Herman Miller has seven predictions for the future of work

Office furniture behemoth Herman Miller – which recently launched a Post-Pandemic Office Collection (their title) – has been thinking about how designers and their customers might see the office of the future (now there’s a phrase we thought we’d last heard in the 1990s). It has come up with Seven Predictions for the Future of Work; none are absolutely radical, but all started us thinking too.

So here are the Seven Predictions verbatim, with our own reactions to each. Our thanks to Herman Miller for forcing us to do some thinking about this …

1Mastering the Work/Life Balancing Act People and the organisations they work for will develop better boundaries between work and life to encourage deeper, more meaningful engagement with both. This means learning when to disconnect from tech, an end to multitasking, using analytics to understand when they are in prime condition to work and seeking out jobs that allow them to work during peak performance hours (which may not be 9–5).

We’re happy to see this put first: the ubiquity of internet access often means 24/7 availability wherever you happen to be. You may have your own ideas about work-life balance, but your co-workers (and your bosses) may not concur …

2Making Time for Face Time The benefits of working at home – pyjamas, productivity – will only fulfil you for so long. Eventually, you’ll be drawn back to the in-person connections you can find in the office. Future Staters see the workplace of the future as a magnet that attracts and focuses energy in a world where a by-product of improving communications technology has a natural tendency to grow the divide between us. They’re pushing designs that promote face time (the non-iPhone variety) in spaces that accelerate authentic connection.

This is of course the plus side of communal working spaces – the water cooler conversations, the informal but important contributions to work problems, the opportunity to switch work off for a few minutes of inconsequential chat. Is this what “authentic connection” means? But what about the need to avoid unnecessary or irrelevant connection, to shut yourself away from time to time in order to get stuff done?

3An Amazon Approach to Staffing Soon, the Amazon mindset of “give me what I need, the second I need it”, will apply to more than paper towels and prestige TV. This accelerating need for speed, coupled with a steep rise in the number of freelancers, could create a new way to staff companies. Organisations will be built and rebuilt project-by-project, by handpicking from a large pool of consultants. This post-employee model will let you expedite processes, get to market quicker, design better and faster and innovate productively, all by harnessing the industry’s top talent for the specific task at hand.

Ah, the wonders of the gig economy. It all looks great for the employers, and maybe even for projects (assuming the project controls are in place). It ain’t necessarily so for the worker bees, as Uber drivers will tell you. When we can be sure that the “post-employee economy” isn’t about raw capitalism, saving money and making money at the non-employee’s expense, we can support the idea of a project-driven consultant-staffed future. Still, someone has to know what’s going on and why; who does the strategic thinking in the post-employee economy? Strategic Thinking Consultants?

4A Brave New Era of Client Feedback Future Staters dream of a smart device that could show a design team exactly how people respond to the music, furniture, lighting and general vibe of a space. Once a person’s watch captures the response and the data loads into an app, the app populates a Pinterest page, makes product suggestions and translates a good feeling – one that the client might have struggled to articulate – into tangible design inspiration. Between the watch and the app, you’ll get direct responses to the stimuli in the space and the information you need to act on it.

Practical design is only as good as its espousal by users or consumers; but techologically-driven design by popular vote is no guarantee of quality. Discovering exactly how people respond to design is a useful additional tool for fine-tuning, but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) create good design in the first place. Ok, it might be better than a ‘how did you like it?’ questionnaire. But there’s a tendency to approach any new technology – whether it’s smart watches on your wrist or AI in your drawing program – as a solution to a problem. If that problem doesn’t exist at the desired scale there’s an imperative to engross the issue to make it fit.

5Trending Towards Techno-Optimism The designers dream that the impossibility of last-minute client requests – cutting half a million pounds from a budget, value engineering a 10-storey building to eight – might soon be a thing of the past. Across our four events [qualitative research among designers and users], we heard about robot contractors, next-level modelling software and automated on-demand furniture manufacturing. Despite some of the anxiety the designers tapped into about our personal relationships with tech, when it came to the promise of AI, big data and robotics for aiding the design process, the group was enthusiastic.

And so they should be … but see our previous comments. Technology may be fun, and it may make your life easier and your designs better. But because of that, technology per se is seductive – it can be a harsh mistress. Worse, it can be a chimera – a solution in search of a problem. (And in the case of some AI, a solution in need of a problem.) A little less techno-enthusiasm here shouldn’t kill the techno-optimism.

6Office Design on Demand Today, you hack your office so it better meets your needs (and ask for forgiveness later). What if tomorrow you not only get to influence, but control, a uniquely designed space based on the needs of the moment? Future Staters imagine a new kind of office design technology called Sensify. It’s an app that transforms tech-enhanced white walls in your space into whatever you want them to be. Need a space that inspires you? Program a view of the mountains and project it onto the walls. Boss in town? Reprogram to display the latest customer analytics.

Meh. This sounds like a gimmick, or at least a potentially useful approach (a wall that can turn into a display unit for PowerPoint slides, a glass divider that switches from clear to opaque or from daylight-bright to evening-calm dim) that shouldn’t be foisted on everyone all of the time. Versatility in building layout and design is obviously useful and desirable; but sometimes there’s equal merit in having familiar spaces where the occupants can feel some degree of ownership, or at least familiarity.

7The Decentralised Office It’s great to work from anywhere, but anywhere doesn’t always have the best Wi-Fi or the tech you need to collaborate with partners across the globe. Future Staters see a chance to meet the needs of an increasingly distributed workforce with an increasingly distributed workplace. The global HQ will be gone. In its place, you’ll find a series of Work Pods all over the world, where you can sign in and stay as long as you like.

The pandemic showed many of us how unnecessary the centralised office really is in many situations. Equally though it frequently pointed up the disadvantages of decentralisation – clunky zoom meetings, reduced opportunities to bounce ideas off each other, less socialising with colleagues, more chance to get distracted by kids or TikTok. The ‘work pod’ principle provides a useful halfway house, even if in practice the current examples are somewhat soulless environments where you necessarily feel zero sense of ownership or intellectual habitat. Let’s have some more thinking about how the work pod can fix issues like those – and how designers can design for the pluses of the out-of-office experience while catering for the disadvantages. How can a work pod be customised easily to suit the needs of a peripatetic individual, or a team that occasionally needs to be beavering in the same space?

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