The Office Is at a “Pivotal” Point, Says Workplace Expert Jan Johnson

Studying and analyzing the worker and the workplace leads one expert to predict where we’re heading.

Whenever I have questions about how we work, as well as the evolution of where we do our work, I like to turn to Jan Johnson for thoughtful commentary on the subject. With her three decades at the forefront of watching, studying, and analyzing our steadily evolving workplace, I’m curious to hear how Jan sees the rapid changes that are now reshaping our lives and livelihoods.

As we prepare for Neocon the huge trade show for contract furniture, held each June in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart where interior designers and architects go to find out the newest ideas shaping the work tools of today and tomorrow, we’re also thinking about the first annual Workplace of the Future Design Competition, presented by Metropolis and Business Interiors by Staples, that will surely bring forth fresh ideas and new thinking.

Starting with Jan, I’m asking the experts on the front lines of accommodating workers’ needs, to talk about the changes we are in the midst of. Stay tuned for what other informed voices, including an interior architect and facilities managers from several types of businesses, have to say about the hot topic–the 21st century ways of work. Unlike the first tech revolution that hit the workforce in the post WWII years, the current shift to the cloud and the global mobility it has helped produce, new ways of working are evolving much faster than we could ever imagine in the days of faxes, desktop computers, land lines, and copy machines that could only duplicate documents. Here Jan Johnson talks about everything from research, new product development, and humanizing our workplace and ourselves.

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Susan S. Szenasy: As an expert on design and the workplace, you have a front-row view of how the work we do is evolving. What does your research tell you about the kinds of furnishings Allsteel needs to design for this rapidly changing market segment? 

Jan Johnson: The “office” is at a pivotal point in history. Here to stay, but fundamentally changing: trends have much shorter life-spans, users are demanding more choice and control, and what we understand as “work” now includes a whole host of new behaviors and activities. At Allsteel, we continually strive to understand these shifts in the workplace, and have them inform thoughtful solutions – that stay relevant over time, even as things continue to change.

As we continue to look at accommodating both the physical and philosophical changes to workplace solutions, several factors come into play:

  • As status-based planning is shifting to one-size-fits-all and/or activity-based planning, and we’ve realized that, on average, only 40% of one’s work happens alone at one’s desk; that as technology enables work to happen anytime, anywhere, the work-scape has expanded to other places and a range of settings – to the “right” mix of compelling spaces.
  • This broader range of settings corresponds to an expanded range of behaviors and postures. We’re seeing new categories of products — like those designed to support more casual and collaborative activities — and yet need to avoid highly “of the moment” specific-to-only-one-function-or-technology products so that they are easily adapted or repurposed and therefore remain relevant over time.
  • As work moves more fluidly, workers themselves are demanding to have choice and control over how, when, and where they work, including to want and need certain settings to quickly morph from one use to another themselves (without an installer or an electrician).
  • Technology will continue to change at a MUCH faster rate than furniture components, so the ability for furniture to “play well” with technology as it advances, is imperative.
  • The speed and frequency of change means that the costs/pain of change need to be minimal.

SSS: The necessity for face time in the workplace was given high profile when Yahoo! called its home workers back into the corporate hub. What is your take on this very public discussion about how we work?

JJ: Even though I’ve been teaching an MCR class on “Enabling Mobility” since 2009, I’ve always felt that we can’t let “the tail wag the dog.“ Just ‘cause we can, doesn’t mean we should. Mobility absolutely makes sense sometimes, for some people, but not for everyone at all times. The arguments in favor of mobility are often about saving real estate costs; but just as compelling is that workers can often be as, if not more, effective working remotely and may need the flexibility of schedule or location to manage real life-stage challenges. The other rationale is that workers are doing this anyway, often under the radar, and the lack of a sanctioned program can put the company at risk.

Some of the challenges of mobility or other flex-work programs are that we’re reluctant to treat workers differently for fear of “fairness” issues, and we’re not very good at managing, let alone managing remote workers. Too many managers rely on attendance and time at one’s desk instead of setting explicit expectations and mastering other management practices needed to make internal (inside the building) or external (anywhere else) mobility work for both the employer and the employee.

The other requirement for optimal success, in my opinion, is that we — the workplace strategist, the manager, and the workers themselves — thoroughly understand the work being done as the true determinant for what form(s) of mobility make sense. A March Business Week article cited several studies that suggest that mobile workers are more productive, but the example they cited was a travel agency — not the same kind of work as might be done by a design team working with an incubating technology. One size does not fit all.

I guess I’m advocating for a more nuanced approach, vs. and all-or-nothing approach, but I can understand why Marissa Mayer did what she did. Having come from Google – a company that intentionally doesn’t have a formal mobility program, by the way – she has to have been biased by their (and others’) view that that breakthrough innovation happens face-to-face. And she’s trying to coalesce a culture that’s coming unglued. I choose to see what she did as a call to action, not a mobility-has-no-place-in-the-workplace stand.

SSS: What, in your estimation, is the most disruptive technology that’s changing how work is done today, and in the near future? As you see it, what kinds of behavioral changes is this disruption leading to? 

JJ: I think the most disruptive thing that’s happening today is the ever-increasing speed of technological change, not any particular technology. These way-shorter cycle times don’t give us the luxury of time and perspective. I’ve mentioned this before in previous blogs, but I love the quote from Edward O. Wilson: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

It’s hard not to constantly feel left behind, uninformed, overwhelmed, and always playing catch-up with what’s new. It’s stressful, distracting, and time-consuming. But necessary, especially now as more and more of us are accountable for our own learning and development.

Having said all that, I think the end of keyboards and mouses will have a profound impact on furniture solutions. It may mean we no longer work at a work surface, supported by our tricked out ergonomic chair.

SSS: We talk a lot about “humanizing” our tech-driven society, the workplace included. What needs to happen for people to be considered first, not simply as intellectual capital for organizations, but as the complex and fascinating creatures that we are, who stand to make enormously important contributions to a civil society, not just to the bottom line? 

JJ: That’s a great question and relies, I think, on all of us to answer. In the words of one of Quicken Loans’ “ISMs,” we are the “they.” And truth be told, we all bring our messy, neurotic issue-ridden humanness to work every day. The most helpful perspective I’ve seen recently is from someone Allsteel has been working with — Cy Wakeman, a dynamic business consultant, author, and trainer — to help us incorporate “reality” (her phrase is “ditch the drama”) and accountability-based concepts into leader and employee training programs. We think it’s a pretty powerful perspective that stands to improve us as individual workers and citizens, both in our interactions with co-workers and the larger society.

SSS:  Based on all that you know about how work is changing these days, can you draw up scenario for the workplace of 2020? Where will it be? What might it look and feel like? What kinds of work will be done there? How will work integrate with life, if indeed, it will?  

JJ: Even though 2020 is only 7 years from now, I’m sure anything I come up with will be naïve and inaccurate, but it does seem to reason that we will have more “free agents,” more flexible combinations of ‘round-the-clock work hours, new interfaces with technology that don’t require keyboards or mouses, and more workplaces provided by entities other than one’s employer. While I’ve said that physical places still have a role to play, they don’t necessarily need to be “owned” or managed by one’s employer.

What I’d love to see, personally, is better, more sustainable suburban planning and public transportation. But I also think that all this change will be shaped by capital markets and the political influence of special interest groups.

Jan Johnson, FIIDA, is vice president Design and Workplace Resources at Allsteel.  She has spent her career strengthening the correlation between business strategies and the planning, design, and management of work environments. Her education combines a BS in interior design and an MBA. Prior to joining Allsteel, she practiced as a designer for several years; then was a strategic planner and workplace consultant for Perkins + Will and HOK/Consulting (now Advance Strategies), where she worked with organizations like Sun Microsystems and Nortel Networks. Jan and her team help set Allsteel’s annual research agenda, interpret their and others’ findings into the furniture company’s rolling Three-Year Product Development strategy and Services initiatives. They are also actively involved in the development of each new product.

Read more posts about the Workplace of the Future: Q&A: Lyndon Thomas, Facilities PlannerQ&A: Tom KrizmanicQ&A: Alison KwiatkowskiQ&A: Paul Darrah

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