The purpose-driven office


Herman Miller Inc. says its Living Office concept isn’t about furniture, it’s about people.

Joseph White, Herman Miller’s director of workplace strategy, design and management, was on hand in Chicago last week during the NeoCon commercial interiors trade show to talk about how Living Office is playing out across the country.

The Living Office approach considers how to arrange surroundings, furniture and tools to meet needs and improve the work experience.

“In a Living Office,” Herman Miller’s website states, “people can choose from a range of spaces that better support their activities, strengthen their connection with colleagues, and help fulfill their specific purpose.”

White said since it was introduced in 2013, Herman Miller has studied Living Office at 120 workplaces with 22-1,800 employees, ranging from local startups to established global corporations in a variety of industries.

White said he’s seen offices completely transformed.

“It is a comprehensive and holistic approach to work,” he said. “It’s more than just saying ‘We need collaboration, so we are going to put some sofas and white boards over here next to these work stations.’

“You need to understand how that intervention plays in the broader context. How does it play in the environment? How does it play with what people are doing? How is it connected to the larger solution?”

White said ideally, Herman Miller partners with an organization and the design firm hired for the project.

He said the first question is, “What is the organization’s purpose?”

“Is the company trying to increase innovation, efficiency, attract and retain talent, improve brand connection between its employees’ relationship to the brand, or its customers’ relationship to the brand — a whole list of things,” he said. “It’s important to identify those things up front.”

Next, eight character factors are studied, including whether the environment is formal or casual, and whether the company is locally or globally focused.

“This helps us understand where an organization is and where they want to go,” he said. “For example, ‘We are really formal today, but we want to adopt a more casual working style.’ ”

Understanding where a company is and how it wants to change informs the final strategy and can prevent a company from making the wrong changes.

White said a small New York startup with a very casual environment thought it needed to become much more formalized to support its growth.

“They were in startup mode, all in one big room; it was a huge mess,” White said. “They said ‘We need to get more formal in our environment,’ but by going through the process they realized that was a knee-jerk reaction …. By going through the process, they adjusted their goals and expectations.”

White said once the organization’s purpose is defined and a character profiled, the next step is to figure out what people are actually doing day to day.

“We did some extensive research,” White said. “We came away with a list of something like 35 unique activities people were doing. That isn’t manageable, so we distilled it into a condensed list of 10 activities.”

Of those 10, White said three are typically done individually and the other seven are typically done in teams or in collaboration.

“We prioritize those activities, based on how important they are to the organization and their workflow,” he said. “Then, are they supported or not within your current environment?”

Often, the highest-priority activities do not have the support necessary.

“We do that with all 10 activities,” White said. “Once you go through that whole process you really have a solid road map to say ‘this is where we should focus our attention or investment in a space.’”

White said the next step is figuring out the right settings to support the work.

“That is where we start to get into the place-making and thinking about these specific types of settings, and making sure they are purpose built to serve these types of activities,” he said.

That purpose-built environment is key.

“It comes down to when you understand people and you design for their fundamental needs and what they are doing, then organizations will benefit and business will benefit,” White said. “You have to design from the person out.”

White said now with the results of the study in hand, Herman Miller is trying to reach more organizations and design teams with Living Office.

He also said while Living Office was launched with the office environment in mind, he would not be surprised to see it evolve to health care, education and even residential design.

“It’s really about the human condition and how we interact with each other and environments in general,” he said. “People are always interacting with each other and an environment.”

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