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Why Does This Leading Manufacturer Have a Race Car Simulator in Their HQ?

Research is at the heart of Haworth, and it plays a crucial role in shaping every facet of the company.

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Haworth’s research team uses cutting edge tools to understand how humans interact with environments. Courtesy Whitten Sabbatini

In the mid-1990s, Haworth embarked on an extensive research project that explored new design possibilities in light of seismic shifts in technology. Jeff Reuschel, the company’s global director of design and innovation, led an internal think tank of workplace scientists, designers, ergonomists, and analysts charged with developing forward-thinking products—like Crossings, an early mobile furniture system—and more speculative concepts—such as Flo and Mind’Space, two (of several) workstation prototypes premised on the groundbreaking idea of “cognitive ergonomics.” In 2001, the Museum of Modern Art even included Mind’Space in its Workspheres exhibition. The project’s themes reflected the exhibition’s own, as summed up by curator Paola Antonelli: “Like a bubble of pure concentration that one can turn on and off with or without the help of tangible tools, work is where you are.”

Meanwhile, Reuschel’s research team had been formalized as the Ideation Group, with the goal of sharpening Haworth’s insights into new forms of work and methods for supporting productivity. Reuschel still leads this group, and has been joined by field-based researchers working under the direction of Michael O’Neill, PhD. “The bulk of our work is trying to understand people and organizations,” says O’Neill, a former university professor with 25 years of industry experience. “Our goal is to better understand how planning, design, furniture, and technology all work together to improve people’s well-being, performance, and even business outcomes.”

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For an ongoing study on how acoustical distractions affect performance, subjects take on cognitive tasks at a computer while devices record their eye movements, facial expressions, galvanic responses, and heart rate. Courtesy Whitten Sabbatini

The research O’Neill alludes to spans multiple topics, methodologies, and venues. For instance, in a study that ran until 2017, the company surveyed 20,000 workers across 11 of its global locations to identify those workplace features that might impact employee happiness. Now Haworth is planning a broad study of work area design and team formation for software development experts; one element of that experiment will have a team of software engineers keep a daily work diary for one week, and submit saliva samples to test for cortisol—a key indicator of stress.

Haworth maintains research partnerships with several global partners as well. The company collaborated on a long-term examination of co-working spaces with the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in Germany, a leader in applied science research. O’Neill’s team also partnered with London’s Royal College of Art to sketch the relationship between workspaces and social capital—i.e., the social networks that individual employees bring to an organization. “The theory is that in the future, the value that people will bring to the workplace will be the economic value of their social network,” he explains.

At last year’s semiannual global summit, held in Barcelona, Haworth convened its teams from around the world to drive its research agenda. The attendees concurred that the company should invest its time and energies in innovation. “Some ideas are limited to particular geographies or industries,” says O’Neill. “But everyone agreed that innovation was going to drive success, no matter what the region or the industry. We saw this as an opportunity to make the link between design strategy and interiors, and to understand how these can support behaviors that in turn support innovation. That’s the kind of research we do here.”

The Human Performance Lab

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Every aspect of the simulator provides information on how study subjects react to stimuli. Courtesy Whitten Sabbatini

What does a race car simulator have to do with office furniture design? A lot, at least at Haworth. In the company’s Human Performance Lab, researchers use a 3D race car simulator to explore not only how people are able to focus on a specific task, but also how they are able to regain that focus after being interrupted. With the task of driving acting as a surrogate for the cognitive demands of high-focus work, test subjects are asked to pilot a race car around a simulated track, maintaining a constant speed throughout. Researchers observe and chart their reactions to specific visual and auditory interruptions. Project partner SmithGroupJJR—a global design firm—conducts complementary research in its Washington, D.C., and Dallas offices with workers using prototype test spaces designed by Haworth.

“Identifying the different factors that improve or degrade worker performance will not only help our clients design their workspaces,” says Beck Johnson, who administers the lab. “It will also impact our product design. Right now, the object of our research is focus. But we’ll examine other factors as well. With the information we provide, our product designers will be able to single out specific work problems and create products that address them.”

The Legible Design Game

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Haworth’s research methodologies don’t just inform its product development—the company puts insight in the hands of business leaders and interior designers with tools like the Legible Design Game, which can help clarify design priorities. Courtesy Haworth

MIT’s Kevin Lynch introduced the concept of legibility in his seminal 1960 book The Image of the City. For people to function effectively in a city, Lynch asserted, they need to be able to read the urban fabric. At Haworth, Michael O’Neill, PhD, head of global workplace research, wondered how that concept could be applied to workspaces. His answer was the “Legible Design Game.” In the board game, 12 to 15 players—Haworth clients—gather around a building floor plan with three-dimensional printouts and draw cards that pose specific problems relating to legible space.

The development of the game was led by Anjell Karibian, a design research manager with over eight years of experience in commercial interior design. However, “this is not a game created to design spaces,” O’Neill explains. “It’s a way to get our clients to tell us stories about their work lives, organizational culture, talk about how they feel at work—their work experience.”

O’Neill believes the game—and the concept of legibility—are particularly important today as designers and managers stretch to create spaces that can accommodate the often-contrasting needs of three or even four generations of workers. “The current workplace is dominated by Millennials, who tend to like an element of chaos and surprise. But the next generation of workers, GenZ, desires consistency and will thrive on clarity. And we also need to retain Baby Boomers for knowledge transfer. With this game, we can help clients achieve an inclusive design language that speaks to everyone.”

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