WTF is Happening to the Office: Episode 2 Part 1 with Ryan Anderson

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Welcome to our new docuseries exploring what is happening to the office through the lens of trusted and emerging thinkers.

Ryan Anderson, VP of Global Research and Insights at MillerKnoll, believes that traditional office design is no longer suitable for the current workforce. With the rise of remote work and demand for flexibility, businesses need to rethink how they use their office spaces. Ryan explores how our focus must shift to what employees need to be successful, rather than just providing spaces for leaders to supervise work.

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Video Transcript

Expectations (1:00)

Ryan Anderson: I think when we look at the What The F Is Happening To The Office, one of the things we need to look at is this balance off, is this space primarily designed for the employees or is it designed for the leaders? And what I mean by that is, the expectations of leaders have historically been that the office provides a certain image for the organization, that it allows them to supervise employees and supervise work.

And if that’s still the goal, then I think there’s kind of a questionable return on that investment because we’ve seen just how productive people can be in a wide variety of places, and there’s a strong demand for employee flexibility. So I like to look at it in terms of what are the ways that employees are reshaping the office?

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I had the privilege of writing a piece for Work Design on this [read “How Will We View Today’s Transformation of the Workplace in Twenty Years” article here], where we articulated the view that what’s really happening is that offices are becoming what the employees need them to be. Because in a world where you can be productive, a lot of places, the primary return on those real estate investments are going to be the degree to which they help people to be successful. They bring people together. And that’s a bigger shift than I think most organizations realize. I know there’s always been efforts to get employee input and have a sense of what a team does, but if you look, offices are pretty close to the way they were originally designed in the 1800s. Again, more to supervise work than to fully enable it.


It happened for me in 2005, when I talked with an organization in Minneapolis who said to me, our IT people gave everyone wireless and no one’s sitting at their desk. Now that was, we didn’t even use the term WiFi at the time, but basically, this organization, it was like the first time I had a conversation where someone said, yeah, people can work wherever. Now, some of the people had maybe gone somewhere else, but most of them were in the facility. They were just in group spaces, meeting spaces. Many of them had gone to the cafeteria. But I pondered this for quite a while after that conversation. And it was like, oh. People are finally getting untethered from the cubicles that they have been forced to work in.


And so the next 15 years was the work spreading out, which is distributed working. In some ways our team was kind of puzzled that organizations hadn’t adapted their spaces more, despite our efforts and your efforts and others to encourage this to offer more choice, offer more variety. Not just in terms of spaces, but experiences, like what are you actually seeking out of the office if you can move around and work in different places. And so I view the pandemic not as the disruptor of the office. I view the pandemic as a long overdue correction to the general direction of the office. It’s a little bit like when the symptoms get so bad that you feel like you gotta go into the doctor. Well, the doctor’s appointment wasn’t what caused your issue.


It had been building for a while and organizations were putting more and more small desks that were utilized less and less for a decade at the same time that the employees were spreading out and doing a more diverse set of activities throughout the workday. It didn’t make sense. I think many of us were telling everyone, hey, there’s a better approach, and there were some really good examples of better approaches.


But no, I think this is like a reckoning. Not, not in such a negative way necessarily. It might be a really good thing. It might be just what the world needs so that people can take a look at these spaces and say, hang on, if we’re spending this much on people and this much on real estate, what’s the point of the real estate, unless it’s there to help the people?


So what do they need? But those conversations ideally would’ve been happening a lot deeper, a long time ago.

Is The Office Changing Globally? (04:45)

I have a favorite quote from a futurist named Paul Saffo. He said, “never mistake a clear view for a short distance”. So yes, but with the qualifier that in our industry, things do move slow. Some of it’s the build cycles with real estate, but a lot of it, honestly, is just changes in managerial attitudes. So it’s not necessarily like everything’s turned on a dime, but I think those organizations that are embracing more flexibility, in terms of how their people can work and where their people can work are, are experiencing a fundamental reevaluation of this, and that those ideas are likely to spread.


They existed pre-pandemic. If you look at consulting firms, as an example, they knew that their people were with clients three or four days a week. They wanted to create these hubs, these magnet spaces to build culture and give people a chance to really enjoy themselves and, in some ways, you know, we’re a predecessor of some of the direction that we’re seeing now.


But yeah, I think there are fundamental changes happening. There’s a move away from generic office planning where spaces are filled with desks and conference rooms. They’re moving towards trying to support better experiences at strengthening the networks within organizations, providing people what they can’t find at home.


And that over time, it probably will affect workplaces almost everywhere, but it’ll likely take a long time. I’m eyeing retirement in like, maybe 15 years. I would love it if some of this were really happening by then, but I’m a realist. I don’t know that it’ll be transformed everywhere.

Space Supports The Network (06:23)

What is a company? It’s a network of people that are trying to achieve things together to make the organization successful, get some good shareholder returns, hopefully, positively impact the world and the reason why companies exist instead of it being a total set of freelancers, like a total gig economy, is that they believe that there needs to be some core network that operates really well together.


So for me, I’ll come back time and time and again to – how does this space support the health of the network? Because you can have a bunch of freelancers that just work from anywhere and get a certain amount done. There’s a framework from the world of sociology that we lean on hard a lot, which is known as ‘Strong Ties, Weak Ties’ – a framework created by this guy named Mark Granovetter at Stanford back in the seventies. And it’s a useful framework for all of us to understand in this context because, basically, it’s a description of our networks and our strong ties are our closest networks, our closest friends, family. It’s whoever we’re living life with, people we talk to pretty much every week or we see every week. And that’s important because that’s who has our backs and that’s who we live with, kind of in the course of a week.


But the extended networks we have are known as weak ties, and that might sound unimportant, but it’s actually critically important. Weak ties are all those people that are in our lives that help us to feel part of something. It could be friends from high school, it could be coworkers that you see in the hallway, it could be neighbors and the pandemic just decimated our weak ties. You know, we quarantined with small groups of people, we hopped on Zoom calls with a very limited set of people that we knew we had to have meetings with, and we cut ourselves off from thousands typically of people in our lives, certainly hundreds.


So if you look at what’s happening in societies around the world, whether it’s people convening for entertainment or dining or at places of worship or whatever, it’s like we’re strengthening our communities all over the world. But the workplace is struggling. Most organizations are behaving like hundreds of tiny little companies instead of a cohesive whole. People left that had established networks, new people came in that didn’t have any networks. And if you look at how organizations are trying to be productive, little teams can be innovative and implement things, but when you try to scale across the organization and you’ve got all these fragmented, disconnected teams, it’s harmful.


And so I think just straight up business case, those spaces should be the most important places for these extended networks, these weak ties to be strengthened, to give places for the strong ties that go beyond a video meeting. You know, it’s nice to hang out with your team too, right? Get some good quality time.


There’s also some specific things I think these spaces need to do to help ensure positive productivity, like giving people the chance to do focused work. But you can almost view it like a bell curve, where on one side it’s social, not in an unproductive way, but in a critically productive way. On the other end, it’s about focus and concentration, and people want to be able to experience that range of things, and organizations should provide it if they care about their people being productive and being part of a productive whole.


But the design of offices just didn’t support either end of that bell curve very well in the past, and they’re going to need to in the future.

About Innovation (09:37)

Weak ties are really, really important to help take organizations to the next level. It’s the difference between operating just as a team and operating as something that feels like there’s a greater power of the collective whole, but it just doesn’t happen organically.


Part of it is people getting to know each other and just having good relationships. That’s where it starts. But it’s also like trying to figure out where the work intersects. We work with an organizational sociologist, Dr. Andreas Hoffbauer, who we’ve explored this idea with him around – what does it look like to bump into other people’s work?


It’s one thing to see people in the office, but to go into a team neighborhood or go into a project space, and know that a group is working on something, even if it’s only tangentially related to what you do, first of all, it gives you a greater sense of what’s going on, but very often it causes that, Huh – I wonder if they know that she’s doing this, or I wonder if they knew that this other group two years ago did this. Because it’s the difference between working in a vacuum and working as part of a group that has a shared history and lots going on that could be made to work better together. So it’s kind of cliche at times when we say, Oh – we need those spontaneous collisions, or we need to be in the office to better collaborate, which can seem like an empty promise to people that are really good at digital collaboration.


But when you talk about, Hey – let’s get together to have a really strong network of collaborators, that usually resonates because even the most digitally proficient people often go to conferences to get together, remote first companies often spend a lot of time doing on sites. The very companies that best enable digital interactions are the ones that are building out large spaces. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. So we just need to recognize that, the health of the network and the ability for people to bring these ideas together is what differentiates a really high performance organization from one that just maintains basic levels of productivity.


And I should note that the best available data indicates that productivity levels are high. But when you ask people about their productivity, they almost always respond with their individual work. And there’s something valuable about organizational leaders saying, we need you to operate as a more cohesive whole, like, we need you to invest time in one another. And we view that as productive. So, you know, clear out some of your calendar, don’t allow anybody to block it for meetings. Yes, get some heads down work, but at this point in our time, spending time investing in those relationships with each other is arguably the most important business imperative that any organization should have.

Balancing Priorities (12:22)

For me, it starts with organizations prioritizing the question, how can we work better now? And it usually happens at a team level, but that’s a conversation that can open up to a variety of things that are really useful, and it’s also very employee-centric. So as a CEO to say to the various team leaders, departmental leaders, please engage with your people on the topic of – how can we work better moving forward? What have we learned the last few years? How are we operating? What tools have we used?


There’s been an explosion in the number of productivity applications at most organizations, just getting the employees feeling empowered to think, Huh – well, this is how I do it, but maybe we should be doing it this way, to me, is the first step.


And it actually is the key to getting to what the space needs to do. I’ll use university students as an example. If you’ve got a group of students and they get assigned a project at the beginning of a semester, they’re likely gonna sit down and say, okay, what is this we have to do? How should we do it? How do we divide this? What tools should we use? When should we get together? Where should we get together? They’ll figure it out. And if it’s advanced mathematics, it might be that they’re in front of a whiteboard in a classroom three days a week, but if it’s a report that they can write separate sections, it might be totally asynchronous, they do it from their dorms. But if the professor were to sit there and say, all right, here’s your student project. You can do this from your dorm two days a week, from the student union one day a week, and from the library two days a week, the students would likely look at the professor like, what a weird and arbitrary set of constraints you just provided us.


And unfortunately, the conversation about hybrid is so counterproductive right now because while employees are asking for more flexibility, leaders are preoccupied/obsessed with where. You can do this here, you can do this there. Don’t start the conversation there. It doesn’t actually transform the work at all.


If you start the conversation with how could we work better, you get a more agile, more empowered workforce, and then it becomes clear how your spaces can support them. But I think that the world is largely stuck. They decided to support more flexibility with a hybrid strategy that kind of got certain parameters around where somebody could work.


That doesn’t mean that anybody’s actually working any better than they were in June of 2020 because we’re still essentially operating in a crisis response to being sent home. This isn’t really fully empowered, flexible, working as organizations could enable them.

On Existing Space (15:00)

The old rules of occupancy planning, I think, were in question before the pandemic and, and it’s even tougher now. It does take a concerted effort to try to understand the people and the work they do, but ideally, those strategies around a full real estate portfolio would be informed by some of what you want to have happen with the work within each team in the organization. So if it’s a sales office, yeah, it’s gonna be a place that probably has low occupancy, because you want the employees out there selling. But when they come together, they need to coordinate on some really important things. If it’s a product development team, there’s probably a physicality to the work, there’s a certain level of unstructured improvisational work. You’re probably gonna want to see higher levels of occupancy, but you’re going to really need to think about the sort of tools that you’re providing those teams.


It’s complicated, but we can’t really imagine a path forward on how to evolve existing portfolios without those organizations getting much deeper into the work that those teams do. That is the key. And it’s been a little rudimentary, if I’m being honest, in the past. I’m not sure that the traditional approach to supporting work has really fully understood it. The questions that were asked were often not as deep as maybe they could have been.

Building The Foundation (16:20)

I think it can begin with facilities and real estate teams and others. Ideally, IT and HR are involved in this. Beginning to have much more time immersed with the teams working there. So going and setting up Zoom calls or focus groups and just saying, Hey – tell us about what your team does. Tell us about how these activities go. Are you changing the way you work? Are you changing the way you use different technology tools? What sort of experiences or what sort of processes are you really reliant upon our space to do? And I don’t know that all has to happen at once. I mean, like I said, we’re into a slow evolution. Most companies don’t have the capital to go redo everything, so it’s going to be an evolution of existing portfolios and if you go building by building and group by group and begin to have more of those conversations, it’s a good path towards having the employees feel engaged, like they have a voice, and also being more inclusive, because the more you listen, the more you understand that unique set of needs. But I often anchor my thoughts about where this is going in the experiences of what some organizations like Atlassian or Okta or others have done, that where they actually have told their employees they don’t have to come to the office.


I’m not suggesting that every organization needs to do this. But take Atlassian as an example. I was in their headquarters in Sydney in 2018. It was stunning – biophilic design, neighborhood-based planning. I mean, it was so cool, so far ahead of the times. And in October of 2020, they told their employees, you don’t ever have to come back.


And we’re thankful to have them as a customer, but I’m also really thankful that they’ve continued to open up new spaces, including a new headquarters in Sydney. We had Samantha Fisher who was with Okta as a guest on our podcast talking about a similar thing they’ve gone through. And if you ask why, why is it that organizations that told their employees, they don’t ever have to come back or are actually expanding their number of locations? It’s because behind the scenes, they had to reevaluate what those spaces were, when they had to engage with the employees and say, okay, well you don’t ever have to go here, but what do you want them to be?


Well, it’s a place for community reconnection. It’s a place to have more immersive hangout time with my immediate team. It’s a place for focus. It’s a place that supports respite and wellbeing. If I’m feeling stressed, I mean, there are clear patterns that begin to emerge. But it’s encouraging to me that organizations who have taken that risk didn’t just go shut down their portfolios. They evolved fairly rapidly, and now the rest of us can be on a journey that maybe doesn’t happen in quite such an abrupt way, but it starts with that engagement. What do you need this space to be in order to be your best? In order for us to perform our best?

The Data (19:07)

If I look at our research through Future Forum, we survey 10,000 people every quarter. Last quarter of the 10,000 people surveyed, only 14% wanted to be fully remote, 20%, a higher number, wanted to be full-time in the office. We don’t talk about them very much. 66% wanted some sort of hybrid arrangement.


And if I were to think about any sort of product that we might offer the world, if we went and surveyed 10,000 people and 14% said, no, I don’t want to use it at all, but the other 86% said, yeah, I want to use it. Just varying amounts of time, we do a backflip. You know, the issue isn’t with demand, the issue is with the product. It has to have that value prop. It has to understand the user needs enough to say, okay, we’ve listened to you and we’ve delivered you what you need. And I know that’s daunting, but it can happen over years and it probably will happen over years.

Designing The Organization (20:00)

There is work to be done to strengthen and reestablish what a good organizational structure looks like in almost any organization. That isn’t always happening, but I think if you talk with a lot of HR leaders, I feel like I’ve talked with more HR leaders in the last two years than I have in the 26 previous, they understand that there’s so much change happening that we need a solid footing for the organization to grow in the future, and that the physical environment plays a really critical role in that.

Feeling Inspired? Here Are the Actions You Can Take Now:

  1. Tune into Looking Forward. Use MillerKnoll’s podcast on the future of work (on Spotify or Apple Podcasts) to help align you and your team on key issues to be addressed. If time is tight, begin with episodes 1, 4, 6 & 7 of Season 2. If you have more time, consider using it as an internal “book club” to align on key priorities for your team. We’ve heard feedback from many organizations who have enjoyed doing so.
  2. Pilot a focus group. Surveys are useful, but are better at providing breadth rather than depth. If you’ve never done so before, try conducting a focus group to discuss work experience with a team outside of CRE. Don’t begin by asking them about space, but rather about how they’re working: how it’s different than a few years ago, what is going well and what is challenging, and then move on to learn what value they’re seeking from your spaces and how they’re doing.  Imagine that your spaces are a product and you’re meeting with “customers” to understand them and their needs. Then, consider scheduling monthly focus group sessions with various other groups and documenting what you learn.
  3. Establish a long-term value proposition for your spaces. While there may be short-term pressures to improve occupancy rates or sublease unused space, dedicated time as a team to align on this question, “How will our spaces deliver value to our employees over time?” This may vary by location and business function and might include considerations such as “connecting more deeply than what’s possible on video”, “providing spaces for uninterrupted focus”, “fostering a sense of belonging” or any number of other experiences. Then, use this vision to ensure that your spaces do a better job of delivering that value than what can be experienced elsewhere. That vision will also inform short-term decision-making.

Mentioned Reading:


Meet Ryan Anderson, Vice President of Global Research and Insights

For over 100 years, Herman Miller has been a leading voice in the design of home and office spaces—and Ryan Anderson’s team of researchers and insight sharers bring it all together.

Ryan is at the forefront of questioning the status quo, seeking to better understand how to create better spaces for working and living. When it comes to better understanding the future and the spaces we’ll inhabit, there isn’t a topic Ryan isn’t ready to explore.

Areas of Expertise: Workplace (Past, Present, Future)

Episode 2 Part 1 Credits:

  • Created By Bob Fox
  • Produced By Work Design Magazine
  • Directed By Bob Fox
  • Edited By Katie Sargent & Bob Fox
  • Special Thanks to Amanda Gram & Malena Boylan
Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson serves as Vice President of Global Research and Insights at MillerKnoll. His team leads MillerKnoll’s research efforts in partnership with a wide variety of global collaborators and is active in sharing insights gained from that research with organizations across the world. With nearly thirty years of industry experience, Ryan’s work has centered on how the places we inhabit can be better designed and managed to support positive, productive experiences. Ryan hosts MillerKnoll’s Looking Forward podcast on the future of work, regularly speaks at public events about MillerKnoll’s historical and current research, and in addition to writing for Work Design, has been featured in wide variety of publications such as The Wall Street Journal, NPR, the BBC, Fortune, Bloomberg and beyond.
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Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson serves as Vice President of Global Research and Insights at MillerKnoll. His team leads MillerKnoll’s research efforts in partnership with a wide variety of global collaborators and is active in sharing insights gained from that research with organizations across the world. With nearly thirty years of industry experience, Ryan’s work has centered on how the places we inhabit can be better designed and managed to support positive, productive experiences. Ryan hosts MillerKnoll’s Looking Forward podcast on the future of work, regularly speaks at public events about MillerKnoll’s historical and current research, and in addition to writing for Work Design, has been featured in wide variety of publications such as The Wall Street Journal, NPR, the BBC, Fortune, Bloomberg and beyond.
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