they work in an open office or if they have an opinion about the open office, they’re going to want to hear this series.

Katie:  That’s right. So we’re going to expose the good, the bad, the ugly, all in these next five episodes. And privacy is really important. It’s a super emotional topic, how we work and how we find time to focus at work. But collaboration is important and serendipity is important. So we’re going to explore how we get the balance right. But before we dig in, let’s just hear from some workers, some regular people on what they think about their open office plans.

Anonymous Office Worker:  So I would describe my environment as a glorified call center, where in the past I’ve had walls all the way to the ceiling. I’ve had partitions. Now I have no walls whatsoever. It’s a carved out cubby in my mind. I come in actually early every morning, so I have some quiet time. I can be working and as people are coming in, as I’m working on something, I may have two or three people in the area starting to talk loud about what they did over the weekend while I’m trying to focus in on a project, I’m listening to what’s happened over the weekend. So it’s very hard for me.

Anonymous Office Worker: Yeah, I think the best part about an open plan is just the freedom to sit anywhere you want. So it gives you that freedom to not be restricted to one spot on that whole day. I do like the idea of an open plan. It’s cool because it gives you that freedom, it sparks creativity, allows you to work well with other people.

Katie:  So a little good, a little bad.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Katie: And we heard the same when we asked on Instagram. By the way, if you don’t follow us on Instagram, you should follow us on Instagram.

Rebecca: Totally.

Katie: We asked our followers, how do you focus in the open plan? And some of the answers we got were, “I wear headphones, I minimize my visual distractions. I get up and leave to get water.”

Rebecca:  I like that one.

Katie: “I just get up and leave.”

Rebecca:  “I just go.”

Katie: Actually a lot of people said they thrive on the open plan or that because it was so open, people were actually quieter because they were more sensitive to the people around them. So it was a real mix and it wasn’t super negative or overwhelming. And this is kind of surprising given some of the headlines that we’ve seen.

Rebecca:   They are rough, these headlines. So here’s a few. Here’s one from Vice. “Open offices should be banned immediately.” “Open office plans are as bad as you thought.” That’s from the Washington Post. And this is my personal favorite. “Open offices were designed by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell.” That’s the Guardian. I mean they make it seem like fire and brimstone and just one or the other, right? Like it’s yes or no.

Katie:  So dramatic.

Rebecca:     So dramatic.

Katie:  Designed by Satan. Yikes. Sheesh.

Rebecca:    Right.

Katie:  But it’s not as simple as a headline. And there are studies that show that the open plan increases collaboration, reduces loneliness, decreases the amount people sit. And these environments allow people to be more flexible.

Rebecca:  So I was recently in Boston visiting PTC, which is a high tech company that just moved to this beautiful tower overlooking the sea port and they moved into an open plan. And I was there talking to John Civello who was their vice president of real estate at the time. And here’s what he had to say about their move, which is very different than what you read about the open plans’ bad reputation.

John Civello: When we first talked to people about that, the sky was falling. And really the open plan and no office is really a … it’s got a bad reputation as you know. And we’re fighting against the fact that some people haven’t done it I don’t think in the most thoughtful way. But having a hundred open seats in two [inaudible 00:05:52] rooms, that doesn’t work, right? So we really tried to be purposely conservative and put a bunch of interior spaces that people could use when they needed them. And I don’t get any complaints about people having problems finding a private space to have a conversation when they need to. So that really validates the strategy.

I know from my own experience, I can always find a room to go into and have a conversation if I need to in private. But I also love the fact that I’m out in the open and I’m engaging my employees and my colleagues all throughout the day.

So I think people that have done it the wrong way have really hurt all of us because if it’s done correctly, like I think we did it, really you get the best of both worlds I think.

Rebecca:     John says people have done it wrong, but that you can do it right. So that’s what we’re here to figure out. So how do we do that? How do we do it correctly?


Katie:   Right. So let’s start with a conversation I had with two people who have combined close to 60 years of knowledge about the workplace. Today we’re going to get started by trying to understand how we got here. So we invited Rob Kirkbride, editor in chief of Bellow Press.

Rob:    How are you doing, Katie?

Katie:   Thanks for joining us. And he’s been writing about the office furniture industry for more than two decades. And Dave Lathrup who retired last year from Steelcase after more than 35 years with a career in research strategy and consulting and lots of other things.

Dave:    Hi Katie.

Katie:  Hi. I just want to dive right in to this conversation and ask you guys starting with the basics. How did it get so crazy where we see these really provocative, crazy headlines?

Dave:  Yeah, I think as an industry we tend to kind of whipsaw from one extreme to the other. We’re trying to follow the trends. We’re trying to do the best jobs as possible and sometimes we get too overzealous in the application of some of the ideas that we have.

Rob:  You know, it’s a classic in human psychology that unmet needs result in anger. And when you see those kinds of headlines, those are people expressing an unmet need and we need to listen.

Katie:   So I’m wondering if we can back up a little bit. One of the pictures I have in my mind and we can post to the website for our listeners is that image of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters. I guess that’s an image from 1939 and there are no partitions, right? It was divided with white columns, filing cabinets designed by one of the most famous architects in the world and the metal office furniture company, which of course later became Steelcase. We were one of the few companies that could produce this futuristic design. And so I’m wondering what was going on then that created this futuristic design?

Dave:   Well, I think one thing that Rob said is really right. I mean the idea of openness as Wright expressed that at the Johnson Wax headquarters was very much the way office work was always thought of at that time. The boss needed to keep an eye on what was going on. Usually from above in the case of the Johnson Wax building. And the changes though that were starting to happen and the Wright building for Johnson Wax and a number of other iconic buildings in that era were starting to think … the work itself was evolving and it was no longer purely clerical work to be done essentially by lowly paid employees. Increasingly the work was becoming more complicated and more demanding, more like engineering and less like clerical work. And this was very much the open phase of the World War II economy for example.

Rob:  And at the same time you’ve got this emerging consumer economy in the late 1930s where before that you had small towns or even larger towns that were served by companies in that area. In the late thirties you’re seeing corporations arise, places like Johnson. And at that time in 1930 the first supermarket opened, and by 1939 there were 5,000 supermarkets. So this idea that consumerism had changed as well as the workplace, which gave rise to these companies, which gave rise to the office.

Dave:    In many ways society was simply evolving.

Katie:   And more so they were going to an office. And then by 1959 Peter Drucker coined the term the knowledge worker. So now there’s this move from efficiency to effectiveness. And I’m wondering if you guys can talk about, sort of moving on in history, fast forwarding a little bit in the fifties and sixties, what was happening in our culture at that point?

Rob:  I think at that time work was really evolving. You know, people were starting to think about the idea of a workplace that works for them. And I think that maybe that period was the first time people really thought about that.

Dave:  Yeah, well up until that point, remember we had a supervisory culture in most organizations. We hired you to fill a slot in the machine. We expected to see you at your work doing that work. And that resulted in not only a cultural way of thinking about work and space, but it reinforced the idea that work was sort of a thing you did to survive. And what Rob’s beginning to hint at is that work was becoming something that was in and of itself much more fulfilling. It became something more than a way to simply provide for a family. It became a way to establish your own worth and to express the value of your ideas far beyond what organizations had thought in the past.

Katie:   Yeah. In the 60s we had the first cubicle and then by 1973 you had Steelcase executing the largest cubicle project in the world filling the Sears Tower.

Rob:   I think the industry gets a bad rap for the cubicle. I really do.

Dave:   Why is that?

Rob: Because it was never designed to do what designers tried to make it do. And I don’t want to place all the blame on interior design, but I think they have a share of this too. Because if you look at some of the early cubicle designs, they were never meant to be lined up in rows. They were never meant to be a way to shove a bunch of people into a space. In many ways, if you look at some of the brochures from then, it could be a workspace today.

Dave:  Very much so. It became more and more and more of an issue of managing the complexity of a building that was now filled with a disproportionate number of people or the bulk of the workforce, which was very expensive to change. So we had this aging building stock that had had systems furniture thrown into it as we threw technology, originally electrical and later electronic and later wireless and on and on. But we threw all these new things at these buildings and hoped somehow they could cope. And we mixed that with the status and hierarchy orientation to the way space was assigned. And you ended up with something which was fundamentally untenable. So the cube was more a result of that, I think, than it was really the cause of it.

Katie:    Yeah. You know, the eighties you have this cubicle land, productivity, productivity, productivity, and then a bunch of things happened, right? So technology, we started to think more about humans, but really it was this rise of wifi and laptops and all of a sudden I could work anywhere and oh, by the way, collaboration needed to happen. So I needed to have these serendipitous interactions. In between the 90s and early 2000s all of a sudden you start taking down all the cubicles and opening everything up.

Dave:   Yeah, in some ways that was done I think with the intention of reflecting a new kind of corporate culture that was starting to emerge in the beginnings of it in that same time. So the baby boomers who grew up in the 60s were now running companies and starting to make some of these decisions and they had a distinctly less formal attitude about work and organizational design. And we ended up starting to open things up and make it vaguely more usable for people to find places that were about who they were that was more expressive. So instead of it just being, you pick the kind of rug you want in your office, CEO of past, it was increasingly you can use the places that are provided to you in any way you want because this technology now enables, as you said Katie, people to do what they need to do, where they want to do it. And I think this evolution in the direction of taking down partitions is probably a good idea, but we have to recognize also that it’s not the only thing people need when they’re working.

Rob:    Yeah. I think the move from cubicle to open space was allowed because of technology. If technology wouldn’t have changed, the workplace wouldn’t have changed. Because we had to have cubicles to deliver power to people to have giant CPUs sitting on their desk. I mean really the whole design of the office was around the technology of the day, which had to be in a certain place. Since the last 10 years or so all that’s changed.

Katie:     And it was the type of work too. Right? The type of work you needed to do was very desk based. I went to my desk, I did my job, I went to lunch, did more work. I went home.

Dave:    Yeah. The machine defined work as it had during the Industrial Age and increasingly it doesn’t at all. The machine is simply a tool in the hands of the artists and how we get to that next design of organization, which will be reflected in the next designs of spaces too, is the process we’re in right now.

Katie:    So then all the walls come down and we’d say we’re going to have serendipitous interactions when we walk to the bathroom and we’re going to have instant collaboration and there’s going to be no private offices anymore because we’re all going to be out in the open. What could possibly go wrong?

Dave:   Well, I’ll just take a quick shot. I think the biggest thing that went wrong is we began to assume that that was the new way and everybody was going to work that way and that is fundamentally wrong as was putting everybody in cubes or putting everybody in office boxes down a long gray hallway. None of these things are right. What’s right is what that individual is, needs, does, wants. That’s what we need to be thinking about.

Rob:   Yeah. And in the two early 2000s, for the first time, you started seeing companies wanting to emulate other companies and how they work, which is really interesting. I mean if you look at Google or Facebook, at that time everybody was saying “we want an office like Google, we want an office.” And that doesn’t work for everybody. If you’re a law firm, you’re not going to have a a slide in the middle of your office. I mean that doesn’t fit culturally. So I think people were starting to try to stick round pegs into square holes that didn’t fit.

Dave:    That’s really right. That’s so right Rob. I mean, you really need to engage those people in a fashion that allows the system to be designed, not the cubicle system, but the system of place and technology to be designed where they can have meaningful choice

Rob:    And that’s a lot harder to do. Then you’ve really got to come up with a design or products that not only serve people but make them want to come into the office because they have choices. That’s really fascinating to me. The choice, the idea of choice in where people work. You don’t only have to create a nice place to work like you used to, Steelcase or any other company. You’ve got to create the best place to work. I mean the absolute best or people will go to Starbucks or home or somewhere else.

Katie:      Or they’ll leave your company altogether.

Dave:   That is right. Exactly right. I couldn’t agree more Rob.

Katie:    For organizations today that are considering an open office or they’ve knocked down all their walls, how do you talk to people about the open office today?

Dave:   So I think the key is to be less deterministic about what they need, quote unquote, and more open to a dialogue about who they are and what they want to do as they become these high performing humans that we hope they will be. So my answer to “is there a future in the open office” is of course there’s a future in the open office. It’s part of the scenario. It’s part of the landscape. It’s not the answer.

Rob:    Yeah. I think the easy answer would be to say choice. You give people choice in where they should work. That’s the obvious answer. I think we also need to create products that help them to do that, to make good choices in the office. The industry does a good job in addressing some of these things. Not so good in other ways, but obviously the open office is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s just the way that the design is applied, and if it’s applied well, people are happy with the place that they work.

Katie:     Well Dave and Rob, this has been a really fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for joining me.

Rob:       Thank you.

Dave:    Thanks Katie.

Rebecca:    Those guys are great.

Katie:     And you can really understand after listening to them that the workplace was always designed as a way for the type of work that was being done.


Rebecca:    And when you think about where the workplace is going next, we wanted to talk to somebody about the future. So we got in touch with Verda Alexander, she’s co founder of O Plus A, a design studio based in San Francisco. And you know what else is based in San Francisco? All those really progressive Silicon Valley companies, a lot of which are being copied.

Katie:   We called her because not only has her firm designed some of the most iconic offices in Silicon Valley, but she also wrote this article for Fast Company where the headline was, “I’ve been designing offices for decades. Here’s what I got wrong.” Let’s listen in. Hi Verda, welcome to What Workers Want.

Verda Alexander:    Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Katie:   So you guys were really early on in the open office trend. When did you start seeing those come into vogue? Would you say it was in the early 90s?

Verda:   So the nineties there was a growing awareness that the work environment was important and it contributed to a company’s bottom line. And I think that that’s when people really started to look at the office more through this microscope. If workers were happy and excited to come to work and felt more creative, they could do more and create more and contribute more to the bottom line and the company would profit and retain their employees and things like that.

And then there was other things too. I think there was this idea of democratization of the office and that’s also a concept that’s been around for a long time. Huge in the Silicon Valley, this idea of flatter everybody contributing and this meant bringing down sight lines, being down the cubicle wall so that employees at every level in a company could look around and see each other. And tech firms just really embraced this way of working. Everybody being accessible and every single employee being important. And I think it’s no coincidence that people like Mark Zuckerberg embrace this and want to sit out in the open.

And then I think the third thing is technology and not being tethered to your desk. There’s an allure and a freedom to this idea and how could we not want to be able to work not just at our desk but anywhere.

Katie:   So in your article, you use the words “when it all went crazy” or “the moment it got crazy.” And I think it’s really interesting because if you look at some of the headlines or some of the images of the office spaces that are being designed today, you might think that’s a little nuts. What was it that’s wrong and that got so crazy?

Verda:   So we’re talking decades now. Going into the 2000s and then this decade that we’re in where things just started to get more outlandish and it felt like it was starting to become a contest of who had the coolest amenity, who had the slide or the wildest thing that might give them an edge up actually on recruitment. This is when I think needs and wants started to blur. What an employee really needed to get their work done versus what they wanted or what maybe someone assumed they might want. In this last decade, I think we’ve seen a lot of critique of tech firms not doing the right thing, of turning their back on communities, of being ostentatious and things like that and just not tuned into reality. And so this is when I really started to question what we were doing and how that contributed and why. And just not feeling that same satisfaction that I thought when I was starting out and breaking down those cubicle walls. So was it really the right thing for us to provide for every possible need or want in the office.

Katie:  At the same time, we know that the workplaces of the past are not the way to bring people back together. Right? I mean, I’m sure you’re not proposing to put up the cubicle walls and put everybody back in a private office again. So talk a little bit about what that does look like. Is this still an open office or what does it look like?

Verda:   Yeah, I feel like there’s been a lot of critique on open office for good reason and I think that designers taking a step back and really understanding what the implication is of their designs is a great thing. I think what I’m proposing at this stage is more of maybe philosophically, it’s this idea of reducing what’s unnecessary and getting back to a focus on work. So I see a refinement of different types of spaces to work in that can accommodate all different types of people. And that’s I think where the open office has gotten its biggest critique is it just doesn’t accommodate the introverts or people that need extra privacy. And so I think the office will be landing somewhere in between. We’ll be going back a little, but we’ll of course not lose the progress that we’ve made in so many areas. Definitely open office is not going away.

Katie:    Thank you so much for joining us Verda.

Verda:  Thank you.


Rebecca:  So we got to hear from Dave and Rob about how the workplaces over the decades have changed based on the kinds of work people need to get done. But then it feels like with Verda that things kind of tipped to where organizations were almost trying to give people everything under the sun that they could possibly want so maybe they’d never leave work.

Katie:  Yeah, I mean think about some of the images you see online or pictures in magazines or articles, workplaces featured. Like there’s ball pits and there’s beer on tap and there’s ping pong tables and there’s a slide.

Rebecca:   I can get behind the beer on tap.

Katie:   Yeah maybe. But think about it. If we slide down a slide, are we going to make a better podcast?

Rebecca:   Probably not. Probably not.

Katie:     I know. Probably not.

Rebecca:   And I think what we’re seeing now is this desire for purpose in people at work and what makes them feel purposeful is to be able to meaningfully contribute to work. And so you’re seeing this shift to giving people what they need. And our next two episodes of the Open Office Truth are going to be about privacy, which is something people need. And there’s actual neuroscience behind the privacy that people need. And we’re going to get to hear new research that hasn’t been out there before, tests done on people in the open office and what kinds of things can actually help them have a better day at work.

Katie:     Well we’re looking forward to that. And so I want to thank everyone who joined us for this episode. Dave Lathrup, Rob Kirkbride, Verda Alexander, and thanks to you Rebecca.

Rebecca:   Happy to do it.

Katie:    And remember to subscribe to What Workers Want and share the series with a friend. If you’re interested in more about the Open Office Truth, including the next episode and more resources, visit steelcase.com/openofficetruth. Thanks for listening.

Return to Open Office Truth Podcast Series page.

Episode 2: There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Open Plan (Transcript)

Note: What Workers Want is produced to be heard. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio of this episode because it contains emphasis and tone that may not come across in print. This transcript is produced by both people and computer automation and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting this content anywhere else. 
This episode features: WorkSpace Futures researchers Donna Flynn, Melanie Redman, Caroline Kelly and Steelcase EMEA workplace consultant Hania Arafat


Host Katie Pace:   I want to start by having you read the very beginning of your research paper.

Caroline Kelly:  Sure. Here goes. Is the open office plan dead? Death to the open office floor plan. Google got it wrong. The open office trend is destroying the workplace. And lastly, here’s the final nail in the coffin of open plan offices.

Katie:  Oh my gosh. Sounds pretty bad. Quite dramatic.

Caroline:  It starts with a question, then there’s a call to action and a proclamation at the end that, open plan is dead, should be dead. We should put it six feet under. And in my opinion, I don’t think that the case is closed.

Katie:   Welcome back to What Workers Want, the new 360 realtime, a Steelcase 360 podcast about how the places we work, learn, and heal are changing to help people thrive and ideas flourish at work. I am your host Katie Pace here today with our producer Rebecca Charbauski.

Co-host Rebecca Charbauski:    Glad to be back.

Katie:    Rebecca’s helping me with our most ambitious podcast yet, a five part series on the open office. This is episode two, Open Office Truth. All open office plans are not created equal.

Rebecca:     So true. Okay, so if anybody missed the first episode, don’t worry, you can start with us right now, but if you want all five episodes, we’ve put them all in one place in a really easy to use guide at Open Office Truth page.

Katie: Today we’re going to hear about new research on the open plan and while there are lots of studies about the open plan in general, is it good, is it bad, this study actually looks at how do people focus in the open plan, what sort of furniture and other design elements do they need, and then also how are they creative in the open plan?

Rebecca:    Spoiler alert, Katie, you’re put to the test.

Katie:   I am. I was nervous.

Rebecca:    We won’t tell everybody how you did. Before we get to that, we do want to take time to understand the neuroscience behind privacy. Open offices weren’t created with bad intentions. The goals were good. Collaboration, trust, communication and creativity, all things that organizations want, but what are people craving and what’s missing? Should we all go back to our cubicles and shut the doors?

Katie: I don’t think that’s the answer.

Rebecca:   No?


Katie:   No. But 360 magazine Editor, Chris Congdon sat down with Steelcase Vice President of Workspace Futures, Donna Flynn, and she talked about how our brains work and what it actually is when we say the word privacy.

Chris Congdon:    So, Donna, we think about this privacy crisis going on in the workplace, how is that impacting employees?

Donna Flynn:  Well, I think when employees can’t find the spaces they need, when they need them, to do the kind of work they need to do, and sometimes that needs to be private spaces, that that can increase their stress. They’ll feel distracted. Their level of engagement and productivity is going to go down.

A lot of people believe that if someone’s working alone, that they’re not being collaborative, but we believe that being alone is a critical element of collaboration. And so instead of privacy hurting collaboration, we think privacy can support collaboration. It gives people the time they need to do some deep thinking, it gives people time they need to do some creative work, or just time to focus on producing something they need to produce. It’s also important for people to have time to rest and rejuvenate their mind and body as they’re moving across a day.

Chris Congdon:   So then why don’t we just go back to giving everybody private offices?

Donna:    We don’t think privacy is about having four walls and a door. We think it’s really about control. And there’s two key dimensions to privacy that we think about. There’s information control, controlling information about yourself and how that’s shared with the world, and there’s stimulation control, which is controlling incoming stimulations.

It’s the combination of these two types of control that is really important to give employees. It’s not about going back to private offices, it’s really about providing those choices for employees to have in front of them.

Katie:   I love how Donna talks about privacy being about control, and not just four walls and a door.


Rebecca:   Exactly. I love to work in our work cafe. I’m always out there because I love the buzz. I guess it’s a little bit private even though it’s not really private. We wanted to learn more about privacy. We talked to Melanie Redman, she’s a Senior Design Researcher with Workspace Futures and she works with Donna.

Katie:    Melanie talked to Chris about how privacy is very dependent on the situation you’re in. She shared with us examples of five strategies people use to achieve privacy.

Melanie Redman:   An example would be why somebody would go to a cafe. They do this because they want the energy, the vibe, of the people around them, but they also want to be somewhat invisible. We call this strategic anonymity, because they’re choosing to go somewhere where they’re not known and so they can control the social stimulations, or interruptions, as we would call them.

Chris Congdon:   Are there times where people need to experience privacy when they need to be with another person?

Melanie:  That’s a great question. There are. Anytime somebody wants to engage with another person to share information that they expect to be held confidential, they’re seeking a trusted confidence. You could also think of this as social privacy. That’s why people need to find a private room when they’re having a performance review with their manager, or if they’re having an intimate chat with a friend at work about something that happened at home, they don’t want everybody else overhearing that.

Chris:   That’s a good point. One of the ways we hear people talk about privacy today has to do with privacy of their information, what people know about them. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Melanie:   Yes. We refer to that as selective exposure, because it’s about the choices we make. We think of information in a very broad sense in this case. Information is obviously personal data, but it’s also behaviors. We reveal a lot about ourselves by how act, how we speak, what we wear, what we eat. And one of the complaints about open plan has been that people feel they’re too exposed. What that means is, they’ve lost control over the ability to make that choice about what is shared.

Chris:  Sometimes I feel like I want to shield myself from other people when I’m trying to get that control. That’s a strategy that you saw as well.

Melanie:    Definitely is. It’s about safety. Safety of your information, safety of your belongings, safety of your thoughts. This plays into the dangers of group think when it comes to collaboration. You want to be able to have your own opinions without being interfered with by other people.

Chris:   Did you see people needing to just have time to be alone?

Melanie:   Absolutely. We call this purposeful solitude. We differentiate between solitude and isolation. Isolation is a state of mind. Solitude is a choice where you’re not looking to disconnect from the group, but you’re looking to separate yourself physically from the group. It can be for rejuvenation, it could be for focused work, it can be for any number of reasons.


Katie:   So Rebecca, as the title of this episode suggests, not all open office plans are created equal. We wanted to understand how privacy might be considered around the globe, and how it might be different in each country.

Rebecca:    Exactly. I reached out to Hania Arafat, she spent six years as a Steelcase Design and Workplace Consultant in Europe and the Middle East. She’s based in London, and I asked her what she seen when it comes to how privacy varies by culture.

Hania Arafat:     Well, I’ve seen a lot of cultural implications of a country or region manifested into their designs and layouts of the office. But if you take a country where hierarchy’s important, such as Russia, China, or even Saudi Arabia, the higher you are up in the corporate ladder, the more privacy you’re receiving as an individual.

Therefore, you have less need for alternative areas to seek privacy in the workplace, which is why they might have a little bit less of them.

But on the other hand, if you have a more network oriented culture, such as the UK or the US, leaders are encouraged to share their spaces and evidently compared to others, they have less privacy, but they have more options to work from.

Rebecca:   Hania, do you have any real world comparisons you can share with us?

Hania:   Well, last year we were working on a project with an IT company from Saudi Arabia. They visited our Learning and Innovation center in Munich, and we’re absolutely amazed by how an IT team could be part of this shared network.

They asked for a similar experience for their own space and before beginning to design their future work environment, we wanted to better understand how they currently work, how they currently seek privacy, where they seek it, and how they would prefer to seek it in the future.

We designed a series of settings for them to cater to their direct needs. When it came time to install, the Head of Security for this IT company was a little bit concerned, because Saudi Arabia has a culture of monitoring the work environment, so it’s very common to have cameras within the common areas, but also within the entire office. This meant that he had to place more cameras distributed around the floor plan in order to see inside of all these smaller private enclaves that we had offered.

When you compare this to a country such as Germany, where it’s actually not socially accepted to have securities in the work environment, he was quite surprised to hear that, because they’re based on a culture of trust that they don’t include cameras within their space.

So when we think about privacy around the world, I think it’s important to consider not only the culture and the country’s culture that you are incorporating the elements of privacy into your designs, but also the corporate culture of that organization, then an individual’s preference.

Since you could never solve for all, I think the key is really to design a diverse workplace that is catering to multiple needs.


Rebecca:   There’s all these different kinds of privacy and that’s a really good baseline, Katie, as we jump into your conversation with Caroline and that test we’ve been waiting for.

Katie:   Caroline works with Melanie and Donna. She leads a team here at Steelcase and in Workspace Futures Department, and she’s publishing brand new research with the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin on how design elements can impact focus and collaboration in the open plan. Caroline, welcome to What Workers Want.

Caroline Kelly:   Well, thank you. I’m very glad to be here.

Katie:  I want to start by having you read the very beginning of your research paper.

Caroline:    Sure. Here it goes. Is the open office plan dead? Death to the open office floor plan. Google got it wrong. The open office trend is destroying the workplace. And lastly, here’s the final nail in the coffin of open plan offices.

Katie:     Oh my gosh. It sounds pretty bad. Quite dramatic.

Caroline:     It starts with a question, then there’s a call to action, and a proclamation at the end that, open plan is dead, should be dead, we should put it six feet under. In my opinion, I don’t think that the case is closed.

We’ve done some research around this because we thought it was such an important topic. 60 to 70% of offices in North America have open plan as part of their design strategy.

Katie:  It’s the thing.

Caroline:    It’s the thing.

Katie:    Well you go on to share more studies done on the open office and as we’ve been talking about on this podcast, some people say it helps, some people say it stresses them out, some people say it’s like being trapped in a coffin. It’s very dramatic. But very few of these studies actually shed light on what kinds of things are helping people in the open plan. Tell us what it is that you set out to study.

Caroline:     Sure. Yeah. When we look at the literature, there are lots of claims as to its benefits and like you said, helping collaboration, or there’s evidence that it can help with cultural transformation and removing hierarchy, let’s say, in an organization.

But as we read through all these studies, some of which were very negative as well, saying it increased sick days and there was a high level of distraction, and people just generally hate it, it doesn’t say anything really about the way these spaces are designed. It’s dealing with the open plan and as this abstract monolithic idea of-

Katie:  Everything is open.

Caroline:   Yeah. A big giant room with a bunch of desks in a row, and we just know that that’s not the case. So we said, well, let’s pick this apart a little bit and let’s think about the different design strategies people use in the open plan and the different types of furniture settings that are typical there and see if there’s any difference in terms of the types of work activities people do in each of these settings, and if one helps more than another.

We were interested in particular in a setting, it’s actually a product called Brody, and we think of it as an individual work environment where it’s a seat that’s in a semi reclined lounge position. It’s got an integrated work surface, power, and it’s most importantly, I think, has a shield around it. So you have privacy on maybe two thirds of the space around you. And the nice thing about this is it’s small. It’s a piece of furniture. It can be easily moved. It’s not making the commitment to having walls being built or dividing up the space, which is the point of the open plan, to have that flexibility.

So we said, hey, how do people work at the bench? How do people work in these individual work environments? And are there particular tasks that we do as part of our everyday work that are better at one than the other?

Katie:    How’d you do that? Did you go to everybody’s work spaces or did you set up a model workstation? How did you do this?

Caroline:    This was not an observational study. This was an experiment. We randomized and controlled how we dealt with the variables. Imagine we took a large work area here at Steelcase that was not being occupied by other office workers, we did need a laboratory environment, and we outfitted it with a few Brodys, a bench application, some other individual desks, and then we recruited participants to come in and do experimental tasks that are used in neuroscience and psychology to measure different types of cognitive function.

I didn’t just make this up myself, unfortunately. I had partnership with the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, and was advised by Dr. Elena Patsenko on the study design.

As we talked about what we know from our more of our qualitative research that people really, we know, are craving focus and they want lack of distractions around them, she suggested a particular study task that’s called the SART. That’s it’s abbreviation. It’s the Sustained Attention Response Task. It’s an exercise that people do that help us determine whether or not they’re paying attention.

We had people do this both at Brody and at the bench, because we wanted to see within the same person if there’s any difference. What this task does is asks you to be at a computer and a series of single digits will flash upon a screen one at a time for just a few seconds, zero through nine. Every time the number three shows up, you do nothing but every other number, zero, one, two, four, five, et cetera, you press the space bar,

This is a go or no go task. It’s seeing if you can withhold a response, which requires a lot of focus, because when you start to not pay attention, you get in this automatic mode and you’re just going tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap on the space bar. And so by measuring how many errors they make when they press the space bar for number three, when they shouldn’t have, and how long it takes them to actually press the space bar, we can tell whether or not they’re paying attention.

Katie:   That sounds hard.

Caroline:    It is. Well, someone else figured this out. This is a well validated instrument that it gets used in many, many different scenarios where this cognitive function is in question. What’s interesting about this is, slower is better.

Katie:   Really?

Caroline:  Yeah. What we saw was at the bench, people were getting into that automatic mode. They were just going tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, and they had faster response times. Whereas at Brody, people were able to make fewer errors and have a longer response time.

Katie:   They were being more thoughtful about it.

Caroline:   Being more thoughtful about it, having more focus, and really paying attention.

Katie:    What does that teach you? What are your results? What do we take from that?

Caroline:  Sure. Well, I think it’s a few things. I think we know that when there’s a lot of activity around you, you’re expending a lot of cognitive resources to manage all of that. If you’re trying to focus on your work and there are people walking past you and then maybe there’s noise, maybe there’s motion, other things, other stimuli, that’s going to make your brain tired.

Katie:      It’s really tiring.

Caroline:    We also know that when you’re out in your workplace, there are social norms that we are all trying to live up to at work. You might be self-monitoring saying like, how is my posture? Am I making a weird face while I work? All of these things that are more about your appearance, if you will, as you’re performing your work.

We surmise that these different issues are what are taxing people more cognitively and making it harder for them to focus. But it’s not all bad news for the bench. What’s really interesting is that there are occasions where actually having a little bit less ability to sustain your attention is good. There’s research that shows that it’s good for more divergent thinking, for more creativity.

So, we did another task, which is a remote associates task and we’re actually, I’m going to do a little game with you. It’s fun, I think.

Katie:     I’m a little scared.

Caroline:     I’m also a nerd. Is you’re going to be presented with three words and you have to figure out what the fourth word is that completes that triplet. That makes sense. Okay?

Katie:   Okay.

Caroline:     We’ll start with cottage, blue, and Swiss.

Katie:    Cheese?

Caroline:    Cheese. Yes. Right. Cottage cheese, blue cheese, Swiss cheese. It’s examples like that. There’s a set of these triplets that have been used in studies before and it helps determine whether people are able to have this creative problem solving. We also did the remote associates task in both settings, again, the same people do the same tasks in both applications. And we found that at the bench actually people did better with the remote associates.

Katie:    Really?

Caroline:     Yes. They got more correct. There is a time limit. You get 10 seconds per triplet. Either you get it right, or you get it wrong, or you just run out of time and you move on. I think that that’s also an interesting-

Katie:   What does that tell us?

Caroline: I think it tells us a little bit that being together, having stimuli around us can be inspirational. It can help you-

Katie:    I’m connecting these dots.

Caroline:    Connecting. Yeah. I could’ve given you one of the really hard ones start with the easy.

Katie:       Okay, good. Because I got nervous there.

Caroline:   There’s other research also that shows that having wide open vistas, long views, and high ceilings helps with creativity. When we’re in these more open spaces and we’re not enclosed by say the screens that are surrounding a Brody for example, that that kind of work might be well suited for that. Sometimes a little less attention might be just what you need.

Katie:    Yeah. So, talk a little bit about why you think this research is important and how it can add to the open office conversation and these really startling headlines.

Caroline:    Yeah. In a lot of the research there just isn’t really even a description of the settings that they studied, much less a photograph. In our study we have everything well described and we have images of how we set up the room, to really be mindful about the fact that all open plans are not created equal.

A lot of it, we know that having a range of applications is important, but in order to make those useful, you also have to give employees choice and control. If you assign someone to a bench and that’s all they have, even though maybe you have… That’s all they have operationally, even though there might be other types of spaces around. If they feel like they can’t get up and move when they need to do that focus work, you’re going to get disgruntled employees.

We have other research that shows that choice and control correlates with engagement. You start thinking about enabling that choice and control to both support particular work modes and to increase engagement, and you’re really starting to get at the root issues of organizations that they really are trying to solve for. I think it’s promising.

Katie:     What’s your advice to organizations that either have an open office plan, are going to an open office plan? How do you look at that? What’s your advice in terms of how you should do this successfully?

Caroline:  I think engaging with the employees is critical. While we did this experimental study to determine the difference between these applications, really you need to consider the work processes, the organizational culture. Maybe some people really are doing more focused work all day long and so a higher level of shielding might be appropriate. For teams that are maybe more mobile or doing more collaborative creative tasks all day that you might need to swing more to the other side.

But I think it’s a combination of understanding what is supportive of what types of work and then what do your people really need is always going to give you the best opportunity, I think, to have a successful workplace.

Katie:  Caroline, this is really interesting.

Caroline:   Thanks.

Katie:  Thank you so much for sharing this with us.


Rebecca:    Caroline’s work is really interesting, and really good job with that test, Katie.

Katie:   Thank you. I’m so glad I didn’t fail. I was really nervous.

Rebecca:   When they were doing these controlled experiments. They actually looped ambient noise in. So it really sounded like the open office. She controlled for all of these variables to help us understand what is it that helps us get our work done.

Katie:   When you think about it, when you’re really trying to focus on something, for me, I can’t sit in a cafe or a buzzy environment, I really need to block everything out and focus on whatever it is I’m writing, or doing, or trying to achieve. Because that’s a lot of mental energy.

At the same time though, there’s things that we have to do that are really creative or when we’re trying to think of a new idea or come up with a new concept and you want the buzzy environment, you want to be around more people and ideas, and see things in the corner of your eye.

Rebecca:   Yeah. Sometimes I’ll just get up and walk around, because honestly getting a different perspective gives me a different idea. If I sit there and I’m stuck on a problem, I just need a different vision or view, and sometimes bouncing it off people really helps me get past that block.

Katie:     Yeah. But then you need people. You need to be in an open environment. It’s great. Where I sit in Chicago too, in the bench, people come from all over the world to visit our Chicago space and I’ll see people from all over the country, or all over the world, that I haven’t seen in a long time. They’ll come up and they’ll say, “Hey, how you doing? How’s it going?” Or “I heard your podcast.” I love that, but I can’t be in a time or on a task where I really have to focus.

Rebecca:   Yeah, exactly. We want to thank everyone who helped us with this episode, including Chris Congdon, Donna Flynn, Melanie Redmond, Caroline Kelly and Hania Arafat.

Katie:    And Rebecca, thanks to you as well.

Rebecca:       Of course.

Katie:     As a reminder, please subscribe to What Workers Want to get the entire open office series. And for more information on anything we talked about today, or to listen to upcoming episodes, make sure you visit Open Office Truth page.

Rebecca:     Plus, in our next episode, we’re going to talk about one of the hottest trends in office design right now, the pod.

Katie:    I love my pod. There’s so much to love about pods, but it’s actually not as simple as just adding a chair or a table. There are different options on the front end, on the back end. You have to know what you’re getting and you should really make sure you know what kind of work you should be doing in a pod and the culture to create around it.

Rebecca: We’re going to explore those questions along with an interview with Orangebox Creative Director, Jerry Taylor. They’re designing their fourth generation of pods, and he’s going to talk to us about how they think about design away from the traditional desk. For now, that’s it for this episode, so thanks everyone for joining us.

Return to Open Office Truth Podcast Series page.

Episode 3: Oh My Pod! Designs on Open Plan Privacy (Transcript)

Note: What Workers Want is produced to be heard. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio of this episode because it contains emphasis and tone that may not come across in print. This transcript is produced by both people and computer automation and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting this content anywhere else. 
This episode features: 360 Magazine Editor Chris Congdon, Orangebox Creative Director Gerry Taylor and Steelcase pod portfolio expert Niki Watt


Chris Congdon:   Collaboration really cannot be a group sport the entire time. And so if we have all of our spaces designed where you can never get apart and you can never get kind of alone to be able to process, then you’re inhibiting that whole process.

Host Katie Pace:    Welcome to What Workers Want, the new 360 real-time, a Steelcase 360 podcast about how the places we work, learn, and heal are changing to help people thrive and ideas flourish at work. I’m your host Katie Pace and today I’m collaborating with our producer Rebecca Charbauski.

Co-host Rebecca Charbauski:    Hi.

Katie:    We’re in the midst of our most ambitious podcast yet, a five part series on the Open Office Truth.

Rebecca:  We are, and we don’t collaborate all the time because as we heard at the top of the show, if we did, that wouldn’t work either.

Katie:   Yep.

Rebecca:   So for those people who are just joining us, they can join us right now. Listen to this episode, you won’t be lost. But if you’re looking for our previous episodes, we’ve put the entire series at Open Office Truth page. In our last episode, we got to hear brand new research that teaches us how we can focus better in the open plan. And Katie, you got put to the test that you passed.

Katie:   I passed.

Rebecca: You did a good job.

Katie:   So today we’re going to focus on how teamwork is changing and what that means for the way we work and how that impacts the open office. We’re going to spend some time with experts and solutions for privacy in the open plan. So that means what does it look like when we need four walls and a door. And we’re also going to hear from the creative director of Orangebox, the UK-based company that’s been designing for work away for the desk from its inception in 2002. And we’ll also hear about an emerging privacy solution pods and how to find the best pod for you.

Rebecca:  Have you found your best pod, Katie?

Katie:   Oh yes. I love my pod.

Rebecca:  We’re going to start with new research on teamwork and you and I work together on a team and we know teamwork is very different than it was even 10 years ago.

Katie: True, yes.

Rebecca: It’s very fast paced. It requires a lot of collaboration back and forth. 360 Magazine recently published an issue called New Work, New Rules, and it says the average person spends more than half of their day at work working with other people.

Katie:  Yeah, that’s really true.

Rebecca:  Yeah. But for some people, the truth about the open office is, they’re just trying to figure out how to do that.

Katie:  Well, to figure all this out for real in a way that doesn’t involve pizza boxes for privacy-

Rebecca:   Or scored snaked across the floor.

Katie:   Or scored snaked across the floor. Yes. I sat down with 360 Editor, Chris Congdon, and she told me about this fundamental shift from designing for an individual in the open plan to designing for teams. So it’s a very different way to think about the workplace. Let’s listen in.

Chris, thanks for joining us.

Chris Congdon:     Thanks Katie. It’s always great to be here.

Katie:   So teamwork isn’t new, but your article reports on how teamwork has changed. So why is that?

Chris:   Well, I think there’s a lot of factors that are kind of coming together at one time. I mean, one, every organization feels pressure to innovate. We’ve got to come up with something new, different, faster, better. So all of us are on a quest for innovation, but it’s got to be fast innovation. So, we can’t dawdle about getting solutions out to market.

Katie:    Right.

Chris:    So everybody’s feeling the pressure for speed and just go faster and faster and faster. And you add to that, that it’s just a lot more complex. There aren’t easy answers for everything that’s out there in the world, so the problems that we’re trying to solve are just a lot trickier. And so you have these things coming together where it’s the speed, the intensity of the need to innovate and the complexity, and that’s causing teams to have to work fundamentally different than we ever have before. And how is that different?

And the analogy that just popped into our heads as we started thinking about, of course a sports’ analogy, and started thinking instead of being like a sport where each of you is doing your own thing, like running a relay, you’re running your leg of the relay and then you’re handing off the baton or the project to the next person and having this very kind of linear progression through your work. It’s a lot more like playing soccer or basketball where it’s like this super fast pace. You can’t do your thing alone. You’ve got to have a team around you. And it’s constantly going back and forth and back and forth. And it’s just a fundamentally different way of working than what we did, even five years ago.

Katie:   Yeah, it’s more intense.

Chris:   So much more intense. Absolutely.

Katie:  So with this new kind of teamwork, is it fueling some of these frustrations? Is this some of the reason why there’s so much frustration? And we just heard a little bit earlier, like so much anger about the open office.

Chris:    Well, I think part of what’s going on is it’s pushing people in different ways. So for example, if work used to be kind of this linear paced kind of thing, the office used to be designed around that. And it’s not so much about the open plan overall, but some aspects of an open plan space might be having lots of people kind of sitting in rows and kind of sitting individually, whether it be in cubicles or benches or that kind of thing. And that’s okay when the work that you’re doing is very individual and I just do my own thing and I kind of keep my nose down.

But now when you’ve got people who are needing to be together and interacting, not just two people shoulder to shoulder, but a group of people, where do you go to do that? And a lot of open plan spaces haven’t been designed to really create a home for teams. So a lot of times teams are feeling like, they just don’t have the kind of space that they need to work in. So it’s not designed for the kinds of interactions they’re having. They don’t even actually have their own space where they can do that kind of work.

And then I think another thing that people are really starting to feel is, because they’re being asked to innovate, a lot of the spaces that we have to do work weren’t really designed for innovation. And I think we’re still frankly figuring out what it takes spatially to help people come up with new ideas. But some of the things that we know for sure is sitting in a very traditional conference room is not going to cut it, because people tend to be in very kind of passive behaviors that we sit, we listen, we watch a presentation, but that’s not innovation. That’s just being a bystander. To actually get people engaged in innovation, they have to get more physically engaged, standing up, moving around, trying new things. And our workspaces for the most part just haven’t been designed to support that.

Katie:   Yeah, and they haven’t been designed to support the individual. Right? So now we have all of this teamwork and, “Hey, we’re all going to work together all the time. We’re going to take down the conference rooms. We’re going to have collaboration all the time.” And that’s good and right, but you also have to think about the individual. Right? You have to think about me. I need to work alone sometimes too.

Chris:  Yeah. I mean, collaboration really cannot be a group sport the entire time because we know enough from our work on collaboration that it’s an ebb and flow between being together as a group and then you need to go away as an individual to develop your own thoughts and your own ideas or just to digest some of the ideas that you’ve generated as a group. So it’s this kind of dance, if you will, between together, apart, together, apart. And so if we have all of our spaces designed where you can never get apart and you can never get kind of alone to be able to process, then you’re inhibiting that whole process.

So, individuals need to be able to have that freedom to be able to be in close proximity where we can see each other and work together, but I also have to rapidly toggle into a mode where I can focus and concentrate and then be able to go back and forth and back and forth.

Katie:   Right.

Chris:  Yeah.

Katie:   Well Chris, thanks for joining us.

Chris:    Thanks Katie.

Rebecca:   So that sounds like just how our team works, Katie.

Katie:    Yes, we are totally a basketball team.


Rebecca:   We are. So the question is how do you design for these spaces? We caught up with Orangebox Creative Director, Gerry Taylor on the phone. He’s been with the company since it began in 2002.

Katie:    And if you aren’t familiar with Orangebox, they’re a new part of the Steelcase family. They’re based in South Wales and since the beginning they’ve been designing for this work away from the desk.

Rebecca:  Gerry, can you start by telling us how you approached design as a creative director?

Gerry Taylor:     Well, I think it’s a unique [inaudible 00:08:32] of Orangebox and it’s intrinsic to our success. I always described that the circle completes itself. We all talk to each other. And part of the success of Orangebox is we’re not a hierarchical company, but a flat company and that circle has always completed itself in the sense that ideas don’t go on for years before they’re coming around and having discussions with the senior sales guy.

And my job is a Creative Director is to try to always be pushing, sometimes just maybe pushing a little bit too much, but one great asset I tell everyone about the company is a great CEO is someone who directs a company but then needs enough space for everyone to occupy and to rise in and do a great job. And for me that’s a perfect description for the way that Mino has always setup and run the company. And he’s just allowed me the privileged position of being incredibly close to the development of Orangebox.

Rebecca:  I love something you’ve said to me in the past. If you’re going to ask people to work away from the desk, which is a very mature piece of furniture, very refined, then you’re going to want the places they’re moving to, to be serious as well. You want them to have comfort, performance and function. How do you do that? How do you know when you have a great design idea?

Gerry:   I think design struggles when it isolate its sales and it becomes a little bit too precious about itself. I think great ideas should always be able to stand up. Sometimes you have to not share something. You have to let something mature before you expose it too much, but I actually believe good ideas should be communicable, even quite early on in the process. I mean, in fact, I’m doing that now. I’m working on new projects now for Orangebox and what I’m actually doing is writing a narrative for what this product is about before based on research, based on observations, before even starting to think about what might this look like. It’s describing the culture and I’ve always found that more important because something I fundamentally believe is you don’t sell furniture, you sell narratives.

Rebecca:   I love that you don’t sell furniture, you sell narratives and not just because I’m a storyteller. You’re always thinking about how people fit into what you’re doing, so the stories behind the products you’re making. And I’d love to hear the story behind one particular system that you have. It’s called Away from the Desk and that’s the actual name of the system, Away from the Desk. So for listeners who haven’t seen it, it’s a soft upholstery system. It can have really high backs so it can feel really private or it can have a low back and feel more open. It lets two people sit across from each other or next to each other in a lounge posture. There’s just a ton of options. Can you tell us how that came to be?

Gerry:   I think one thing that we knew was important is this idea of away from the desk being a system and systems come alive when you give an intelligent matrix to really good designers and really engaging clients who can then take that product and use it in their way, even using the fabrics on the product. And one really clear asset with Away from the Desk is the ability to use the [block 00:12:22] upholstery and to play with the fabric specification within that block upholster. We’re all trying to make great work environments that allow people to work in a better, happier, more fulfilled way.


Rebecca:   It was great to talk to Gerry because one of the things Orangebox also does so well is pods and while for a lot of people, pods are this new addition to the workplace landscape. Orangebox’s actually on its fourth generation of pods.

Katie:   And it’s really this interesting, emerging solution and we can see why. We asked our Instagram followers if they had a place to go to make a personal phone call and 66% of people said, yeah, they do.

Rebecca:   Really?

Katie:  But what’s amazing is that more than one third, 34% of people said no, they don’t actually have a place to go if they can make a personal phone call. I mean, could you imagine if you had to walk to your car to make a personal phone call?

Rebecca:  That would break the workflow for me. For sure.

Katie:     Yeah.

Rebecca:   Yeah. I mean sometimes you just have to call your doctor or check in on your kid. I mean, there are things you have to get done, right? And you don’t want to have to leave the building. So pods are a good answer, but pods are not chairs and tables, they’re a very different kind of solution. And people have to ask different kinds of questions. Like, have you ever been outside a pod, and you can actually hear the person inside the pod?

Katie:     Yes.

Rebecca:   So the acoustics aren’t so great and it’s actually disruptive instead of helping with privacy.

Katie:      Yeah. It’s not effective at all.

Rebecca:   Yeah.

Katie:   There’s no visual privacy so you feel like you’re in a fishbowl.

Rebecca:    Totally. What makes a good pod?

Katie:    So we sat down with Niki Watt, the Steelcase Category Manager for Architecture about just that. What makes it good and what questions should we be asking (Take the Interactive Quiz)? Well, Niki, thanks for joining us.

Niki Watt:   Thanks for having me.

Katie:  The news articles about our industry recently are about pods. Right? They’re everywhere. So in the most recent article, the BBC reported that in 2015 only one company showed a pod at NeoCon, which is our big industry show. And then this year there were more than a dozen companies that did. And for anybody that goes to this show, there was like pods everywhere, in the hallway in everybody’s showroom. There were just pods everywhere. So tell us a little bit about why is this, why are the pods so popular right now?

Niki:   I think they’re growing for a couple reasons. Just from a people perspective, we’re all so very overwhelmed with information and work to do, in charge with creating and innovating that I think individual people are looking for a little bit of respite to make a private call, to think for 15 minutes without any interruption.

Katie:  Right.

Niki:   So I think there’s that side of that. I think from a organization standpoint, they know that this demand for enclosed spaces is continuing to grow. So how do they solve it and how do they solve it quickly is at the forefront of how they’re making decisions right now.

Another benefit to organizations is really quick installation. So if you need an enclosed space, if you need a room, if you built that out of traditional construction or drywall, that would take two weeks for a smaller pod. And these pods in the market, including ours, they’re installing in half a day. So there’s a real benefit there just in terms of time and money and loss of productivity for being in a space.

Katie:   Yeah. Talk a little bit about what they’re used for because I also wonder, do people put pods in and then somebody sits in there all day and it’s like, “Forget the open plan. This is my office.”

Niki:    Yeah. So what we’re seeing really is two main types. We’re seeing these foam booth pods that are really designed for individuals, stand up, quicker phone calls or meetings or a place to recharge. And then there’s pods that are more suited for smaller teams. So think in terms of two to six people is what we’re seeing a lot of. And I would say depending on what type of work, how long you’re going to be in there, that’s typically how we see people making decisions on which one they’re going to use.

Katie:  So a lot of it is, it’s just bringing that choice, right?

Niki:  Absolutely.

Katie:   Like, I need a place to make a phone call or call my doctor or sometimes I’m on the phone with Europe and not everybody wants to hear that conversation. Right?

Niki:  Exactly. And I think the one thing that’s really interesting, pods have come to the market so quickly. I think some of the user experiences and workers or employees while they’re in there are really discovering, “Oh, while I’m in there, I would really still like a nice experience.”

Katie:  Yes. So talk a little bit more about that because there are some quirks in designing for pods like, I think we’ve heard people like, “We just took two by fours, we put it up in the office and we said that’s good because we just need some privacy.” But you have to think about these things, right?

Niki:    Right.

Katie:  It’s not just visual or acoustic privacy.

Niki:    And I think there is a little bit of that, well, something is better than nothing. And you’re right, something is better than nothing, but as more and more people use pods, how do you create that great experience inside there? Because the two by four is not creating a great experience for work ticket done or thinking to get done.

Katie:  So how do I know? How do I know this is the one I should be looking for? What should we look for?

Niki:  From that standpoint, organizations are looking at how to choose right now in terms of do they need a foam booth, do they need larger pods? And one of the big things that we’re seeing and that we offer with our portfolio is UL certification, Seismic Certification, ADA requirements that we’re meeting. And just because these pods are new to the market, doesn’t mean it negates the need from a safety standpoint for those things within your workspace.

Katie:    Right.

Niki:   So organizations are making decisions on who is new to the market, who is new and fancy, and now they’re starting to peel that onion back a little more and go, “Okay, if these things really are going to live within my floor plan, how do they meet those top line needs?”

Katie:   Talk a little bit about some of the implications related to a power and maybe fire safety that people wouldn’t think about.

Niki:     Sure. And it’s one of those things. They’re new to the market so we always say check local codes because we’re seeing some different things. But we also offer some great products. So Orangebox pods for instance and the air pod and the Weber ceiling that opens up and closes, typically negates that need for the fire suppression and to be hooked up to the sprinklers of the building system. So that has been fantastic and a game changer in terms of the pod market.

Katie:    Right?

Niki:     And how organizations are making decisions and choosing them.

Katie:   There’s also sort of the plug and play, like I need to plug it in and go and have power and I need that power to be like, not burn my building down. Right?

Niki:  Exactly.

Katie:  That’s what we have in SnapCab, right? Which it’s a plug and play solution that’s safe.

Niki:  It is. It is a plug and play solution. It’s also on casters. So in terms of future flexibility for it, it works out great for a lot of organizations.

Katie:   Right. And it’s small enough. And what I love about SnapCab too is the way that… in our partnership with them is that we’ve been able to customize it. Right? So you can really express your personality in that.

Niki:   Absolutely. Yeah. So we offer a foam booth size, that smaller size unit for someone and then up to supporting six people inside the pod very comfortably with technology, access to power, great air circulation.

Katie:    So that’s good when I’m, “Okay, I need to make a phone call, I need to go away.” I pop in a lot of SnapCabs here and then in our space in Chicago too. So the third pod solution that we offer is from our partner IRYS. And that’s great because then if just you and I need to have a quick connect, we can go away. And they also have this really nice front porch where we could kind of go under the quote unquote front porch. Right?

Niki:   Yeah. The excellent thing about the IRYS pod is it ships in two weeks. So when we talk about quick responses to organization needs, it really solves for that very well and a very architectural way. It’s a very beautiful pod. And to your point, there’s two spaces in one there. You have that front porch underneath the canopy and then you have inside the pod, too, with access to marker boards or technology if needed.

Katie: So when we think about providing privacy, it’s more than just shutting the door. Right? Do you want to talk a little bit about what else we need to consider with these pods?

Niki:   Sure. There’s usually when we’re looking at products in what they can offer organizations or people that are working inside of them, there’s four types of privacy we typically talk about. Visual, territorial, acoustic and informational, and with the pods, the two that really stand out the most would obviously be the acoustic number one. I don’t want to hear you. If you’re outside the pod, I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying inside the pod and then the visual privacy. So to what extent, the amount of glass, do you feel like you’re in a fishbowl when you’re inside that pod or is there three solid walls and yet some glass offer access to light? We think about that quite frequently too, because you want that almost psychological safety in order to be focused or in order to be rejuvenating yourself, giving yourself a break from your day.

Katie:  It’s interesting. So I feel like more organizations are starting to learn that and think more intentionally about that with pods. I think you’ve said one time we may think of pods as this is a bandaid solution. Right? Like, “Oh shoot, we went too far open. Let’s put some pods in here so we give people some privacy.” And certainly we’re seeing organizations use pods like that, but we’re starting to see this more strategic shift. Right? Where they’re actually being planned thoughtfully and thinking about these different types of privacy that people need.

Niki:   Yeah, we are starting to see it earlier in the thinking about workspace and just more of a proactive strategy I would say versus a solve a problem to your point. And with the proactive strategies, organizations really are starting to think through where can we use these today? Where might we move them next month? How could we take them with us when our lease is up? That type of thing. And we’re starting to see more and more projects where there’s hundreds of pods that are on there. So it’s nice to see that organizations are thinking about how do you balance that open plan and what does that look like? Whether that’s with demountable walls or with pods. And that strategy’s starting to take off.

Katie: There’s been a lot written about the culture of pods. Right? So some of this is kind of quirky. I go in the pod at lunchtime and I eat a tuna sandwich and then the pod smells like tuna for the rest of the day. So there’s been a lot of like news articles that have been written that are sort of poking fun at pods. And I’m curious, do you have any thoughts about the culture of pods? Or maybe this is even like, things organizations should think about as they’re putting pods into their workplace.

Niki:  Yeah, I think you’re right and people are having fun with it. Right? It’s something new that we’re seeing over the past two years. So that aspect of it’s less formal and that has been fun. So knowing what you’re putting into your space again is really important. And what is that user experience? Especially here at Steelcase, right, we’re offering our expertise to help design IRYS, to partner with SnapCab and share our research and insights, and the same thing with acquiring Orangebox, giving them feedback on what we know for the North American market to really create those great user experiences.

And then the third thing I would say is more around warranty and quality too, because as organizations are looking at these as flexible assets that can be used past an initial installation, what does that look like longer term?

Katie:  Right.

Niki:   And how you manage that asset is important.

Katie:    And it feels like there’s this balance too, right? If you have an organization where people are camping in these all day, maybe there’s some other unmet needs that we should explore too. Right?

Niki:   Absolutely. [crosstalk 00:24:27]-

Katie:     Pods are a great solution, but let’s make sure we’re meeting all the needs of our workers.

Niki:    Right. It’s definitely a balance and we’re definitely continuing to see this increase in demand for enclosed spaces. That’s not going to go away.

Katie:   That’s interesting. Well, Niki, thanks so much for joining us and being here today.

Niki:    Thanks for having me.

Rebecca:  So when we talked to designers, they made an interesting point about pods that they should go in high trafficked areas so that people feel like they can use them and they see other people using them. And I know Katie, I talk to you a lot on video conferencing in Chicago and you use a pod a lot. Why do you think?

Katie:     I do. I love my pod. I really, really love my pod.

Rebecca:    You have a nice pod.

Katie:    I do. I have a beautiful IRYS pod and it works for me because I’m on the phone a lot with you guys here in Grand Rapids or our teams all over the world. We do a lot of videos, so people need to see me and people in the open plan that I work with in Chicago, they don’t want to hear our conversations. As interesting, as exciting as they maybe. Right? So when we’re on the phone, when I have those meetings, we’re able to pop in the pod, shut the door. I know that it’s acoustically sound. I don’t feel like I’m in a fishbowl because there’s good visual privacy. It’s really been designed for those needs. I will say I use it a lot, but it is not my private office.

Rebecca:   Okay.

Katie:    Right? So you do have to share and that’s the thing.

Rebecca:   There’s some rules.

Katie:   Yeah, there are some rules. You have to set up a culture around it, right? You have to clean up after yourself when you leave. You have to not hog it and sit there all day. Right? You want to be courteous when you’re using a pod.

Rebecca:    That makes a lot of sense. I think you’re courteous when you’re using your pod.

Katie:     Thank you.


Rebecca:    So we want to let everybody know if you want to learn more about pods or Orangebox or anything we’ve talked about in this episode, or if you want to listen to one of the other episodes of the Open Office Truth, please go to Open Office Truth page where we’ve put everything you need. And we want to thank everybody who is included in this episode, Niki Watt, Gerry Taylor and Chris Congdon. And we want to remind you to subscribe to What Workers Want so you don’t miss anything.

Katie:    So this episode had a heavy focus on creating privacy with four walls and a door because sometimes you just want to shut the door. Right?

Rebecca:  Right.

Katie:     But our next episode is going to explore what privacy looks like when it doesn’t mean four walls and a door. Why do we have all these beautiful Instagram spaces? Is that the best thing for people to sit in? And sometimes why are those spaces empty?

Rebecca:   Yeah, you walk by them, no one’s there. So we’re going to actually hear about a new framework. It’s almost a checklist where you can diagnose what’s really going on in those spaces. And especially as companies spend more money and real estate on those types of spaces, you really want them to work.

Katie:    Well, I can’t wait to hear that. So for now, thanks everyone for joining us.

Episode 4: Fix What’s Wrong with the Hottest Office Trend (Transcript)

Note: What Workers Want is produced to be heard. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio of this episode because it contains emphasis and tone that may not come across in print. This transcript is produced by both people and computer automation and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting this content anywhere else. 
This episode features: Steelcase applications marketing designer Mary Elaine Rousch, Steelcase General Manager of Ancillary Partnerships Brian Shapland, Moooi Carpets CEO Martien Valentijn, Bolia CEO Lars Lyse Hansen, Extremis CEO Dirk Wynants, West Elm Vice President of Work and Contract Design Paulo Kos.This episode features: Steelcase applications marketing designer Mary Elaine Rousch, Steelcase General Manager of Ancillary Partnerships Brian Shapland, Moooi Carpets CEO Martien Valentijn, Bolia CEO Lars Lyse Hansen, Extremis CEO Dirk Wynants, West Elm Vice President of Work and Contract Design Paulo Kos.


Mary Elaine Roush:   For years and years and years, there’s been tons of resident workstations, and when you think about how to design a resident workstation, there are so many details. Probably things that once the user is sitting there, they don’t even think about, but designers do. We think about, how much work surface space do they need for their monitors and their docking station, and maybe if they have a notepad. I believe we need to start applying that same level of scrutiny in the details to the shared spaces. That’s really going to be what starts to elevate or activate the performance in these spaces.

Host Katie Pace:   Welcome to What Workers Want, the new 360 Real Time, a Steelcase 360 Podcast about how the places we work, learn, and heal are changing to help people thrive and ideas flourish at work. I’m your host Katie Pace here today with our producer Rebecca Charbauski.

Co-host Rebecca Charbauski:  Great to be here. We’re in the midst, Katie, as you know, of a five part series on the Open Office Truth. If you didn’t start with us with episode one, don’t worry, you can start with us right now. You can always access all of our archives at here..

Before we go any further, we want to make sure that everyone subscribes to What Workers Want. We’re going to have a great episode coming up with the author of Joyful, where you can find joy in everyday objects, and we’re also going to have a great conversation with our Vice President of Global Design and Engineering, and the CEO of Anchor Innovations about a brand new product called Steelcase Flex Mobile Power where you can just grab and go and take your power with, you and how that all came to be.

Katie:   Last episode, we talked a lot about pods and this emerging trend that brings privacy to the open office plan. I love my pod. That’s what privacy looks like when it has four walls, and when-

Rebecca:    And we can shut the door.

Katie: We can shut the door can shut the door. We don’t feel like we’re in a fish bowl. But what happens when you don’t have four walls? What happens when you need that strategic anonymity that Melanie talked about in the second episode?

Rebecca:  Exactly. We know a lot of people need that. We did an Instagram poll on our Steelcase Channel and we asked people if they’re in the open plan, and 74% of people said that is their work day. So we’re going to hear today about research around what people want out of their spaces, away from the traditional workstation.

A lot of times you’ll see companies investing in these really, really pretty spaces, but nobody’s there.

Katie: Right, they’re empty.

Rebecca:  Yeah, it’s a waste. What’s going on there and what can be done? We have a bunch of guests in this episode including leaders from West Elm, the CEO of Bolia, Extremis, and Moooi Carpets, all companies that make absolutely beautiful, unique things that are used in these shared spaces to help people get work done.


Katie:   I had the chance to sit down with Mary Elaine Roush, who works in a Steelcase Applications Marketing Design Studio and she essentially figures out how to take design principles for these alternative shared spaces and turn them into reality. Her team works with a wide variety of researchers, designers, consultants, people here at Steelcase who help narrow in on what makes a space not just beautiful, but also productive. Meaning people actually use it. People are actually getting real work done.

Rebecca:  They’re actually there.

Katie:  Yes. Real work. Thanks for being here. Mary Elaine.

Mary Elaine Roush:     Yes, I’m happy to be here.

Katie:    Our Steelcase global study showed that 87% of people are spending two to four hours away from their assigned workstation. They’re actually moving away and using these spaces that are not at a traditional desk, if you will. Let’s start by defining what we mean by, some people say away from the desk, another term we may have heard is ancillary. How do you define this?

Mary Elaine:   We keep it really simple. Everything away from the own desk. This could be enclosed meeting rooms. It could be really informal lounge spaces.

Katie:     Your team has spent a lot of time studying these spaces, studying how people use them, what they need. How did you figure out how to design for these spaces? Talk a little bit about what you did and how you figured it out.

Mary Elaine:   Yeah, definitely. We conducted surveys, we did a lot of different user observations and collected sensor data. What we were looking for is what drives the use of these ancillary spaces. What are users looking for to be productive away from their desk? And really what we saw, we saw patterns emerge that we could identify that really drove the use of these ancillary spaces.

Katie:     Part of that research probably came from the sense that sometimes you see beautiful pictures, or beautiful spaces, in these really cool work environments and I want to work there, but wait, why isn’t anybody working there? Or for an organization, I invested in this really cool expensive trendy couch and nobody’s actually using it. Why isn’t everybody happy?

Mary Elaine:   Yes, definitely. That’s what we started analyzing. We started looking at these spaces, okay, is this space utilized or underutilized and why? We really started digging in and those elements that we found, we found six main patterns that people were looking for when they were using these spaces.

The first is task oriented amenities and then surfaces. People are looking for surfaces in these spaces. Power, which is obvious at this point, but you really can’t be productive for a long time if you don’t have access to power. Privacy, this just goes back to our human need around comfort and shielding. Permissions in terms of can I make this space my own even if it’s on a very micro scale?

Context matters. You could put the same space in two places and in one area it works really well and it’s always highly utilized, and the other no one uses it. It’s probably because it might be in the wrong space.

Katie:     That’s really interesting that you found all these. It feels like there’s a science to creating these spaces, it’s not just a bunch of pretty pillows and a cool comfortable couch.

Mary Elaine:     Yes, and I do feel for these spaces, aesthetics has been a really primary driver, but I think we’re beyond that. We need to use that square footage in a really meaningful way. Companies are looking for those spaces to be productive so they can get the most out of it.

Katie:     Out of these six elements and patterns, which are really important and things that people need, then you created this framework for design. Talk a little bit about the framework.

Mary Elaine:    Okay, yes, we created this framework and it really is all about six application performance principles. They are privacy, posture, proximity, personality, and those four done in the right combination, lead to psychological comfort and productivity. Really you can think about this framework as a how to design for these shared spaces, but also an easy way to talk about shared spaces.

Katie:    We’ve used that term before. Talk a little bit about that. What is psychological comfort, and why does it matter to a work place?

Mary Elaine:  Well I think when we think about wellbeing, this is an aspect of it. If you want to have your spaces away from the desk be utilized and be productive, your users have to want to go there and they have to feel comfortable doing that.

It needs to vary, depending on what the work behavior you’re supporting is. That comfort could mean something different when you’re trying to focus versus having a small group collaboration in the open. You really have to feel comfortable to share your ideas. These are open spaces a lot of times. How can you make people feel comfortable to do their best work?

Katie:   Yeah, we’re talking a lot about privacy in these series too in the open office, and that’s one of the supporting elements of psychological comfort. I can sit here, no one’s going to walk up behind me, or no one’s going to… I’m anonymous here. I feel comfortable here, because I have a little bit of visual or maybe acoustical privacy, but I feel comfortable.

Mary Elaine:  Yeah. And that was one of the things that we found when we did the observations on the sensor data actually, the shielded spaces, when you’re talking about those privacy elements, those were the spaces that users went to first.

Katie:  Let’s talk about posture. Because sometimes I think, we’re going to lounge, I’m going to put my feet up and then I’m going to be so productive. Maybe that’s right, maybe that happens, but that’s not necessarily always the key of what you guys found.

Mary Elaine:   Well and it goes beyond a sofa and a coffee table. Again, with posture you want to think about supporting a range of postures within the space. Again, going back to what work behaviors are you trying to support and also personal preference throughout your employees.

One example of posture working well when you look at designing a space is if I want to design a space for generation and I want to be active and have people really jump in for collaboration, I’m going to think about maybe a standing or stool posture so that users can really jump in, in the moment.

Katie:   That gets to the next point, which is what I always talk about, the buzzy spaces. I want to be in the buzz, I want to be in the cafe, I want some socialization, but I don’t want to be too far away. If it’s in a building next door, I’m not going to walk there to use that. That has to do with the proximity and the proxemics of these spaces.

Mary Elaine:  Yeah. There’s a lot in the proximity. You’ve hit on the proximity of that space to the whole open office. When we think about designing for these spaces, we think about the people, the people connection, and also people to the tools and technology in this space.

Katie:   The last one that you talk about his personality. Talk a little bit about how you define that and do you have any recommendations, going too far or we see people putting ball pits in, which is a different problem to solve [inaudible 00:10:11]. But how do you express personality in the cool way in the office?

Mary Elaine:  When I think about personality as one of these performance principles, this is not new to this shared spaces conversation. You don’t forget about personality. Aesthetics still matter. Personality is where the organization can put their stamp on these spaces, they can communicate to the rest of the organization what they’re about.

The ball pits, while they probably aren’t super productive, they are communicating something. I would say you want to use personality as a tool. Position that personality in the right places in the office space and combine it with those other principles, then you’re going to really be in the sweet spot of performance.

Katie:  You took all these principles that we just talked through and then you put together this series of applications. Talk a little bit about how you approached that, and then maybe for our listeners who can’t see them, what they look like.

Mary Elaine:   Yeah. Really when I think about using the performance principles to design a space, there’s two approaches that you can take. The first is designing really from the ground up with a clean slate. If I’m looking at all of my shared spaces, I’m going to think about the varied posture and the varied work behaviors that I want to support.

I’m going to look at the work behavior as a starting point. What is it that I’m trying to support? And then I would go through the principles and think about what’s the right level of privacy? What’s important when I think about proximity? Am I designing more for the people to people interaction or the people to technology interaction? What’s right in terms of the posture? That’s one approach.

The second is really this thinking, there’s a ton of these shared spaces that are out in office space today that are potentially under-utilized. Take a walk around, see what spaces are being used, see what spaces aren’t being used, and for the ones that aren’t, do a little digging. This is what we started to do. We played a little bit of detective to say, okay, why is this space working, and this other is not?

Katie:    What’s missing here? It was really interesting, because it feels like, if you build it, they won’t come. It’s the opposite. You do have to think scientifically and really intentionally about what you’re building.

Mary Elaine:    It’s really combining the science with the art and we feel strongly that these principles can help you have your shared spaces be utilized and have your people be productive.

Katie:  Make them better. That’s great. Well thanks for joining us Mary Elaine.

Mary Elaine:    Absolutely. Thank you.

Katie:    I love how she talks about there being an art and a science, because you can feel that when you’re in these spaces.

Rebecca:    That’s so true. One of our most popular podcasts from, almost a year ago now, was this one where we talked about why are some spaces empty and others are busy. I feel what she’s done, and what her team has done, is really advanced that conversation to now there’s some actual principles that you can walk around and say, okay, people aren’t spending time in that space let’s actually review these and see what are we missing?

Katie:    You can it when you go to another space and it’s empty. I might want a place to plug in my computer.


Rebecca:    But the art part of this is also really fun.

Katie:  It is. One of the best parts of these spaces is how unique they are and/or can be. At Steelcase, we’ve been bringing together and working with these new partners for a couple of years now and it’s really just bringing more choices to the workplace with a variety of aesthetics. I was able to reconnect with Brian Shapland, who’s the General Manager of Ancillary Partnerships, and he talked about how some of our partners and how they fit into what Mary Elaine just shared with us.

Rebecca:   I want to get to that chat with Brian, but before we do, we do have some new news to share.

Katie:   Breaking news.

Rebecca:  Breaking news. Steelcase announced recently it’s expanding its partnership with Uhuru, which is now going to offer its full collection through Steelcase dealers. If you don’t know Uhuru, they have just a really cool studio in Red Hook Brooklyn.

Katie:   They are so cool. Uhuru has established itself as one of America’s most innovative design firms. They make custom well crafted furniture from inspired materials with lots of history, things like reclaimed wood from a Coney Island boardwalk or teak salvaged from a decommissioned battleship.

Rebecca: Yeah, really cool stuff, lounge chairs that look like they have a bridge mosaic underneath them. Let’s get to your conversation with Brian and hear about some of our other partners as well.

Katie:   Well, welcome to What Workers Want. Brian,

Brian:   It’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me, Katie.

Katie:   As General Manager of our Ancillary Partnerships, you’ve led the teams that have slowly added more companies to the mix that are bringing some really unique elements that are helping us to be able to get work done in these ancillary, or away from the desk spaces.

Brian:   It’s really a blast. It’s a delight to work with each of these brands. It really started a few years ago when we acknowledged that we had some gaps in our portfolio from a posture perspective, from an aesthetics perspective, from a performance perspective, and so we began looking for companies that were doing really interesting things and companies that might value what we bring to the table.

Katie:   We’ve had a bunch of great additions to our portfolio, but most recently we announced a partnership with Moooi and Moooi Carpets and they are such a fun brand. I’m wondering if you can tell us, in addition to being really fun and cool and being in a lot of our work life centers, what attracted Steelcase to them to bring them on as a partner, this new relationship?

Brian:  That’s right. Well as many listeners might know, Moooi was started about 10 years ago by a gentleman named Marcel Wanders and might be familiar with his work prior to starting that brand. But it’s really just a stunning and exquisite catalog of lighting, carpets, furniture and accessories. I think they say it best when they describe the heritage of their name. Moooi is the Dutch word for beautiful. They’re a Dutch brand and the extra, O, so it’s M-O-O-O-I, is added for extra emphasis on how extraordinarily beautiful their collection is. And we couldn’t agree more.

Katie:   I love their stuff. The Moooi carpet where I work in Chicago, it’s this big beautiful round carpet where you walk in, you know what I’m talking about.

Brian:   Absolutely.

Katie:   It has florals, it’s bold, it’s colorful, and it just makes a statement right when you walk into Work Life. We have a lot of their stuff here in Grand Rapids too. For listeners who don’t know what we’re talking about, you can check out our website. We have all of the images and lots more information about the partnership on our website too.

Brian:   Yeah, it’s really straight from the fashion pages of your favorite periodical. You really just get a sense and feel like it’s a different environment when you walk into a space and look at the Moooi carpets.

Katie:  Yeah, I had a chance to ask their CEO Martien Valentijn, how design is changing when it comes to thinking about what you’re walking on and why their carpets are so different.

Martien Valentijn:   They are quite different and actually this is based on the fact that we started creating a new printing technique and now we are able to print without any limitation in colors. Because of the fact that we can print photorealistic designs on our canvas, it creates a whole new area and a whole new field for designers to be creative.

In the past, flooring was often the last thing to do. Creating new spaces, at the end of the line there was always the question, we do need something on the floor as well. In the situation, people look at offices right now, we start with an old different attitude. Things like flooring, but also lighting and wallpaper, etc, are more important from the beginning.

Brian:  Well, that’s so well said. I just love how Martien suggests that you look down into a space as much as you look around and it reminds me, Katie, of your conversation with Jack Schreur from Floss, their CEO, several months ago where he talked about looking up when you enter space to look at the lighting that surrounds you. I love looking at the Moooi Carpets to suggest the vibe you get when you enter a space.

Katie:   That’s so true. Another cool new partnership we have is with Bolia. They’re a Danish design company. They’re also really cool. We’re now selling their products for workplaces here in North America. Tell us about what makes Bolia so special.

Brian:   Well, there are so many things it’s hard to know where to start. A few of us had a chance to travel to Denmark a couple of months ago and really be surrounded by their brand. They actually have their primary retail store on the first floor of their headquarters. So you really get a sense for what Lars, their CEO, talks about. I think when he spoke about it with you, they have such an appreciation for all five senses that when you walk into a Bolia store, you’re really enveloped in their scent, in their taste, in their touch and feel of their products. We can talk about more of those in a second, but it’s really the Bolia brand is articulated so nicely in each of the five senses.

Katie:     And Lars, their CEO, he’s a super interesting guy. He climbs mountains and he makes music. And he has a job running a furniture company.

Brian:  Yes, certainly in the running for most interesting man in the world. Lars does a bunch of really cool things and he’s just surrounded by a terrific team. When you’re in their space, they partnered with an elite coffee brand, that you have access to their coffee and it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted. When you walk into the store you can smell a custom scent. Their approach to patterns and finishes with woods and fabrics, and even to some of their other things, like linens and towels, throws and pillows, all of the spaces that increasingly find themselves in corporate settings or in third party spaces. Bolia has just been a wonderful addition to our portfolio of partners.

Katie:   We asked their CEO, Lars Lyse Hansen, how they balance being a digital first design company and why they design for the five senses.

Lars Lyse Hansen:    If you really want to make sure that the customers perceive the brand as you like, then you have to ask the really weird questions. How does my brand sound? How does it taste? How does it smell? How does to feel? And stuff like that.

We did that exercise and we came up with a certain sound, we came up with a certain feel, a certain fragrance, and then we just started designing it. It was a piece of furniture basically. Did a lot of errors and tried again.

When people ask me, what kind of company is Bolia, always we are half design, half tech company. Technology and design. The imagery comes from the same place. That is the creativity.

That creativity can go either into design and product development, but it can also go into tech development. So we are always looking at how can we make things smarter with technology. It’s blurring creativity with the technology.

Katie:   Gosh. So, the way Bolia looks at design in even their retail experience is so interesting.

Brian:    Absolutely. From what I’ve heard, it makes for a perfectly well thought out, or maybe even a last second, Mother’s Day gift. Their scent, their blankets, from what I hear and I’ve seen, people love that stuff.

Katie:   Yeah. Good. Okay. Our listeners will take note of that.

Brian:   But I also think it’s, on a more serious note, I think it’s a perfect example of what you were speaking about earlier with these different dimensions of defining performance and some of these things that are tougher to put your thumb on. Is it the personality of a space, or the psychological comfort of a space? I think each of the things that Lars spoke about is indicative of you decidedly feel like you’re in a different space when you’re in products from Bolia.

Katie:    As we also talked about these six Ps, personality and proximity come to mind when we think about our great friends at Extremis.

Brian:    Absolutely.

Katie:    These guys are so fun. They make really cool furniture for the outdoors, also indoors, and they also make really great beer.

Brian:   So I’ve heard.

Katie:  Yes, they have two founders who we’ve met and we’ve spent a lot of time with them. Tell us what makes them so cool, Brian.

Brian:  Well, there’s no question that people make it cool. Dirk and the entire family who often find themselves in their photo shoots, those are friends, family members, and neighbors in all of their stunning photography that showcase their collection.

But you’re right, there’s no question their products have a personality and there’s no question that they give you a sense of psychological comfort when you enter their space or where you have some of their umbrellas overhead.

But actually it’s all about proximity too. We see a lot of our customers asking for outdoor spaces or to bring the outdoors indoors. I know we’ve talked about biophilia in the past, but we feel Extremis products really took off a number of those Ps.

And it’s really interesting, we actually just heard about a company in the Bay Area that moved a bunch of Extremis products outdoor for primary work as a place for their individual users and employees to go do primary work. Not just meet and have a conversation but do heads down laptop work. It’s really interesting what Dirk and the family are up to.

Katie:   Only in California am I having a primary work station outside.

Brian:   Absolutely.

Katie:   This is not happening in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s so cool. We talked to CEO, Dirk Wynants, who calls himself the Big Boss, about why he calls their products tools of togetherness.

Dirk Wynants:    I like to say that furniture doesn’t interest me that much. What interests me much more is the interaction between people. That is what a furniture is made for. If you can improve this interaction between people, then I have a nice result.

Tools for togetherness means that these things that we make, whether it’s furniture or something else, are intended to stimulate people to get together, to improve the conversations. Our products do not have a aesthetic signature, because they’re never originated from a nice line on a piece of paper, which then results in a new design. We never start from the aesthetics. We always start from the reason of existence of a certain piece of furniture, how we can improve it, what problem we can solve.

I strongly believe that if you design in that way, that you end up with ideas that have a much better potential to stay relevant for a longer time because it’s not fashion that we design. I’m trying to make stuff that stays relevant for a very long time because this is, for me, a key factor when it comes to sustainability.

Brian:   Well, I just love that sound bite. I love what he and his wife, Hilda, have been thinking about from the inception of the Extremis brand, as Dirk says, they’re looking for problems to solve. It’s an old Shaker quote. And they’re not hesitating to make the products beautiful.

I think there’s a lot of shared DNA when we think about how Steelcase looks for problems to solve and how users are working or how students are studying and looking for ways to solve the problems. But when you see the execution and the nods to sustainability, durability, and quality that Dirk and the family have, you really know that you’re sitting in and surrounded by excellent products.

Katie:   We’re not able to get to talk to all of our partners today, but we do have a lot of other podcasts with founders and CEOs of some of our other partners and those have been meant to fill gaps that we’ve had too, or solve something that wasn’t solved for before.

Brian:   Yeah, you and Rebecca have had some really cool conversations with John and Maurice from Blu Dot. They started the brand coming out of college about 25 years ago, seeing the things they wanted coming out of school they couldn’t afford and the things they could afford, they didn’t want. Our relationship with Blu Dot is hitting on all cylinders right now. We love what those guys are up to.

You’ve also spoken with Mitchell and Bob of course from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. We’re really seeing their approach to comfort and quality for all resonate in the marketplace. We’re cloaking many of their products with our subsidiaries, our brand design text patterns, so you really get the essence of the home, but built for a contract environment with Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. We’re loving what we’re up to with each of our partners.

Katie:  We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about West Elm as well. West Elm has been such a great partner to us and it’s been really cool to watch how that partnership has evolved, grown, and changed, and some of the cool products we’ve been able to pump out really quickly with them.

Brian:  That’s right. It’s really a testament to the nimble and agile nature of the West Elm team that really has their finger on the pulse of fashion, but also to the robustness and rigor of our product development team. It’s really fun to watch the marriage of the two brands come together where West Elm is designing this collection and we’re co-developing it.

Our engineers and our supply chain team is in the room with Paulo and his team when they came up with great products. I know we’ve spoken a lot about ancillary over the last little bit here, but it’s also a collection of primary products for benching and for private offices, because we know that people want that vibe of West Elm throughout the floor plan. That’s really the impetus for the West Elm Work Collection. We can talk about some of those cool products here in a sec.

Katie:   A little while ago I was able to connect with Paulo Kos, the West Elm Vice President of Work and Contract Design, and we asked him how they stay so connected to what people want and how that translates into the office. Because they really have a huge following, especially on social media, and they’re so in touch with their customers, they really have that connection with them. Paulo let us in on how they have such a strong customer connection, and how that translates to the office.

Paulo:   I think we have a direct line to the customer, whether it’s through their interactions in the stores, their online purchases, or just social media and digital experiences in general. There’s so many different ways that we interact with a customer. We can see what they’re responding to as they respond to it. These are the same people that work in offices too. We can see what they like in their homes and we’re able to bring that into the office as well.

I think we’re trying to create spaces that people want to be at, where people feel comfortable and at ease. With more and more people working both from home and the office, there is this spectrum in between the two. So it’s not really like work is one place, office is the other, they’re connected at all times. For us, it’s really interesting to see what kinds of things work in both environments, what things we can take from the home and bring into the office to create a very inviting space.

Brian:   Was so glad you guys got a chance to connect with Paulo. Like you said, it’s been a busy spring. We launched a half a dozen new products at NeoCon this year. Now we’re up to about 40 products together in the West Elm Work Collection, but these new ones, Belle, Brighton, Boardwalk, Greenpoint and Sterling, they’re all passed BIFMA testing as well as are backed by the Steelcase warranty.

We think that’s a really big deal. People still though, they want a sense of fashion and they want a sense of current, they don’t want to throw the sense of permanence away. They don’t want to have something that’s just disposable and that’s why we’re so excited about our West Elm Work Collection.

Katie:   Right. Well, thanks so much for joining me today, Brian. It was great to talk about West Elm and all of our partners.

Brian:  It was really a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much, Katie.


Katie:  I love how our partners, they span every design aesthetic. We have so many iconic, cool products. There is something for everybody in there, and what’s great about all that is beyond these designs, the furniture and the science of it all, there’s this operational story, which we haven’t even touched today. How do you bring all these companies together, deliver it all in the same truck, at the same time? How do they operationalize all this stuff today?

Rebecca:   That’s a really good question. It’s one that they’re going to tackle in the next issue of 360 Magazine. In fact, I think I know the writer of that article, but there’s a lot that goes into it, I can tell you. It’s taken years of work to figure out how to make that all happen really smoothly. We want everybody to go to steelcase.com/openofficetruth and sign up for the 360 newsletter because then they’re going to be the first to know when that magazine comes out.

Katie:    Truth. Our fourth episode of The Open Office Truth is coming to an end.

Rebecca:   What?

Katie:   But there’s one piece of this puzzle that we have not covered. And what is it?

Rebecca:    I know the answer. It is the thing that the open plan was, in a big part, created for which is collaboration. We had an awesome conversation with the CEO of Steelcase, Jim Keane, and with Panos Panay, Chief Product Officer from Microsoft, in New York, and we’re going to share that conversation about how teamwork is changing and how the open plan has to change to support collaboration.

Katie:   Well be sure to subscribe to get that episode sent directly to you and make sure you’re rating, reviewing, and sharing these podcasts with people who might also be interested in them. If you’re interested in any of the previous episodes or seeing some of the images of the beautiful designs we talked about in this episode-

Rebecca:    Please go see the images.

Katie:    Go see the pictures of our beautiful partners and their furniture. You can find all that at Open Office Truth page.. Thanks for joining us today.

Episode 5: Activating Collaboration in the Open Plan (Transcript)

Note: What Workers Want is produced to be heard. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio of this episode because it contains emphasis and tone that may not come across in print. This transcript is produced by both people and computer automation and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting this content anywhere else. This episode features: Steelcase CEO Jim Keane and Microsoft Chief Product Officer Panos Panay


Jim Keane:  So when people think of collaboration, they think of meetings and when they think of meetings, they don’t think of their favorite experiences in the workplace. They think of boring long events where they’re sitting in a chair, in a formal conference room and there’s just a few people talking. And in fact, if you watch how people who are adopting new practices around innovation are actually working, they’re using design thinking, they’re using agile, and these are naturally processes that are about activity.

Chris Congdon:  That are very interactive.

Jim:  There is a sense of progress and energy and everyone’s participating, but they’re all participating differently, because they’re all different people. So active collaboration is that idea. And yet when people try to practice that today, it’s clear they don’t have the tools they need.

Host Katie Pace:   Welcome to What Workers Want. A Steelcase 360 Podcast and the new 360 real time. We’re a Steelcase podcast with behind the scenes conversations about what we’re learning about the places where people work, learn and heal. I’m your host Katie Pace and I’m here today with our producer Rebecca Charbauski.

Co-host Rebecca Charbauski:   Glad to be back.

Katie:   So Rebecca, this is our final episode in our five part series about the open office truth. We’re almost at the end and as you heard at the top, a Steelcase CEO, Jim Keane, he’s going to talk about collaboration today, the last piece in his open office puzzle. So we’re going to bring you the conversation that Jim had with Microsoft chief product officer, Panos Panay, in New York a few months ago on how to improve collaboration in the open plan.

Rebecca:   We want to let people know that if you haven’t been listening to the podcast series, you can start with us right now. Listen and learn about collaboration, especially since I recently read a study from Microsoft that says you and I, Katie, were on two times as many teams as we were just five years ago.

Katie:    Wow.

Rebecca:   Does that feel right?

Katie:   Yeah, that sounds right. There’s a lot more collaboration today.

Rebecca:   If people want to hear the previous four episodes that can go to Open Office Truth page where we put them all in one place. We have episodes about the neuroscience of privacy, about designing for privacy with new and exciting solutions, and about how to create shared spaces that people actually use instead of they sit pretty and empty. That’s at steelcase.com/openofficetruth. And we want to make sure people subscribe to What Workers Want because we have some really good conversations coming up with authors and CEOs that you’re not going to want to miss.

Katie:   Let’s go back a minute to the first episode, when we talked about the history of the open office, we established then that the intentions weren’t bad, right? Organizations wanted to break down walls, build trust, add collaboration, serendipity, all of these really good things that were going to supposedly lead to more creativity, more ideas, more innovation, better business results, right?

Rebecca:   Yeah. We were going to figure out teamwork the best way to do it.

Katie:   But throughout, we’ve also learned that maybe knocking down all the walls and opening up the plan, maybe that wasn’t really the one way or the right way, and that the way we’re working, the way we’re collaborating is fundamentally changing. And what’s interesting is decades ago it was changing and it’s still changing today, right?

Rebecca:   And people spend more than half their day. We know collaborating these days. In fact, I think Harvard Business Review said 80% more of your time is spent than two decades ago working with others, that’s everything from meetings to emails to phone calls. And we learned from episode three that the way we work is changing. So instead of a relay team where I hand the piece of the project to you and you do your piece and hand it to someone else, we’re more likely to go back and forth like a basketball team and to be iterative. So we’re going to start the conversation about collaboration with Jim Keane, the CEO of Steelcase talking about this fundamental shift.

Jim:   So, five years ago or 10 years ago, maybe everything was fixed. You’d come in the morning, you went to a very predictable place to work. That was your assigned workstation. You didn’t move from there unless you went to a meeting room and then maybe you came back. That began to change, it started really when laptops came along and then we were able to be more mobile because of Wi-Fi and suddenly people were able to get up and move, maybe people used less assigned desks. But for the most part, the furniture, the technology, most of these things were still relatively fixed. When we really give people the tools they need to do what they want to do naturally; what we’ve found is that they want everything to be moving. So they want to reconfigure their space on demand. They want to be able to change the furniture, change the privacy screens, go from individual work to collaborative work and do it in a way that’s super frictionless.

And when they tried to do that, they get 90% there, and the last 10% is what kills them. They try to move that desk, but the cords won’t come apart and they… it’s these easy details that stop you from being able to do what you want to do. Or they want to move a device, a technology device from the conference room back to their desk. But to do that, they need to turn it off and they have to unplug it and you have to reboot it, and that period of time breaks the continuity of work that they really desire. That’s what’s changing all the stuff in the office, it has to be more fluid. Everything has to be reconfigurable, not by facilities managers, but by users themselves.

Katie:   So one of the reasons Jim and Panos were in New York was to introduce new designs in this new technology that helps people work together.

Rebecca:  Right. You were there, Katie, Microsoft had this big dramatic moment where they pulled back this beautiful black curtain to show this dazzling large scale Surface Hub 2X, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s this interactive, slim, sleek device. And it also can come in a really small footprint

Katie:   And Steelcase actually worked together with Microsoft to create Steelcase Roam; a mobile cart in an easy to hang wall mounting system that allows you and allows workers to pull the hub or take it anywhere. It’s literally a cart on wheels and 360 editor, Chris Congdon was there with Jim and the Panos in New York. Let’s hear the part of her conversation with them about how new tools like this will help improve collaboration.

Chris Congdon:   One of the things I’d love to find out a little bit more from your perspective about, it has to do with this study that we did earlier this year where we were looking at what are some of the ways people are collaborating and the things they need to collaborate. And we found something really interesting that the vast majority of people actually do want to have devices like the Hub to be able to collaborate together. But when we broke it down, we saw that it was kind of interesting that the people who are doing the vast amount of collaborating don’t have as much access as some of the other people, particularly people in like the C-suite who have more access to devices. I’m just thinking about the design and the form factor of the Hub 2X like how is that going to make this technology more accessible to more people?

Panos Panay:  Yeah, it’s a great question. There’s something about the mobility of this device that changes it. When you get into the static nature of a piece of tech or the static nature of a collaboration device in its traditional sense, it’s going to be in a room and maybe that’s not in a room that’s accessible to everybody. And I think that’s maybe one of the physical blockers up there.

But as the workplace changes and there’s more work, open workspace, less offices, the idea that we can take Roam, which was created by Steelcase, just incredible idea between the teams coming together and then we’re able to move this product to anywhere it wants to be used, you start to unlock some of these barriers that are in front of… hey we have a piece of tech but it’s only in a certain space. I think that makes sense that the tech is in a certain space today, but I think the future kind of begs us to make sure as the workplace changes the product can adapt to it, and this is part of it. When we designed the product, we made it modular so you know you can have this product with the Surface Hub built in, you can have it as a two way screen that’s modular that you can connect to any Surface device. I think there’s so many different ways to get access to this product. It’s pretty exciting.

Jim:   It also feels to me as I was watching you demonstrate it today that it’s not simply a display, it’s really something that integrates with Microsoft Teams in a new way. It’s almost like as you’re developing Microsoft Teams, you needed something like this to be the primary device you would use when you’re gathered as a team.

Panos:   Yeah, it is. Teams is all about collaboration, it’s an incredible product. I mean Microsoft Teams has done outstanding job of bringing teams together. I’m a Microsoft person telling you that, but I will tell you it is a powerful tool, and having an integrated version of it with the device is pretty incredible and that it not only, it’s inspiring to me, but it’ll enable so much more collaboration to happen.

Katie:   So Rebecca, this really all circles back to this conversation we’ve been having about the open office.

Rebecca:   Yes.

Katie:   Like the way we’re working is changing and the work we’re doing is actually changing. And so then their spaces need to change as well. And these shared spaces away from the desk, these collaborative spaces, they become even more important and it puts so much pressure on them to help us do our jobs well.

Rebecca:   Exactly. It’s not enough for them to sit there and look pretty. I need to be able to get work done. And Katie, when you’re in Chicago and I’m here in Michigan now I can finally wheel you in instead of just pulling you up on a little cell phone or even a small laptop, you can actually be part of the conversation almost like you’re right there with us.

Katie:  Like in my own little robot in the space.

Rebecca:   Exactly. And think about how that can be different within a meeting room as well. So instead of everyone just sitting around the conference room table, it’s about being up and active and engaging with the content. It’s this idea of using our bodies to activate our brains. So Chris had this conversation with Jim in New York and let’s pick up there

Chris:   Jim, what Panos was just describing really feels a lot like the concept that you introduced today; this notion of active collaboration. And it had its Genesis and some of the work that we’ve done in learning and in the classrooms and understanding how that happens. Can you tell us a little bit about what active collaboration is and where that idea came from?

Jim:   Sure. So when people think of collaboration, they think of meetings and when they think of meetings, they don’t think of their favorite experiences in the workplace. They think of boring long events where they’re sitting in a chair, in a formal conference room, and there’s just a few people talking. Maybe somebody is making a big presentation and you’re just trying to get through it. And it reminds us of what it felt like to be in school in the old days when students would sit in a classroom and the professor would talk on and on, and your job as a student was simply to take notes, memorize everything, and play it back on the exam.

Chris:   Yeah.

Jim:   So we’ve already learned in the world of education that if you really want people to learn, you have to engage them more completely. And different people learn in different ways, so some people learn by building things. Some people learn through debate and dialogue. Some people learn by thinking deeply, maybe writing their own version of what they just heard. But however it is you learn, it’s clear that you learned by being active, not by being passive. So if we take those same lessons about what it means to be human in a classroom and think about that in the workplace, we need to activate these spaces more, to activate these meetings to bring more energy. And in fact, if you watch how people who are adopting new practices around innovation are actually working, they’re using design thinking, they’re using agile, and these are naturally processes that are about activity.

Chris:  That are very interactive. Right.

Jim:  You’re brainstorming, you’re generating ideas, you’re going through the divergent phase of innovation. Then you begin to synthesize and make choices about what you’re going to keep and what you’re going to discard. And, you’re developing a point of view, and then you go through it all over again. There is a sense of progress and energy and everyone’s participating, but they’re all participating differently because they’re all different people.

Active collaboration is that idea. And yet when people tried to practice that today, it’s clear they don’t have the tools they need. They want to work that way, and they walk into a conference room with a big table and chairs and it’s beautiful…

Chris:  And it will be weird if you stand up.

Jim:  Yeah. And you’ve got art on the walls. I want to use those walls. I want to write on those walls. I want to put my ideas up on the walls. But they’re not set up for that. So teams are struggling to actually do active collaboration because they don’t have all the capabilities from architecture, from furniture and from technology, but we’re getting ready to change that.

Chris:  Yeah. That was one of the big findings in our research that a lot of people want to be able to move themselves and move their furniture and be empowered to be able to make those choices themselves.

Rebecca:   Now Katie, you know as much as anybody being a distributed employee can be hard.

Katie: Yes.

Rebecca:   Sometimes you miss a lot.

Katie:   Yeah, it can. It can feel like I’m really missing a lot.

Rebecca:  We’re in those meetings and we’re having the conversation and we say, “bye Katie” And then the conversation continues.

Katie:  The conversation continues and I miss it. Or you’re walking through and you see somebody at a bench and you say, “Hey, let’s talk about this, let’s talk about this, let’s call Katie” and you know, you call me on your cell phone or something, and it’s now with the Surface Hub 2, imagine if you could roll me over, call me and… Oh Hey, let’s pull up the content. Let’s collaborate on this piece together.

Rebecca:   It’s like you’re right there.

Katie:   It’s like I’m right there. So Chris talked to Panos about this and asked just about those distributed employees. Let’s listen to what they had to say.

Chris:   So Panos, you’re a global organization. We’re a global organization. A lot of us have teammates who are scattered all over the world, all over the country. And that’s always been a challenge. It’s been a challenge we’ve been trying to work on for a while. So from your perspective and where you guys are going with the Surface family, and particularly with the new Surface Hub. But how was the design of the device changing the way we’re going to have remote participants contribute in collaboration?

Panos:   Here’s what’s amazing about the idea of companies that are continuing to be more global and using the global workforce to connect with each other and create. The amazing part is that the diversity that comes within product making and the inclusion of so many different voices and cultures coming together. I remember 15 years ago you were designing a product in the US you didn’t have that many filters for what is it that somebody in Southeast Asia really wanted relative to this product, but now that the teams are all working together, we feel like we’re in the same room and answering your questions.

This technology enables you to feel like you’re in the same room. And all of a sudden the global scale has been shrunk down to all of us connected visually, we are at a point where we can see each other, the micro tells us that we talked about before or the behaviors, the expressions when you… you might be overseas, but you feel like you’re in the same room.

I think the power of that is so incredible and that’s what this technology is meant to enable; remove all those barriers. And it enables so many new opportunities like cultures coming together to create. And we see that, we see that in the design of our products showing up, we see it in inclusion when we think about how we want to continue to make our products more inclusive, how we want to draw into the world of how to make them more accessible. And what you start to see is so many people with different filters come to play and there’s not one voice stronger than the other. And this is what I’m in love with; What Steelcase does because they understand room dynamics so well. They understand the concept of how people are communicating and who owns the room or how many people are talking at one time.

Jim mentioned today he was used to these meetings that are tiring and just two people talk and everybody watches. And this product, this technology starts to remove those cultural dependencies We used to have in creating with a classic meeting and we started opening the window and doors to more of it. And then now you take the modularity and the movement of the product and where it can be and could be, it may not look the same like oversees, the room changes. There are all these little dynamics that change the emotion and I think we’re going to see that this product specifically is going to enable more diverse perspectives.

Chris:   Inclusiveness.

Panos:   It matters a ton to me and I think seeing that and feeling it and hearing our customers talk about how they now connect globally and how we build products now and how we think about it, it’s pretty inspiring.

Katie: So another reason everyone was in New York was to introduce the Steelcase Flex Collection. Super cool collection designed specifically for teams to empower them to adapt their space however they need to.

Rebecca:   Exactly. And if people haven’t seen the Steelcase Flex Collection, it’s this moveable collection of desks, tables, whiteboards, carts, space dividers, accessories.

Katie:  It’s cool.

Rebecca:  It is. And the height adjustable desk is super cool. You can stand at it with your laptop and it won’t move if you push it or lean against it. But if you come to it sideways, you can literally push it with a fingertip. It is really unique in the way that it’s made it easy for teams to move it around and create the spaces they want to create just on the fly.

Katie:  So much of the magic of this collection is in a details and the designers, they didn’t miss anything, and they really watched teams around the world work in agile ways. And it’s cool to see the pictures that they brought back of how these teams work, the little tiny details that they need. So since we can’t show you all those details, let’s listen to Chris and Jim talk about them in more detail.

Chris:   So with the Steelcase Flex Collection, there’s a lot of interesting things about it. So I’m curious from your perspective, Jim, what are some of the things you love the most out of that collection? Are there, are there a couple of favorites that you could pick out and say, this is really cool?

Jim:   Yeah. So the first thing I love the most is something that’s sort of meta, but it’s the fact that the team that developed Flex actually used Flex prototypes to develop the product line. So from the first week or two I saw them working, they were already prototyping ideas, like the Acoustic Boundaries that are now in the product line were just crazy ideas. I remember standing there next to that team space and looking and thinking, there’s no way that’s ever going to turn into products.

Chris:   Yeah.

Jim:   It was big. It was unclear to me what it was going to do, but they kept iterating on it and now I look at the Acoustic Boundary as product and I say, of course, and everyone who looks at it says, of course, that’s exactly what we wanted. We really had no idea. It was all about experimentation and by using it themselves, they discovered what was useful and what wasn’t.

Chris:   Yeah. The Acoustic Boundary for people who are listening to the podcast, I remember one of the working names was like a Sound Tree because in some ways almost this fabric that covers it. To me looked almost like bark, at least that’s how I associated it, but it almost looks like a tree, but it actually has sound absorbing properties, right?

Jim:   Yeah. It first of all, it helps you create space, so it’s a stand on wheels, you can move it around, it’s this gigantic monolith. It’s very difficult to describe it, but you grab it and you move it and suddenly you have a wall right where you wanted a wall just for a few minutes. It also absorbs sounds, so if you’re having a discussion with your colleagues and a few feet away, someone’s trying to concentrate, there is a sense of separation that’s also acoustic.

And finally it works pretty hard. It can hold whiteboards, it can hold tackable surfaces. It’s tackable itself. It does so many things. I think the reason it’s turned into such an interesting product though is because the team didn’t design it for someone else. They designed it for themselves.

Chris:   Interesting. So they designed it based on their own experience of what they were struggling with.

Jim:   That’s exactly right. And we, we put them in exactly that kind of space. So they were in the middle of this sea of people, sea of teams and by creating that product as a prototype, they began to surround themselves with the product and they would reconfigure it. Every time I went back there it was different somehow. I think they discovered… And so many parts of the Flex Collection actually grew up that way where the teams were using it for different purposes.

Another one is the simple product that we use to hold up whiteboards; this is the stand that you connect to whiteboards so you can set down your laptop. Again, it’s kind of a multipurpose device. It’s very simple, very elegant, and it does what it does very well.

Chris:   Yeah. You can surround yourself with literally whiteboards. You can, you can make your own little room out of whiteboards if you wanted.

Jim:   Yeah.

Chris:    A lot of teams do that.

Jim: I remember being in one of the product reviews, and of course in any product development project you have 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 different ideas and you have this moment where the team has to now begin to cull it back to what is actually going to have enough meaning for users that it stays in the line. And they had all these boards and all these ideas up on the boards and they were using the stand prototype to hold all those boards up. And I remember a point in the meeting where we said, well that’s definitely staying.

Chris:  Yeah. That was cool.

Jim:  We couldn’t have had this meeting without that product.

Chris: Yeah. That is really cool.

Jim:  I’m happy to see it make it to the end.

Rebecca:    So that’s cool to hear. Jim described the development process and what that looked like. And Steelcase Flex recently introduced a new part of the collection, which is Mobile Power. And it’s literally the idea that when you come into the office, you pick up your cup of coffee and you pick up your Mobile Power, take it with you, you can work in the cafe, you can work in these informal spaces and you have power with you for you and your team. Wherever you go.

Katie:  It really solves that need of what our VP of design, James Ludwig calls, power deserts?

Rebecca:   Yes.

Katie:  Right. These beautiful spaces that look good for Instagram, but nobody sits there because there is no power. Steelcase Flex Mobile Power is designed to solve for that.

Rebecca:    And this is nearing the end, Katie.

Katie:  This is the end.

Rebecca:  The part of our series, but before we go, we want to put a bow on it and we asked a lot of the people we talked to throughout these five episodes, what do they think the future truth is for the open office?

Katie:   So we’re going to hear from researcher Caroline Kelly first, then retired industry consultant, Dave Lathrop, journalist, Rob Kirkbride, and of course, O+A founder and designer Verda Alexander.

Caroline Kelly:   The future of the open office is human centered. I think the more we understand about how people really work, how their brains work at work and how their social constructs matter at work, we’re going to be able to more responsively both design open plan offices for them, but also empower them to adapt the office to their needs as their work evolves.

Dave Lathrop:   So I think the key is to be less deterministic about what they need, “and more open to a dialogue about who they are and what they want to do as they become these high performing humans that we hope they will be.” So my answer to, is there a future in the open offices? Of course there’s a future in the open office. It’s part of the scenario. It’s part of the landscape. It’s not the answer.

Rob Kirkbride:  Yeah. I think the easy answer would be to say choice, give people choice and where they should work. That’s the obvious answer. I think we also need to create products that help them to do that, to make good choices in the office. The industry does a good job in addressing some of these things, not so good in other ways, but obviously the open office is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s just the way that the design is applied and if it’s applied well, people are happy with the place that they work.

Verda Alexander:   And so I think the office will be landing somewhere in between. We’ll be going back a little but we’ll of course not lose the progress that we’ve made in so many areas. Definitely open office is not going away.

Rebecca:   So before we go, we want to thank Chris, Jim and Panos for bringing us that conversation from York and we also want to remind you if you want any information that you’ve heard us talk about here, if you want to see Steelcase Flex, Steelcase Flex Mobile Power, Steelcase Rome, you can go to steelcase.com/openofficetruth where we’ve put all of that information along with a link to all five episodes in our series.

Katie:   Well Rebecca, this is it, this is the last episode.

Rebecca:  I’m sad, but I also know there’s a lot more good stuff to come.

Katie:   Yeah, there’s a lot more good stuff to come. So we have coming up a conversation with James Ludwig, our vice president of global design and engineering and he sat down with Steven Yang, who’s the CEO of Anchor Innovations, which is the organization that we worked with to develop the Steelcase Flex Mobile Power. Great conversation there. We also talk to Ingrid Fetell Lee on her book Joyful: the Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Bring you Extraordinary Happiness. She was really interesting. Let’s listen to what she had to say.

Ingrid Fetell Lee:   Oh, it’s such a misconception, right? That joy and work are separate, because the reality is that little moments of joy can radically improve our performance at work.

Katie:  So that was a really fun conversation. And to make sure you don’t miss it by subscribing to What Workers Want, a Steelcase 360 Podcast and share this podcast with your friends in case they need a little joyful design or a little truth about the open office,

Rebecca:   I could always use a little more joy, right?

Katie:   Yes.

Rebecca:   So reminder; if you want to hear any previous episodes, go to steelcase.com/openofficetruth. We want to thank everybody for joining us. Katie. Thanks for hosting all of these episodes.

Katie:  Thank you, Rebecca, and that’s it. I can’t believe we made it.

Rebecca:    It’s a wrap.

Katie:   Five episodes that’s a wrap.