Host Ryan Anderson takes time to share some highlights from Season 1 and set the stage for Season 2 by answering the two most frequently asked questions he gets asked once people find out what he does for a living: What is the current state of return-to-office? And what does it mean for the future of the workplace?
Hey, everyone! I’m Ryan Anderson, Vice President of Global Research and Insights at MillerKnoll—and your host for “Looking Forward: Conversations about the Future of Work.”
If you’re a first-time listener, welcome! We put this podcast together as a digestible—and hopefully, interesting—way to explore big topics related to the changing nature of work and workplace.
If you subscribed to Season 1 and thought that you’d subscribe to a Herman Miller podcast, you’re not wrong. Since we wrapped last season, Herma Miller joined forces with another leading name and modern design—Knoll—and we created MillerKnoll as a collective of brands that includes Herman Miller and Knoll and is guided by a shared vision, common values, and a steadfast commitment to design.
If you haven’t yet listened to Season 1, be sure to check it out. We talked with folks like Brian Elliott from Future Forum, Darren Murph from GitLab, Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes from AKKA Architects, and john a. powell from the University of California Berkeley, as we discussed the future of hybrid working, smart buildings, changes in workplace design and planning, ways to foster a greater sense of belonging among team members, and a host of other topics.
So, we’re excited to announce that we’ll begin regularly releasing Season 2 episodes here in the coming weeks, and you’ll gain new insight from conversations with some of the leading voices in real estate, workplace strategy, interior design, technology, HR, and a host of other functions.
But before we get there, I’d actually like to use this time to kind of level-set and discuss the future of work and the state of the workplace as it exists today in summer of 2022. Now, normally I’ll be interviewing other people, but in this case, this is just me being able to share a little bit with you about what we’re learning through our research.
And today, the most frequently asked questions I get are what’s the current state on return to office and how should we rethink our workplace strategy for the future of work. So those are not small questions, but I’m going to try to address them in a fairly concise way just as a way of setting the tone as a bridge between Season 1 and 2. So let’s unpack those questions separately
First, what’s the current state on return-to-office.
Well, simply put, it’s highly varied and much of the success of an RTO policy rests on how confident employees are that they’ll retain flexibility if they start spending more time in the office.
Let me explain. MillerKnoll is a founding partner along with Slack, Boston Consulting Group, and Management Leadership for Tomorrow in a consortium focused on the future of work called Future Forum. Among other activities, we survey 10,000 global knowledge workers every quarter and conduct executive roundtables to better understand how work is evolving. And this information, this data, paints a really interesting picture.
In most parts of the world. There is a major push for more flexibility among employees. In fact, 79 percent of global knowledge workers want more flexibility with where they can work, but 94 percent want more flexibility in when they can work.
So, employees feel that they’ve performed well throughout the pandemic. They’ve achieved a greater degree of work-life balance, and they’re pushing back against the traditional work week which they view as inflexible and taking a toll on their lives. The demand for more flexibility is particularly noticeable among women (many of whom are caregivers) and people of color (who may feel that they’re better represented through digital interactions and can find relief from the need to code-switch and micro-aggressions in the workplace, particularly in workplaces that are more traditional or hierarchical). You can learn more about this, by the way, in Episode 1 and Episode 9 of our first season.
So, the data indicates that knowledge workers with little to no flexibility to set their own work hours are 2.6 times more likely to look for a new job in the coming year compared to those with more schedule flexibility.
And for those who have been forced back into the office full-time, they rate their sense of belonging, work-related stress and anxiety, and work/life balance significantly lower than those who can work more flexibly.
While at times, this might seem like a rejection of the office—like their hesitancy to come into the office is a critique of the office itself. That’s really not the case. In fact, a small minority of those surveyed want to be fully remote. However, most are nervous that spending more time in the office is a tacit agreement that they’re going to return to old ways of working.
So, the solution to this is to frame a “return-to-office” or “office reopening” not as an exercise in compliance, but as something that can be beneficial to employees and provide them with the assurance that they’re going to maintain long-term flexibility.
Of those surveyed, 66 percent of executives believe that they’re being very transparent with their post-pandemic work policies, but only 42 percent of employees agree.
So, clearly there is a communications disconnect there.
Speaking of communications, you know the communications from employers to employees that sound controlling are likely to actually create resistance rather than participation when it comes to having people spend more time in the office. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Consider one example where a company sends emails to an employee or to their employees that says something like, “Hey, you’re valuable to our culture. We’ve missed you. We know that many of our employees have grown socially isolated in the last couple of years and we’ve got new employees who have yet to form friendships or strong relationships with others. So, we need your help in strengthening the health of our community and building our culture and we’d ask that you please spend the equivalent of 2 or 3 days a week in the office spending quality time with others.”
Then, compare that to a different approach, where a company might simply send a recap of their policy in an email that says, “We believe work is better done together. We ask that you please spend a minimum of two days or three days in the office each week and coordinate those with your manager.”
Now, the second email actually didn’t sound that bad, right? It wasn’t hostile. But it maybe conveys that this is a policy decision, that it’s about compliance, and it can limit employee autonomy. Whereas the first communication really conveyed that employees are valued and trusted and seeks their participation in building that organization’s culture and ultimately better organizational outcomes. And so, these communication strategies are really important.
Interestingly there’s growing evidence that that second approach, where it feels a little bit more policy-focused or compliance-focused, is actually counter-productive. That it creates a stand-off, and that people are really hesitant to go in. And that more freedom may actually produce better occupancy levels.
So, as an example, you may have seen recent articles. Highlighting that the highest occupancy rates in the US as of May 2022 are in Austin, Texas. One reporter asked why this was, and the CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce said, and I quote, “In a lot of places, companies are having to create brand new policies around flexible work schedules. Many of our companies already have them,” end quote. In other words, coming back to the office there isn’t viewed as risky. The assurance of flexibility is already established.
Now, along these lines I’ve personally been fascinated with studying and observing remote-first companies. I’ve been doing this since about 2013.
Of course, there’s more now than there was then. I’ve found that most do have offices, and in fact, many of them have really great offices—more active and engaging offices than more traditional approaches.
One specific example that comes to mind is at Atlassian, a technology company based in Sydney whose headquarters there I had the chance to visit in 2018. It’s a fantastic space.
And I was really intrigued in 2020 when at Atlassian announced a work-from-anywhere policy that enabled their employees to never come into the office if they didn’t want to.
I was thinking, “Boy, what’s that going to do as far as the life in their offices?” Well, if you search the Web for articles about how they’re doing, you’ll find many that highlight that they’re actually creating new spaces. They’re not going back and shuttering their corporate real estate portfolio. They created valuable assets that employees enjoy! And the employees aren’t forced to be there; they want to be there.
[Podcast Network Shout-Out]
We’ll get back to my Season 2 preview in a moment, but first, I just wanted to take this opportunity to let you know that “Looking Forward” is part of Surround, a podcast network curated by Sandow Design Group. Surround brings together some of the best architecture- and design-driven audio content available. So, if you like what you hear from us, visit surroundpodcasts-dot-com to check out some of the other great shows on the network.
Which brings me to our second big question: What does this mean for the workplace?
Well, a few things…First, it means that the workplace and the office aren’t actually synonymous. Organizations that are embracing hybrid working or more flexible working need to view “the workplace” as encompassing both corporate and home work spaces, but also potentially flex space, co-working space locations.
And specific to corporate offices—and I know this is what I’m asked about frequently. People want to know, “What exactly do we do with our offices?” And most don’t have a ton of capital to go redo everything; they want to look at incrementally improving their spaces.
I know it might seem unusual or even counterintuitive, but we need to get our heads around the idea that enabling people to spend time working outside of the office is actually a key to unlocking better, more impactful, more desirable experiences in the office. Let me explain that a little bit more.
Most of our assumptions about how work gets done were established in the early years of desktop computing—that era that existed in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. It was during those years that we came to believe that work is done in an office, that individual work is done at a desk, that each employee needs their own desk, that meetings are held in conference rooms, that collaboration is synchronous…I mean some of these assumptions even predated that.
But we have to recognize that when mobile technologies and the cloud came around, a lot of those assumptions stopped being true, but organizations didn’t really get their head around how the work was spreading out—known as distributed working—or how it was getting more varied.
These prevailing mindsets still led organizations to see their employees as either office employees or remote employees, and then densify their real estate footprint with a sea of desks and traditional conference rooms suited to that old way of working.
But now that the office can exist as a complementary set of spaces to what’s available at home and elsewhere, it can be reimagined to focus on the most meaningful experiences that employees value from it.
And what are those you might ask? Well, there are many. But I’m going to try, in the interest of being concise, to focus on three types of experiences: one at a community level, one at a team level, and then one at more of an individual level.
So, first let me talk a little bit about how our spaces can actually help community socialization, which would be one of those experiences that we know people value and we know that the physical work environment can really help with.
What I’m talking about here are spaces to restore our communities. I want to dive into a topic for a moment from the world of sociology. Sociologists refer to our networks as being composed of strong ties and weak ties. This is a framework that came out all the way back in the 1970s.
Our strong ties are our closest relationships: our friends, family, co-workers with whom we have daily contact. These are the people who have our backs, day in and day out.
And then there are our weak ties. These are our extended networks, our extended relationships. And even though “weak” doesn’t sound important, they’re critically important. Weak ties are how we gain a foundation, a sense of community, of belonging.
You know, if you’ve got an old high school friend in your life who you might not see very often, but when you get together, you feel like you can pick up right where you left off and that they really get you and it gives you this deep sense that you’re understood and that you belong—that’s the power of a weak tie. And friends, the pandemic hammered our weak ties. This is true in all facets of our life, but let’s focus on work for a second.
Most people have had a ton of contact with their immediate work teams. You know, those 20 people that they have video calls with or whatever? Those are their strong ties. But they’ve been massively cut off from dozens or hundreds of other people that they’ve had no reason to schedule a meeting with.
And those are their weak ties.
As a result, those weakened weak ties—if I can phrase it that way—have had a bad effect on individuals and organizations.
Organizations are functioning like dozens or hundreds of tiny companies rather than a cohesive culture. And while groups may be innovating within their immediate work teams, within those strong ties, it’s very likely not happening across the organization.
So, we can use the physical workspace to address this need for community restoration. Let’s clear some of those desks from the floor plate and start building some social spaces—spaces to grab coffee, hang out, bump into old friends and new friends, and ideally to feel like a return to office isn’t just a return to my desk.
In this way we can continue to strengthen those weak ties and build that sense of community. And if you want to know more about this framework and actually get the perspective of an organizational sociologist on it, you can check out Episode 8 of Season 1.
So, that’s how the office can begin to help at a community level. Now, let’s talk about teams—and specifically now I’m talking again about these strong ties.
The office needs to give teams and these groups of strong ties spaces to have more immersive experiences—something that’s richer, more personal, more casual than being in a meeting, being on a video call, or instant messaging someone.
There’s a variety of ways to do this. These can be team neighborhoods, where you’re giving a specific team a combination of desks and huddle spaces, team tables or whatever. It can be a dedicated project room that a group can basically live out of for long periods of time. But you get the gist. A video call is fine for an hour, but it’s not a place to hang out, to learn from each other, to ask stupid questions, to have tacit learning happen, or to grab some takeout for lunch.
And so, these spaces are really important. So, even if there’s a flexible work policy and not everybody might be in on a given day, you might go in to be social. But then you know where your team is, and it gives you that sense of place.
So, with that, let’s talk a little bit about the individual. Interestingly, of the 26,000 people that have used Herman Miller’s work-from-home tool (which, by the way, you can find at wfh.hermanmiller.com), the top challenge they cite about working from home is actually focus and productivity.
This is not to say that they’re not productive; we know people have been very productive at home. But we know that when distractions arise, you really have to work hard to overcome them. And those may happen inconsistently. It might be your partner is on a Zoom call. Or it might be that the dogs are barking. Or that you’re a care provider to an older person in your life or kids. And so, the office being able to provide a quiet zone, or enclosed spaces for concentrative work is extremely beneficial.
I’m not talking about a desk for email. I’m talking about a place to spend hours, like two or three hours on a spreadsheet or developing a presentation.
So, in this new approach to workplace, you might imagine that someone could come into the office to be social, to reconnect to people they haven’t seen, then to go hang out with some of their teammates spent some quality time—but they know that they can retreat and have a great place somewhere in the facility to do serious heads-down work when they need it.
So, you see where this is going, right? None of what I just described is well addressed by traditional workplace planning. But organizations couldn’t get past that idea that an office was just meant to be rows of desks and 12-person conference rooms.
So, now’s the time to diversify those existing spaces with input from employees on what they most appreciate, what they most value, what they want. Treat them as customers.
And we should also consider supporting employees more working from home with a decent setup that’s healthy and productive. You can hear more about what this transformational process of going from a traditional workplace strategy to a new one looks like in the other episodes of Season 1, Episodes 2 through 7 of Season 1.
Now, one final thought. For organizations that are really going to lean into this more flexible working in the future, they have the chance to do more than just support individual and group productivity and hang on to employees. They actually have the chance to foster equity, inclusion, and belonging within their organization and to strengthen the culture.
You see, when you give people a choice of where and how to work, and then you give them great choices of working location in the office at home and beyond, you’re providing them with greater control over their own ability to be successful. And that’s the key to creating equitable work experiences. Likewise, if you’re using a participatory design process and creating spaces that cover a wide array of user needs—if you don’t see your typical user as typical (this is a process known as inclusive design)—you can create environments that actually help people to belong.
Now, these are topics that we’re going to further address this season. So, let’s work together as we process this information, to share the ideas we’ll be unpacking in this podcast—not just amongst those of us who are passionate about the design and management of space, but with our colleagues in HR, C-suite leaders, and beyond.
Well, there you have it: A snapshot of where we’re at in 2022 and where work is going. The future is flexible. Hybrid workplace strategies are here to stay. Now, it’s a matter of making it work. And we’re going to embark upon that together, my friends. So, thanks for listening.
And make sure you don’t miss out when future episodes of this Season drop in the coming week. So, be sure to subscribe today to this podcast in Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. I’m looking forward to exploring the future of work together.