The Living Office – improving the working environment

20 Jul

Post by Expedite

Posted in: Events, General

The Living Office – improving the working environment


Digital leadership skills

– By Herman Miller

We’ve come a long way since the days of people occupying row upon row of office desks, churning out work on a typewriter, akin to a production factory line.  Such linear formations are as likely to create an engaged workforce, as browbeating your staff into action is.  Many of these rigid, inflexible lines also reinforced an equally rigid and inflexible hierarchy that didn’t encourage autonomy or self expression.


But what of the other extreme? Does a more ‘anarchically-designed’ working environment increase productivity and enhance feelings of wellbeing either? Are you somehow failing your staff if your office space isn’t littered with bean bags, slides and sleep pods? Is it possible for every organisation to create an ‘optimum work space’?


As you might expect, there is no ‘one size fits all’ quick fix and the needs of any organisation must always be taken into account, for they are as complex as human needs.  But people remain the driving force that has encouraged so much research into, and change within, office environments.


As far back as 1968, designer and inventor Robert Propst – godfather of the Action Office – realised that every office has a climate of social expression that can be either ‘destructive or constructive’, and understood how much we’re affected by our physical environments. A passage from his book ‘The Office, a facility based on change’ offers a particularly prophetic thought – ‘The renewed rise of individuality as a value and the great diversity in what one may be required to do in an office does not allow a continuation of sterile uniformity with status as the only definition.’


The need for human beings and their individuality to be valued has driven much of this work and research. For organisations to flourish, they must understand what drives their workforce. This is why more and more organisations are customising their work spaces and furniture by listening to their employees, and working with organisations such as Herman Miller.


Mark Catchlove is Director of Knowledge and Insight Group at Herman Miller. Since the ‘90s the organisation has led extensive research on understanding collaborative work. This has resulted in Living Office, a workplace philosophy  that aims to help organisations achieve their strategic goals and create the best working environments that people will ‘feel alive in’ –  informing the redesign of whole spaces to designing appropriate furniture products.


Mark says: “The results are in the products – but it starts with people.”


Through their research, Herman Miller has identified six fundamental human needs – security, autonomy, belonging, status and purpose and achievement. The way in which these are perceived and fulfilled are of course unique to each organisation and individual. But how they all interact and affect each other is of crucial importance. .


Mark says: “We are tribal, social beings who require meaningful connection with other people”. He adds: “We want to make a difference and to know our work matters.”


Over the years, office space has adapted to reflect these desires.  He says: “Where there was once a clear distinction between work areas, meeting rooms, private offices and boardrooms, today’s working culture wants to share information and champion new ideas. Therefore, people need to find new spaces to engage in new activities.”


He adds: “Ultimately though, humans want choice and control over their connections – to decide when they’re alone and together.”


Living Office research has identified ten different settings for office spaces that can be adapted and combined to ‘enable and empower their inhabitants’.


These range from ‘the haven’ – a small shelter for ‘focused work’ or ‘unwinding’, to the ‘hive’ – a space for a diverse range of work with fixed and adjustable technology. There’s also the ‘jump space’ for ‘temporary work between other activities’ normally located in busier spaces within the workplace.


Mark comments that the ‘plaza’ seems to be the most popular within organisations. –They support a diverse range of experiences and encourage mixing and mingling, and enable multiple work activities simultaneously. However, Mark notes that: “Although this is absolutely key to a business fulfilling its objectives, it’s utterly useless on its own. The organisation’s working environment, technology and culture must all be aligned.” He adds: “There’s no point having a beautiful design space that doesn’t work or a ‘funky space’ if the boss is frowning at employees as they perch their laptop on a beanbag.”


Living Office helps organisations with a variety of diverse needs and goals. From large, multinationals – ManpowerGroup and Mars Drinks – to rapidly growing start-ups, such as Harry’s. A victim of its own success, the company soon outgrew its original premises. Not only did this affect efficiency – a lot of time was wasted sending emails back and forth to book one meeting room –  but employees felt constrained in their ability to collaborate, as the vast majority of the office was restricted to individual workspaces and desks.


Harry’s worked with Studio Tractor and Herman Miller to design its new 26,000 square foot space, and also with its Living Office framework to identify what sort of settings would support their priorities and activities – these ranged from creating new products and solving problems.


Interestingly, employees craved a more formal working space.  After breaking down the activities systematically, they came up with a mixture of settings to suit – coves for informal conversations, bustling hives where customer service reps could focus on emails or quick chats, and the clubhouse setting, where graphic designers could easily create together.


Six months later, employees commented that the new layout allowed ‘free communication with colleagues from all departments’ but that it was ‘comfortable and quiet enough to keep you focused’. Another praised it for its ‘flexible options’. Much of Herman Miller’s furniture is designed to support technical additions, such as iPads or laptops. Consequently, 70% thought the new space helped them do their jobs ‘faster and better’. Previously, only 29% of employees thought that their office helped them work productively.


This improvement in employee morale is substantiated by the results of Harry’s Leesman Survey, which measures workplace effectiveness and employees’ satisfaction with it. While Harry’s previous accommodations garnered 48.4 out of 100, its new headquarters received a 71.9—nearly twelve points higher than the Leesman Global Benchmark of 60.1.


Mark says: “A ‘living office’ is different in that it can ‘constantly evolve’. It’s important to balance the needs of any organisation with its individuals. But equally, we need to appreciate and anticipate change, an inevitable part of both businesses and individuals developing and growing.”


Do you think your workplace could benefit from Living Office’s help and support? Mark Catchlove will discuss how their office and furniture designs have helped transform the way people work today, at Working Futures Winter 2017.