Public Office Landscape
3 years ago, I was walking the halls of the Cologne office furniture show Orgatech with Don Goeman. We took... >>
3 years ago, I was walking the halls of the Cologne office furniture show Orgatech with Don Goeman. We took a stroll to discuss final details on the SAYL chair, which was being presented for the first time there and was in it's final tooling adjustments. With his finger he pointed at a couch, poufs and sectionals all made of big blocks of foam. He said, "someday we'll have to re-invent foam.” He meant that designers basically visually translated the idea of casual office meetings and the need to communicate comfort as "big chunks of foam say comfort!" A year later, we started discussing the "future of the office.”
It was a truly perfect moment for me and the fuseproject team to jump into a new big partnership with Herman Miller. And large scale it was! What was clear to me in the last 11 years of the fuseproject office and my almost daily visits at SF and Silicon Valley companies, is that the way people are working is changing dramatically, but the office furniture is not. People want to collaborate easily, but instead they are faced with friction everywhere around them. What we found out through dozens of visits to both traditional businesses around the world, and edgy ones in the Bay Area, was quite similar to how we had been working at fuseproject the entire time. Frictions in the workplace are numerous, from a lack of close-by meeting spaces to technology glitches, and these frictions interrupt productivity, stifle collaboration, and ultimately effect company-wide performance.
The Herman Miller brief was to design the ultimate collaborative office environment. What the brief did not include are limitations, such as "design a desk system, meeting spaces or lounges.” At the very same time, we were designing the interior of our new fuseproject office, a 22,000 square foot open warehouse in SF's Potrero Hill. This was the perfect opportunity for us to design, prototype, and ultimately put ourselves inside our own design process. We lived with slowly evolving versions of the system for 18 months, literally growing every part of a vast system, researching and evaluating variations, and refining what was to become of Public. Herman Miller was ever present, with researchers that would observe the fuseproject team months at a time, and engineering review trips every week or two.
We had 4 big moments that informed the entire approach for Public over its two years of development.
First, research about collaboration and brain function brought us to the notion of FLOW. A Polish researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had done extensive studies on this notion of flow, and one of his quotes became a guiding principle: “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity." We connected his ideas with our research and concluded that as a workforce, we’re less anchored than ever, craving an unprecedented MOBILITY. COLLABORATION is the new normal, and TECHNOLOGY is pervasive and ever–changing. People today work in flexible and fluid ways that defy traditional cubicles and conference rooms. We wanted to design a system that catches our space up to how we really wanted to work.
Second, we found this statistic: 70% of collaboration happens at the workstation. This hit me like lightning and I wrote this on the project wall: "The majority of collaboration happens at the desk, yet desks have never been designed for interaction." With the belief that the more people connect, the better they work, our approach began to think of every place in the office, including one's individual desk, as a place for collaboration. We came up with the notion of "Social Desking.” Instead of being designed for one worker, we developed a system that is inviting to guests, with shared surfaces, no hierarchy implied by the use of small side chairs, and collaboration areas in close proximity.
Third, we realized that there were lots of attempts in the furniture industry to try to solve for collaboration and productivity as isolated events, attempting to patch an outdated two-space paradigm of desks vs. conference rooms. In traditional spaces, collaborative meeting space is separated from the main work area, distancing focused and social work habits and requiring extra space devoted to meetings. What we knew from experience is that the further the meeting room, the less likely collaboration would happen. Public addresses collaboration not in moments, but as a movement. Increased collaborative space is built directly into the floor plan, placing interaction directly at the center of work. We designed Public with collaboration spread evenly throughout the space, from Individual Spaces, to Interstitial Spaces and to Group Spaces.
Fourth, remember Don Goeman pointing at the block of foams? I have never found residential furniture or office "lounge furniture" to have much ergonomic merit. In fact, I have had many backaches from slumping in a couch while on my laptop. Additionally, big upholstered blocks of foam seem like such a waste of materials, a sustainability opportunity. So we designed the key modular component of the system to be ergonomic, inviting with the option of a casual or working position, and in a suspension system that is ergonomic and gets rid of the silly foam materials. We called it the Social Chair, and designed it to be a magnet for collaboration. Connecting people to people, the Social Chair blends the functionality of side chairs and casual furniture to encourage less formal interactions and the free flow of ideas. Visitors who feel valued and relaxed are more willing to share and participate, which leads to more frequent and more productive collaboration.
The Solution is a system based on 3 beliefs, all attempting to reach the ideal state of FLOW in an office. A place where each person is engaged, focused, and able to move freely between tasks without interruption:
1) VARIETY IN PROXIMITY: We believe having a variety of workspaces is not a luxury—it’s essential to productivity and engagement. We know that collaborative moments are more productive when they’re complimented by spaces to focus, and most traditional spaces go unused because they’re inconvenient. Public covers a full activity spectrum within close proximity; solutions span from solo to group, private to shared. Public is made of 3 types of spaces, using shared components that are highly reconfigurable.
INDIVIDUAL SPACES are workstations designed for interaction. We call the ultimate collaborative workstation a Social Suite. It has a generous work surface and dedicated space for guests and storage, all in one space. Social Pods are an arrangement of the system that makes high-density desking social. Collaboration tools like whiteboards and displays are in close proximity and create a “sense of place” by activating the end caps. High density companies like benching for its simplicity, sense of community and open feel. Benching encourages conversation with those who sit around you, but it isn’t conducive for visitors or meetings. Social Pods solve this by introducing team space in the immediate proximity of desks.
INTERSTITIAL SPACES are solutions for everything in between individual desks. INTERSTITIAL SPACES CONVERT CIRCULATION SPACE INTO USABLE SPACE. A defined community space builds office culture through quick, casual interactions. Relaxed, open areas also offer a mental break for employees to recharge and refresh.
Open, collaborative spaces are most successful when they’re balanced with privacy. Easily accessible FOCUS WORK areas for phone calls and concentration make open offices comfortable.
Finally GROUP SPACES are destinations for working together. Public Group Spaces are community destinations for brainstorming, teamwork, digital presentations and meetings. With the visual and acoustic privacy of a built space, solutions can be up and running with less time and financial investment than traditional, permanent room build-outs.
2) COLLABORATIVE DENSITY: We believe collaboration doesn’t just happen in conference rooms—it happens everywhere. Successful, positive collaboration affects the quality of our ideas, drives innovation and helps businesses succeed. Public supports the fluid interactions and spontaneous conversations that are common in thriving businesses. The seating elements flow into desk surfaces, and fabric elements cleanly flow into hard surfaces.
The result is a visual connection that encourages new functionality and casual postures. This meant we were designing for a new category of ergonomics.
Spontaneous, drop-in seating for collaboration is not well represented in the market, and most solutions are adapted from residential furniture. The Public seating is designed for collaborative ergonomics and creates a new category of furniture: social performance seating. It supplements high performance, task seating with a casual, shared option. We believe that social performance seating is a paradigm shift in the industry - the social chair is the first in its class.
3) EVOLUTIONARY DESIGN: We believe that workplaces are like businesses—they must continually change and adapt if they are to thrive. Public breaks the trend of static furniture and evolves with your work. Modular elements can evolve as team’s size and needs change. Walls, seating components and storage can be re-configured and adapted to new needs. The components are all the same across Individual Spaces, Interstitial Spaces and Group Spaces… hence, they can be re-deployed in new layouts that fit a companies' changing needs.
Public integrates the elements of flow on every level, from the individual ergonomics of each piece, to the various configurations and elements the system offers. The design is extended to smarter couches, which are superior to current residential adaptation for the office. In addition, our approach for technology is to create flexibility in the system, as well as AV carts that add function to any space, and easily upgrade without having to replace the whole furniture system.
We are currently living in the last iteration of Public: a 4 months old prototype made of 65 desks, and 20 or so lounging and meeting areas. Elements of the final version is presented at Neocon 2013.
About Herman Miller's Living Office
Living Office is a different approach to managing people and their work, the tools and products that enable that work, and the places where people come together to do it. Together with Yves Behar’s fuseproject, Sam Hecht and Kim Colin, and Studio 7.5, Herman Miller is expanding its offering of human-centered elements to create a total work experience that is more natural and desirable, and within it the opportunity for individuals and organizations to achieve a new dynamic of shared prosperity. Built on what is fundamental to all humans, Living Office will help both people and their organizations to update their places, tools, and the management of the workplace, to uniquely express and enable shared character and purpose.<<