The Workplace of the Future

Digital technology is transforming even our physical work spaces.

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Thanks to digital technology, business is evolving into an office-less enterprise that’s more mobile and fluid than the “desk jobs” of decades past — which presents a challenge to the companies that supply businesses with the nuts-and-bolts of their physical infrastructure. One company, Steelcase, has risen to this challenge by changing how they conceptualize the physical environs of the workplace. In an interview with MIT Sloan Management Review guest editor Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, Steelcase vice president Sara Armbruster explains, “For us, we’re always asking questions about how work is changing and what that means — and what we can bring to the physical environment to support those changes and the people who are doing that work.”

Many readers might think — Steelcase is just an office furniture company; what do they have to do with digital business?

Our business is really about understanding work, worker and workplace, and the pursuit of bringing solutions to that workplace.

We ask ourselves questions all the time around how people can interact with each other and engage in content together seamlessly and synchronously, and how content can transform from digital to analog and back and forth. We want to understand what people’s expectations are in this world of digital technology — social, mobile, analytics, etc. — and what implications that has on the way work happens and the physical environment that is required to support it.

Can you give us some concrete examples of how you’re helping this physical environment be more sensitive to digital trends?

Digital tools are changing how work happens. One place we see this is in the area of communications. For example, the use of video communication tools that support distributed teams or distributed work has exploded. But in many cases, there is still a long way to go before those tools make this form of collaboration and communication seamless.

For example, one of the consistently nagging problems our research has uncovered is that organizations face “presence disparity,” meaning that collaboration is not seamless between distributed teams. For example, when some people are in a room together and other people are connected via video, the people who are in the room often have a greater “presence” than the people who are connected remotely. We’ve seen that people are hacking together tools and doing all sorts of workarounds to try to support more fully engaging connections via video, but it doesn’t always work as smoothly as they’d like.

To respond to this issue and to help make the physical environment support that more seamless interaction using these technology tools, one solution we developed is a product line called media:scape. It allows people to connect through a switcher that’s embedded right into the table to seamlessly connect their content through a video conference to remote participants at the touch of a button in a way that’s very easy.

We are also thinking very intentionally about adding the technology to the space — considering lighting, camera angle, and the ability to feel comfortable and move around during a meeting. When adding technology, organizations should thoughtfully consider human behavior.

I read an article in Forbes that said culture, technology and process are linked to physical workspace. What happens when these are not aligned? Which do you fix first: Technology, process or culture?

At Steelcase,we see culture and social systems as holistic. In our view, technology is actually a form of culture, a manifestation of our culture and what we value. Anthropologists call it ‘material culture,’ meaning the stuff that we produce embodies our cultural beliefs and our values and our behaviors.

We talk quite a bit about the relationships between people and place and technology, and think about this as a way to look at specific social dynamics in different kinds of spaces. When a space doesn’t meet the social needs or technological needs of people, various complications can arise. Well-being can be impacted. Productivity can take a hit. Creativity might be compromised. Employee retention can suffer.

So we start with culture and behavior and think of technology as a piece of that puzzle that the physical space has to respond to in some way to drive change.

If a company is beginning a new technology initiative, do they need to change their culture first, or does the introduction of this new technology change the culture and they just need to be responsive to that?

It’s been said by a number of people in a number of ways that we shape our technology and our technology shapes us. And that really is the dynamic that we see; it happens both ways.

For example, if you give people laptops when previously they had desktops, they can pick up and move with that laptop, which they couldn’t do before. The ability to pick up and move then raises new questions about HR policy or about how to manage people when you as a leader might not be able to see them sitting at their desk. Organizations often think about technology in a very narrow sense. They don’t ask questions about what behaviors a new technology might foster and what behaviors it might actually inhibit. The answers must line up with the overall culture and direction that leaders want to take the company.

I’m going to ask you to be a fortuneteller for a moment. You told me about how things are happening now with respect to tools and technology and place and culture. What are the big trends that you or Steelcase sees coming?

We have a focused internal R&D team that is consistently connected with a large outside network of experts in a variety of fields. These partnerships allow us access to learning and research from critical experts in their subject areas. We’re actively exploring a number of potential themes on the horizon.

With the MIT Media Lab and Georgia Tech, we’re looking at technology and the intelligent workspace. We see smart spaces becoming a reality to business in the future, and we’re looking into a variety of different trends and ideas that will play into the concept of smart spaces, such as technology embedded into physical space that can monitor activity, that can provide insight and potentially even adapt the physical environment based on interpreting data about what activity is taking place in that space.

We are also working with the film school at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts to hone our storytelling abilities. We are learning new approaches to create narratives using new digital tools and platforms. Although the context is different — cinematic arts — a huge amount of the film school’s work is about telling a story and telling it well.

The work that we’re exploring with the University of Wisconsin around neuroscience is helping us better understand well-being at work. We tend not to think of going to work as something that enhances our well-being; historically, we’ve thought about leaving work and going home, or being away from work for the weekend, as giving us respite and rejuvenation. But we think there are some really interesting new ways to think about how to combine concepts of rejuvenation and well-being with the activity of work. There are new opportunities to think about workspaces and work environments that can support well-being for the people who inhabit them.

Are there new roles or skills that are going to be important for employees or managers to have to work in this technology-infused environment? And are there any skills that are going to be rendered obsolete as a result?

That’s a great question. There are core elements of work and core behaviors of people at work that we believe are persistent over time. The ability to think critically, to communicate effectively, to engage with other people, collaborate, share ideas, to innovate — those are things that have always been important and will continue to be important.

What is changing, in many cases because of all of the devices and tools and technologies that we use on a daily basis, is the means that we have to accomplish those things. So the tools and the ways in which we might collaborate are changing. And they’re changing quickly.

One of the biggest impacts of the rise of all of these digital tools is that it has opened up so many options for when and how we work. We encourage anyone that we work with to look at those interactions might look like 5 years and 10 years out, and to resist the temptation to design a workspace that supports “right now,” because we know that these changes are continuing.

One of the findings of our research here was that a surprisingly high number of employees want to work for digitally mature companies, and a surprisingly high number of employees are dissatisfied with their current organization’s response to digital technologies. Does that result surprise you?

That finding isn’t really surprising to me; it resonates with some of what we know from our own research. Today’s workforce, and in particular Millennials and the generations that are early in their careers, are interested in having choice and control over when and how they work.

They tend to see great value in working for organizations that provide them with a variety of workplace settings, and tools that support different types of work: individual or collaborative, really focused intense work or more social interactions and casual work, and even the opportunity to work in a variety of different postures throughout the day. That could even be, in some places, working outdoors on a company campus. It could include work that happens in the office, but also at home, or in a coffee shop outside of traditional timeframes.

Employers who can accommodate this new way of working are finding it easier to attract and to retain digital-savvy employees.

How is technology changing the way people behave in the workplace?

Employees and people in general are no longer tethered by technology to a specific place. You don’t need to be at your desk with your computer. This has given people much more license to create their own workday and to utilize a series of physical spaces and environments to access different people, to go out and find what they need at the moment they need it, to create the right kind of work experience.

At the same time, as we’ve all gotten up and moved, it’s made it increasingly hard for us to make the social connections with one another that are still a big part of how work happens.

We will often put ourselves through an experience to gain further understanding, and this was no exception. Our former corporate cafeteria was in a basement level. It was dark and not a very inviting place. People would often go grab lunch and take it back to their workplace because they didn’t want to be in the cafeteria.

Three years ago, we renovated our cafeteria. A major goal was to rethink the cafeteria as a an entirely new kind of space. We call it the WorkCafe, and it is a space that blends the idea of work and content and social connection around work and food and hospitality in an interesting way. Now we’ve got everything from traditional café tables and lunch settings to conference rooms and very work-oriented settings, along with relaxing lounge spaces, mixed together in this space to allow employees to be able to experience their workday, or at least part of their workday, in a very different way than they were in the past.

It’s easy for people to spend parts of their day there. I can choose to come down and hang out for the afternoon in a comfortable chair and drink my afternoon tea while I get some reading done. Or I can show up in the hustle and bustle of lunchtime because I know my colleagues are likely to be there. If there are people who are visiting Grand Rapids from other Steelcase locations, I’m likely to run into them there. So, it’s a fantastic space, and it’s constantly busy from early morning to late at night, and it really responds to the behavior change we’ve seen, driven by mobile devices.

Can you speak about how the Spark system is used at Steelcase and what benefits you’ve seen because of it, or any challenges you’ve had because of it as well?

Spark is an enterprise social media tool that’s based on the Jive platform. We launched it internally a couple of years ago, and we have more than 7,000 employees actively participating, with a very high adoption rate, meaning a high percentage of those users access the platform on a regular basis.

What has been noteworthy to me is that Spark has provided us with a mechanism that creates tremendous transparency and sharing across the company in a variety of ways— everything from teams collaborating and sharing around a very specific project or work-driven situation, to communities of interest that employees have created on their own around some common theme like photography or practicing speaking a new language.

It really spans the gamut, and it has been amazing how much that mechanism to allow people to share and engage with one another has changed the feel of the company and allowed for collaboration and transparency and overcome time and space.

The initiative is currently being studied by our research organization and our partners at Michigan State University so we can learn from our own experience. The work is still underway, but they have found that Spark is improving collaboration and information sharing, in particular for our international employees or our non-U.S.-based employees who may have had a more difficult time staying connected with things that are happening in our Grand Rapids location, and vice-versa.

Our research last year found that some companies’ success with internal social media platforms also raised new challenges. At one multinational company, it started creating language problems because people were collaborating more but language became a barrier. Have you had any of those sort of unexpected bumps in the road with Spark?

One thing that’s been interesting to us is that Spark gave everyone in the organization a voice. If you give employees an opportunity to share their thoughts on different things, you hear the good and the bad and everything in between.

There were instances where the level of candor was quite eye-opening and caused people at times to ask, “Is this a good thing, or is maybe this not such a good thing?” But I think those were really important instances in our growth and development as a company, in terms of challenging us to ask what kind of values we support, what kind of culture we want to foster, and what kind of company we want to be. Asking those questions explicitly was actually quite positive for us.


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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