Get Reworked Podcast Guest Ryan Anderson of Herman Miller

Get Reworked Podcast: The Future of Office Design After COVID

February 23, 2021 Leadership
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak, Siobhan Fagan

Get Reworked Podcast Guest Ryan Anderson of Herman Miller
For nearly a year now, many office workers have been holed up at home with a return to the office just a distant prospect. But with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines we can finally see the office again on the horizon.

But heading back to the office isn't as simple as getting a vaccine and re-starting the daily commute. Work has changed and so must the office. In this episode of Get Reworked, Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights at furniture maker Herman Miller, joins us to talk about what he's learned from the last year of working from home and what our imminent return to the office means for how we work.

Listen: Get Reworked Podcast Full Episode List

"The game has really been changed because for the first time, maybe ever, the attitudes among work team leaders and managers in 2020 shifted, in that a majority of them now do believe that work can successfully be done outside of the office," Ryan says.

In this episode, Ryan shares a bit about the history of office design and why now is a pivotal moment in the way we think about work. Highlights of the conversation include:

  • How desktop computers became the center of office design and what to do about it.
  • Why this is a moment to rethink work, not just the office.
  • The three factors reshaping how we should think about office space.
  • Tips for making the most of your home office environment. 

Plus, co-host Siobhan Fagan reveals that she lives in a kind of Herman Miller museum and Mike Prokopeak shares why West Michigan is one of the best kept-secrets in the U.S. Listen in to find out more.

Have a suggestion, comment or topic for a future episode? Drop us a line at [email protected].

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Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

Mike Prokopeak: Hello, and welcome to Get Reworked, your guide to the revolution of work. My name is Mike Prokopeak and I'm editor in chief at

Siobhan Fagan: And I'm Siobhan Fagan, managing editor for Reworked. At, we're dedicated to covering the people, the culture, the technology and the infrastructure that makes up our quickly evolving workplaces.

Mike: Get Reworked is our podcast, brought to you by Simpler Media Group, where you'll hear from industry pioneers leading the way into the future of work, reshaping not just how we work, but also why. We're excited to bring you conversations about best practices, workplace trends and key technologies that support the modern distributed workforce.

Hello Siobhan.

Siobhan: Hey Mike, how's it going today?

Mike: I'm good. So we're in a bit of an interesting point right now, when it comes to office culture, where we're not really sure what the future holds. It seems like there's a little bit of this consensus coming around that there's going to be this hybrid office environment where we're still going to be going into the office for some things, but a lot of the things that we've done over the last year when it comes to working from home and having more flexibility, that's going to continue to exist. So we're at a kind of a weird inflection point when it comes to what the physical office will actually be in 2021. I mean, are you feeling the same thing?

Siobhan: Well, you keep using this word that I'm not sure I remember, office? Yeah, I think I remember those.

Mike: It was officially the place where we once went to work.

Siobhan: Yeah, so we have a fantastic guest today to speak about the office. And I personally am really excited that he's here because, well, spoiler alert, he's with Herman Miller. I live in a sort of Herman Miller museum, Mike.

Mike: Yes, so a little bit about Herman Miller. Herman Miller is a furniture maker. They're based in West Michigan, very famous for I think a lot of their mid-century designs but also very famous for being very progressive or future looking when it came to design and furniture and physical spaces. So as you said, you're living in a bit of a Herman Miller museum. What does that look like? What does that actually mean?

Siobhan: It's beautiful. I have a chair, I have an Aluminum Group Chair, which is one of the earlier designs of the office chair. It does not resemble the current office chair that people would associate with Herman Miller. Very comfortable, I will say, even after, I'm guessing it's at least 50 or 60 years old. I have Eames shell chairs. Herman Miller worked with a lot of big, well-known designers if you're into the mid-century modern aesthetic. I have Nelson lamps, just beautiful design that has stood the test of time.

So I am having a bit of a fangirl moment here. I'm going to introduce our speaker now before I go too long. We have Ryan Anderson, and he is the vice president of global research and insights at Herman Miller. And what he does in that role is he leads the global research team within corporate strategy, where he is basically working on, not the design of the furniture but the design of how we work. So with no further ado, I think we should bring Ryan on. What do you think, Mike?

Mike: Sounds like a plan. Let's Get Reworked.

Welcome to the podcast, Ryan Anderson.

Ryan Anderson: Thank you very much. I appreciate joining it.

Mike: You're vice president of global research and insights at Herman Miller. For those of our audience who are not in the know about Herman Miller, very well known in furniture in design, but what exactly does a VP of research and insights do at a company like Herman Miller where you're specializing in furniture? What do you do?

Ryan: It's a good question. Well, the good news is, I don't sit and just look at furniture all day although we do make some beautiful furniture. Basically, our team, really since the 60s, has been focused on understanding the key changes in work, the key changes in activities that happen in our lives. And then we ask how does the space support it.

So in the case of work, as an example, there's been tons of changes in the way people work over the years. Technology plays an enormous role in that. We've been doing tech research since the late 60s. And if we understand how these changes impact the way people work, we can then say, "Alright, this is how the spaces have to change." And ultimately, that guides us in terms of what we need to make.

Mike: How did you land in the gig? Was this sort of a dream to be in this type of role or what drew you into it?

Ryan: Yeah, it is for me. I live in West Michigan. The commercial furniture industry here has always been really big. I thought that would be like the most boring thing on earth to get into but I decided to give it a go anyway, and I found the whole domain really interesting. But it took a really fascinating turn around 2004, 2005 when Wi-Fi became more ubiquitous, and it looked as though people would be unshackled from their cubes, unshackled from their points of work for the first time in 20 or 30 years.

And a lot of us started talking at the time, alright, what is the future of offices going to look like? And the topic still continues to interest me. I love my job and I love working for a company that's super interested in exploring the future.

Mike: And I think there's something interesting about Herman Miller in particular, when you're talking about that role of thinking about the future of work, because one of the premier designers in Herman Miller's history is Robert Propst, who is perhaps misnomered as the father of the office cubicle, which he actually created what he called the "action office," which is sort of the perfect office environment for the individual. It was where everything was within reach. It was designed for the worker to be most highly productive and effective. But yet he came to actually hate how it was implemented. And I was looking up a quote, he said, "The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity."

So his ideas about the action office actually, they went wrong somewhere along the way. They got turned into a way to keep people warehoused in cheaper and effective ways. So as we think about this future, as we think about where we're heading in this next phase of work, which we're not really sure, how are we going to avoid having something like that happen again?

Ryan: You've done your homework. That's awesome. Yeah, Robert Propst started Herman Miller's research team in 1960. He was an inventor. There was a movement coming out of Germany back in the 50s, called Burolandschaft which basically referred to office landscape. It was kind of like city planning principles or urban design principles impacting office. And Propst and the team came up with Action Office, which was the first modular furniture product, so it had panels, it had storage, it had desks, and released a piece, almost you know,a philosophy, called a "Facility Based on Change." And the idea was that people should be at the center of this. They should have the autonomy to move freely throughout the space, changing and transitioning between activities, and that the space should be very enriching. And the idea got compromised, basically. And we can pretty squarely put our finger on desktop computing as what did it.

Now interestingly, when Stanford Research Institute showed the world the first personal computer in an event in the tech world that's known as "The Mother of All Demos," the ultimate in demonstration, Herman Miller actually designed the environment for it. So that same team created the first environment for personal computing, the first mouse pad for the first mouse, and they saw desktop computing coming. But what wasn't clear at the time, was that the furniture would be relied upon as infrastructure for distributing power and cabling. So it was really, you know, Cat-5 cabling being run throughout a facility that led to a different approach to workplace planning, where basically, I mean I'm simplifying this here, but basically, a company would say, all right, we've got 300 people, that's 300 desktop computers, and 300 desks and 300 desk chairs. And if you looked at the design process, it kind of started from the PC and went out. So the workplace very much was designed around computer networks rather than human networks. And that frustrated the heck out of Propst, and to be honest, the entire company.

Now, don't get me wrong, we sold a ton of furniture and we became a multibillion-dollar company in the process, but we've been seeking ways as people become more and more mobile and as consumerization impacts our thinking about the technology tools we use, to return to a vision of a place that is very human centered, filled with lots of interesting variety.

And we've made really good progress between say 2005 and 2019. Now with 2020, the game has really been changed because for the first time, maybe ever, the attitudes among work team leaders and managers in 2020 shifted, in that a majority of them now do believe that work can successfully be done outside of the office. And it's giving us a chance to go back to them and say, let's check your old assumption that most people even do most of their work at a desk. They don't need to. They do a wide variety of activities throughout the day. Your goal — our goal — is to make sure that people have choice and a wide variety of places to do it to get back to that idea of a landscape.

Now as far as your question of how to make sure this isn't compromised again. I think the most important question we can be talking about here is what is actually the role of the office when people truly are freed to work anywhere. Does the office still matter? What is its primary use? What do people miss most about it, if anything, now that they've been working free from it for the last year. As you can imagine, we've got some pretty strong thoughts on that. Those are the conversations that I get a chance to have with our customers every day.

Siobhan: So Ryan, you sort of took the question right out of my mouth, which was, we're all still working from home, we're still working out how we're going to be working in the near future when we're all vaccinated. So what will the office look like? And what activities do you see or does Herman Miller see as being best suited for when we're all together, assuming that we're still going to be to a certain extent allowed to work from home, and it's going to be the hybrid workplace as many people are calling it?

Ryan: Yeah, exactly. Well, we should, I think, continue to embrace the idea that distributed working — working in lots of different places including in the office and elsewhere — is the trajectory that was already happening before the pandemic. And now it's just been catalyzed in some ways. And that's good. And digital transformation strategies should continue in terms of helping people to work digitally, regardless of where they are, ideally in a way that balances both synchronous and asynchronous work processes.

But if we start thinking about workplace for a second, in the simplest of terms it's where someone works, then we should understand workplace as a wide variety of places, including the home, including maybe the coffee shop, the co-working space and the office. And when you look specifically at the role of office, if you imagine a situation where it's completely on demand, where people are free to work anywhere else, the office still offers a tremendous amount of value. In fact, if we look to companies that are 100% remote and that have been 100% remote for a long time, they still have a lot of times when they get together and they value physical space.

So if I get more specific, I'll highlight three things. First, it's about maintaining really good social connections to build the culture. Sociologists have a concept called weak ties. And the term weak makes it sound unimportant. It's not, weak ties basically refers to like your secondary network. Your primary network might be the people that you have Zoom calls with or that you interact with in the course of a week. But there's all these other people, there's like hundreds of other people in your lives. It's the barista that knows your name. It's that woman from finance.

Those people are really important in terms of fostering a sense of belonging, trust, building up a culture. This is kind of cheesy, but Winston Churchill years ago said, we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us. So the office as a way of bringing together people socially, building the culture is super important. And that shouldn't just be people sitting at desks, it should feel like a very social place, something that has a coffee shop or restaurant or other kind of clubhouse vibe. So that would be one.

The second has to do with longer duration team activities. What we used to think of as off-sites, now will increasingly be viewed as onsite. So it's the half day workshop, it's the couple day strategic planning session. Those sorts of events are really impacted by the quality of the physical environment and so the workplace needs to support that better.

And then the final thing, which has been a real eye opener, and we started to learn this, maybe around 2014 or 2015. But the workplace really needs to support individual focused and concentrated work. There was a bit of a cliche that this could happen at home. You go to the office for collaboration, you go home to focus. That is not necessarily the case. The data before 2020, and particularly in 2020, indicates that a lot of people really struggle due to distractions to be able to focus from home. And if we think a little bit about how people have adopted new technologies in 2020, I would expect that more video calls would be taken in the office individually. I would expect that more collaborative processes are asynchronous, which basically means it's you and your laptop for extended periods of time.

So if you can imagine a workplace that bounces these things, you go in, it's super social, and then boom, I'm going to go spend two hours on a spreadsheet that's really important. And then I'm going to maybe tomorrow spend a half day with my team thinking about the next quarter. Those are all experiences that are very difficult to do anywhere but an office. But here's the key. The office has to be designed to support them, which generally it hasn't been. Offices have been planned to be way too generic, tons of open desks, tons of bland conference rooms, but without an eye towards these more specific activities. So we're in the midst of seeing an evolution of these spaces that hopefully will happen at a pretty rapid pace.

Mike: Ryan, are you hopeful about this? Because I think you laid out a pretty compelling case for what the office should look like. But are you actually seeing activity amongst employers to address this? Or is it still early days? We're almost a year into this pandemic that has pushed us all to remote working so we shouldn't be early days. But are you still seeing folks who are kind of still grappling with this a little bit?

Ryan: Yes, it's across the board. But I'm very hopeful. And I'm very optimistic. Now, I will say that Herman Miller is generally viewed as a pretty progressive design brand. So we had the good fortune of having a lot of customers that were already thinking about these sorts of evolutions years before the pandemic. And that's given us, I think, a little bit of a leg up in terms of being able to go help organizations that are just now saying, "Well, hang on, maybe people can work anywhere, maybe our workspaces need to be a little bit more diverse and interesting."

What I'm most optimistic about is that I'm seeing organizations beginning to embrace the concept that their spaces have to be desirable. So if you think about it, the world of real estate had a little bit of a monopoly on where work was done for a long period of time. For 30 years, if you had to do your work you had to go into the office. Now, with workspaces on-demand, then those places have to compete. I mean, they have to deliver value.

I frequently use an analogy in talking with our customers about restaurants. There's been a fair amount of talk in the media and among CEOs and others around, well, do we need offices? How much office space do we need? But no one said that about restaurants. Most of them have been closed in 2020. And most of us are getting to be better and better home cooks. But you wouldn't say I don't think we need as any restaurants because it's understood that people love dining out, it's a cherished experience. Like if you tried to close down the restaurants in my neighborhood, people would get mad. But people don't get mad necessarily when people suggested about the office, which should cause us to conclude that offices have not really delivered experiences that people value at that level.

I think the most leading-edge customers do. The employees at some of our best customers, if you were to say we're closing down your office permanently, would say "Hold up. That's where I go to connect with people. That's where I go to do my best focused work. Don't you dare take it away from me." But most, if we're being honest, haven't reached that bar. And so the thing that causes me the most optimism is this kind of realization among heads of real estate, CFOs, CEOs, that if we're gonna get a good return on our real estate investments these spaces need to be desirable, like they need to be good. And they need to be able to solve people's needs in terms of their work process and their ability to connect with others socially.

Mike: That sound was maybe a giant sigh of relief from the commercial real estate market, as they heard you talking about this right now.

Ryan: Maybe. That's not to say that organizations might not have a little less space. But my goodness, if you're going to spend $10,000 to $20,000 per person per year on real estate, which is what it costs in most bigger cities, then you should be able to track the utilization of that space to see if people find it valuable enough to go to. There's this whole world of Prop Tech, of technologies related to property, a lot of those solutions help real estate people to understand if and how their spaces are being used. And if I look at space utilization, as one example, in an era where everybody was expected to come to the office, it was useful. You could tell that one space was used more than the other. Now, if people are granted the ability to just come in when they want, it will become the proxy for whether or not the space is even worth visiting. So yes, a sigh of relief but a whole new challenge to make sure that real estate investments are in fact spent well.

Siobhan: And I actually want to bring up one of those challenges, because a little bit earlier, you mentioned people logging into video meetings individually while in the office. And this is sort of an ongoing issue where people who do work remotely, and then there's a centralized team, and everybody is logging in from their computer, one-on-one at home. But then everybody in the main office is on one phone, that huge module in the middle of the office meeting room table, and you're hearing all these side conversations, maybe you're hearing somebody eat their lunch, etc. So how does the office need to change design-wise to support that kind of individual use while at the same time supporting the social meetings and interactions?

Ryan: That's a great question. I do think we need to have a little bit clearer sense of how people's individual tools will be used. We did this in about an 18-month deep dive with the director of user experience at Skype in 2012 and 13, looking at video and how desktop video might change the office. And I remember going to Microsoft at the time and going into a meeting and there were like three people in the room. But there were like 30 on video from their desks within the facility. And at the time, I thought, this is crazy. Why aren't they coming to the room? Well, as we learned more it became evident that the user experience had been designed around one, and that even they, you know, found it to be more enjoyable individually than in the room.

So that has been a little bit of a challenge. If I zoom out, I think that anytime we're talking about supporting remote and distributed teams, it has some inclusion challenges. It used to be, as you pointed out, that if you were on the speakerphone but you weren't in the room that you were in trouble. Now, it might be the opposite, actually, which is if you've got four or five people logging into a video meeting individually and there's three people in a room, just in terms of the actual user interface, their heads are going to be tiny, and their voices may or may not be picked up by that mic. And so it might actually be that being in the room becomes the bigger challenge.

Now, what's the solution? It's really about a balanced approach of trying to figure out what tools people might use. Individual video calls should be supported in the workplace. Many open desk plans don't support it well. So you've either got to think about changing the desk, or you could think about adding some shared private video booths or phone booths, whatever you want to call them. And then I do think there's been some good advancements in terms of room technology.

But we need to think about workplace technologies as much about the tools that people carry in their pockets and their purses and their backpacks, as we do some resident technology that sits in a conference room and waits for people to access it. Because the same thing that happened with desktop computing and people becoming unshackled from the desk is also happening with the room.

Siobhan: Ryan, do you see a lot of interaction between the people who are leading say the digital workplace, so the more tool-centric parts and say facilities management, or I assume in your clientele you would, but in the broader world, do you see much of a collaboration between those two roles?

Ryan: No, I wish I saw more to be honest. I think Prop Tech has been one category of technology that has brought together real estate and IT professionals to talk about the building. And real estate people are learning what the term shadow IT means and they don't want to be it. But still, that's kind of rare. If you were to zoom out and say, alright, who's responsible for providing a good work experience to our employees? Historically, IT might have said, well, we got the tools and the network infrastructure. HR would say, alright, we're gonna try to make sure that we've got the organizational design and some cultural protocols. Facilities, by the way it usually works that facilities reports into real estate and real estate reports into the CFO, facilities might say, alright, we got the spaces.

But if you were to ask that question, now, the answer is it's not clear at all who's responsible for supporting work from anywhere. We have a handful of customers that have created work from anywhere leadership roles that are meant to bridge those three domains. I can think of people like Darren Murph, the head of remote work at GitLab. You know, he's a friend that I talk to regularly in terms of how, again, there's more of a specialized role that's meant to bring technology and spatial thinkers together more. But this is an area that we need to work on a little bit, because organizations should be asking how we can support positive employee experiences, work experiences. And it's real tough to imagine a scenario where the people responsible for the tools and the people responsible for the space aren't working more closely together. It's well beyond getting Cat-5 cables and audio visual planning done in advance of the facilities project.

Mike: You raised another good point, I think, Ryan there in that last statement where you're talking about the employee experience, and what is the role of the employee voice here? Because we are suddenly presented with many more options than we ever had before when it comes to work. How do organizations get the voice of the employee? What do you recommend that they do to find out how people want to work and maybe also get beneath what they're saying to what they're actually doing?

Ryan: There's a variety of ways. There are some good tools out there. As an example, well, actually, we have some tools in terms of helping organizations understand and measure workplace experience. And when I say workplace, I'm talking about working from any place. There's organizations like Leesman, a UK research firm, also have these basic surveys that are beginning to get after what elements of your work experience are you struggling with the most. They're definitely biased towards place but they do get into some technologies as well.

But I gotta tell you, if it were me I would probably start with some focus groups within our own employee population. It's going to be a different conversation now than it would have been a year and a half ago because people are obviously working differently. They have adopted new tools, they're interacting with their teams differently. They're not quite sure what to expect from the spaces.

But now would be a really good time. Like, let's just say, one of our listeners leads IT or is an IT manager, go to somebody in facilities and say, hey, do you want to start getting some focus groups of employees together to ask them about their work experience, ask them about what's going well, what's not going well. Ask them in terms of their tools, what's become really important, what hasn't. Ask them me about their spaces.

And if we begin now, I think what we'll find is that there'll be a broader return to work effort in North America here somewhere between late July and Labor Day. And by the end of the calendar year, people will have kind of figured out that new pattern language, that new series of experiences, and they'll probably be able to say much more clearly, here's something that I could use help with. But the better option would be to begin talking to them before that. So that as a group, the facilities team, the IT team, maybe the HR team as well, can just learn a little bit about each other, because you're going to spend half the time trying to understand each other's languages. Terms like programming as an example mean something totally different in both worlds architecture, design. You kind of need to give a little bit of time to just learn each other's worlds if you're going to go work together to help employees have better experiences.

Siobhan: Ryan, I'm gonna ask a really selfish question.

Ryan: Sure.

Siobhan: If you were to give me [and] people listening three tips for how to improve their home office. And I know everybody's got their own different setups. But where are most people's physical and also digital setups, where would you tell them to first move?

Ryan: Sure, and actually, I'll start by saying you can go to a tool. It's just Herman Miller Work From Home that we put together to provide a pretty holistic, tailored recommendation for each of you. And it is not to sell furniture, it gets into things like cognitive well-being, movement, daylight, a whole host of things. So if you want a pretty robust series of recommendations then that's where I'd look.

But let me give you a little shorthand answer. No. 1, almost all the research, and this is well beyond Herman Miller, indicates that a good chair to support you comfortably is probably the single most important thing, any number of issues related to neck pain, back pain, headaches, wrist pain, if you have a chair — it doesn't have to be at Herman Miller chair but I hope that it would be — that can be adjusted so you can be alleviated. So that's really important.

The second thing I pay attention to is lighting. Lighting impacts us in a lot of different ways. It of course impacts the way we're viewed on video, which is more of just a tactical day-to-day need. But it also impacts our cognition, our energy levels, our sense of well being. And too often people don't pay enough attention to lighting.

And the third thing that I personally pay attention to, and I'm going to go out on a limb here a little bit, because this is not something that we've published a lot on but it's something that I believe in strongly, is paying attention to air quality.

I know this sounds ridiculous and geeky but I actually have sitting just a few feet from me a CO2 monitor that I got for $40 off Amazon. Indoor air quality has a huge effect on us. And by the way, if there's anything that the real estate world may have picked up long term as a result of COVID, is that they need to pay much more attention to the quality of the indoor air because COVID essentially is not spreading through surface transmission. It's spreading through shared air and the aerosolsization of the virus, etc. But when it comes to home offices, if I close my office door — I have a spare bedroom — and I leave the windows closed and I spend eight hours in here, the CO2 levels will get up to 1,400 to 1,600 parts per million. Stanford says that at 1,400 parts per million, your cognition is reduced by half.

Siobhan: You're blowing our minds over here, Ryan.

Ryan: Well, CO2 levels, they really do affect how you think. So if you're someone that gets headaches, it could be because you've got video fatigue, you're spending too much time on video. Go asynchronous. It could be because of the lighting and you've got eyestrain. It could be because of the quality of the indoor air. So I live in Michigan, it's 22 degrees right now, we got like 4 inches of snow last night. I can't open up my windows but what I will do is open up the door to my office and put a fan in the hallway pointing in, and those CO2 levels will drop to 400 or 500 parts per million within about five minutes. I can tell the difference personally. And so I think these principles are all true of the office, right?

There's ergonomics. There's good lighting and other indoor environmental characteristics that we should pay attention to. And I think the same is true in the office. Now I will add a fourth, which you didn't ask for, little tip and this is something very specific, which I put on my LinkedIn profile. I'm happy to share it with you, some tips for how to improve experiences on video. And one of the most important things I can recommend is make sure that the camera is pointing at you and that behind you is a wall. Any chaos happening in your life should be in front of you, not behind you.

So the challenge with a camera pointing into an open room is that no matter what happens, whether it's a pet freaking out or a delivery person or a kid wandering in, you can remember that video that went viral with that poor guy being interviewed by the BBC. Whenever the chaos is behind you, it impacts your ability to focus. When you know that the remote participants can only see a nice wall behind you, then if something happens it's happening in your line of sight, not in their line of sight. And you can always say, hang on one second, step away, deal with whatever it is and come back and be fully present.

So that is not nearly as important as physical or cognitive health. But in terms of practical tips, pull the desk away from the wall, stick the chair in between the desk and the wall and make sure that the chaos is in front of you, not behind you.

Mike: Well, that was great. I'm definitely going to go forward and blame CO2 levels for all the mistakes that I make going forward.

Siobhan: I actually am laughing at the keep the chaos in front of you. I mean, generally speaking, I like putting the chaos behind me but I guess on a video call, it does make sense keeping it in front of you.

Mike: So to kind of close this out, Ryan, we've got a little segment we call underrated/overrated. We're gonna throw you a few topics and you tell us whether you believe that thing is underrated or overrated. Maybe a little bit of explanation. Are you game for it?

We didn't go into your background but you actually spent a little bit of time working at WeWork so we figured we'd throw the topic of co-working spaces at you. The idea of shared office spaces where folks come from different organizations and work in a similar space. Are co-working spaces underrated or overrated?

Ryan: The first generation concept was overrated, which was the belief that you would go into a city, hang out with a bunch of other people that don't work in your organization every single day in a club-like atmosphere. There's a new wave of co-working coming which is probably more suburban. It's probably less of a thing where you go every day but it's someplace you go when you need it and that will support everything from focused work to small team activities, which will provide more value. But as we see it today, it was overrated.

Mike: Yeah, it's like the distributed working model isn't just your homes. It's actually your neighborhoods that it's being distributed to.

Ryan: People are not enthused about a 60- or 90-minute long commute in the future. They'll make it if there's reason to do it. But that's not to say that everything can be done from home. So if you had someplace close, within 10 minutes of your home, to get together with maybe one or two other co-workers that live in the area or to go have some focused time, or if it had great bandwidth and you were doing a customer presentation or a presentation with the executives and you felt like you could be better there. Would you find value in it? Heck, yeah. But do you want to drive into the city every single day to go to a space with a bunch of people that don't work for your organization? I don't know. Some people might but not most.

Siobhan: Next up, Ryan. Since this has all been going on, we've often heard about the lack of water cooler talk as sort of a shorthand for the informal chit chat that people from different teams have when they meet around the proverbial water cooler. Is that underrated or overrated?

Ryan: Underrated because of what we talked about before. That's how we connect with those weak ties, with that extended network of people. And it's how we foster a sense of belonging. So it's really important and people are really struggling not having it.

Mike: What about open office plans? They were getting a little bit of a bad rap before we all went home. Are open office plans underrated or overrated?

Ryan: Overrated. Like I said before, it was always about having variety. It was not about a mass of open desks that only supported hearing each other and saying hello to each other. So anytime the pendulum swings too far because of some fad, and by the way, there have been six or seven of these in the office furniture industry, then we should be concerned. Open offices were overrated.

Siobhan: OK, I want to start getting into the furniture talk with you, Ryan. Standing desks, underrated or overrated?

Ryan: That's a tough one because so few people actually use them as they're intended. So, I would say that they're underrated because it's not just standing. It's the ability to lower that desk for different users. We find that 53% of people who work from home have their own space but the other 47% share it, so the ability to do some adjustment or the ability to raise the surface up to be on video so that the camera is looking at your face and not your chin. It's the height adjustability, I guess is what I'm saying, that is really underrated. The transition from sit to stand is probably overrated because all of that media hype around sitting is killing you has been taken too far. That was more around potato chips on the couch than sitting in a good chair.

Siobhan: Wait, you're telling me potato chips on the couch is a bad thing?

Ryan: Well, I certainly enjoy it. I'd say too much of it as a bad thing. I've put on my COVID 10 for sure. I've packed on a few.

Mike: I remember the phrase sitting is the new smoking. Anyone else hear that?

Ryan: It was so frustrating because that was a huge media thing. And there were people in our industry that gobbled it up, like this is great, we're gonna sell a bunch of sit-stand tables but the research wasn't there. First of all, Wi-Fi and laptops had already come around. So people were spending far less time at their desk than they had been 10 years before. And all of the research, if you could find it at all, pointed towards lifestyle choices outside of the office. So I can go on and on about that one. But anytime we see a lot of media hype, the same about generations, you know, all this generations in the workplace stuff, if you trace it back to the early origins, that may be the single most overrated topic that we've encountered in the last 20 years in our industry. So yeah, the sitting is the new smoking thing was a major point of frustration for a lot of us.

Siobhan: OK Ryan, next furniture one. Eames lounge chair with the Ottoman.

Ryan: Oh, it's underrated.

Siobhan: Thank God you said that.

Ryan: I don't know how to say enough about that, and some of the other products that were designed for Herman Miller back in the 40s and 50s. Another product from Ray and Charles Eames, a husband and wife duo, the molded plywood chair. Time magazine listed it as the design of the century because of its innovative design, but the Eames lounge chair specifically takes that even farther, in that it is truly a multi-generational thing to really covet. And for all of our digital age, there's a lot of evidence that across the lifespan, that even young people really appreciate having something that feels authentic and real and that provides them comfort. And so ... I know it's on the high side price-wise, but what kind of things can you buy today, enjoy for your life and have a lot of confidence that your grandkids will enjoy it too?

Mike: All right, Ryan, you mentioned early on that you're a Michigander and someone who grew up in the Chicago area and still lives in the Chicago area, I've throughout my life spent a ton of time in western Michigan, which as you mentioned is sort of a center of furniture design and office design. Do you feel like West Michigan is underrated or overrated?

Ryan: I'm hesitant to say because I'm of the tribe that absolutely loves West Michigan but we kind of like that it's a little bit of a secret. It's an amazing place. Now, it's not fun this time of the year. I mean, it's dark and there's a lot of snow. But West Michigan is one of the most interesting places that you can find for a variety of reasons.

Yes, the furniture industry is headquartered here. We've done a ton of R&D for many years. There were more LEED-certified buildings in Grand Rapids, Michigan than on any other place on Earth. But it goes beyond that. There's been a spirit of partnership between the for profit, nonprofit and government here that has resulted in a lot of innovation. In fact, I sit on the Mobile Grand Rapids City Commission. We've had the longest most complex autonomous vehicle route here in Grand Rapids over the course of the last year than anyplace else on Earth.

There's all sorts of interesting things. And it's absolutely stunning to be along the shores of Lake Michigan. So yeah, if anybody decides to come in, they can come visit Herman Miller, ride in a self-driving car and sit on the beach.

Mike: The beaches, the dunes, the forests. I think it's a really unique ecosystem. I love it. So definitely, here's our plug for the West Michigan Convention and Visitor's Bureau, go visit.

Siobhan: We're gonna ask all of our podcast listeners to keep the secret though.

Mike: By the way Jesse, our producer, wanted to make sure we mention the breweries as well.

Ryan: We've got some of the best breweries on the planet, voted Beer City, USA two years running here a couple years ago. My favorite one Brewery Vivant, is a B Corp started by a former Herman Miller employee. Absolutely fantastic experience. So yeah, I just assumed that people would be drinking beers in between all the activities I mentioned before. And in fact, I have a happy hour on the patio at that brewery. We've embraced here, just as they have in the Nordics, the idea that there is no bad weather, just bad clothing. And I continue to have happy hours outdoors throughout the pandemic with coworkers and loved ones as a way of staying connected.

Mike: Just put an Eames chair in that happy hour and it's perfect.

Siobhan: Oh, yeah, I think Mike and I need to do a road trip now.

Mike: Alright Siobhan, you want to bring us home?

Siobhan: So Ryan, thank you so much. In case our audience wants to learn a little bit more about you and your work, where can they find you online?

Ryan:  Definitely LinkedIn. I spend a lot of time sharing insights and connecting with people on LinkedIn, so you can just look up Ryan Anderson, Herman Miller. And that's primarily I think, the best place. You can also go to Click on research as an example. There's a future of the office page that's got a bunch of our work on there, including a video of me basically giving a three-minute summary that would be good to forward on to your colleagues and facilities, real estate and HR.

Siobhan: Awesome. Thank you so much, Ryan.

Ryan: Thank you, this has been a lot of fun!

Mike: Well, that was fun Siobhan. You got a little bit of the Herman Miller fandom satisfied today. What stood out to you from our conversation with Ryan?

Siobhan: Aside from all of the furniture talk, I loved the concept of weak ties, just those people who you're not even necessarily aware that you're interacting but what they're actually creating, that sense of trust that Ryan mentioned, how it's actually helping build the culture. So for me that was really an a-ha moment. How about you, Mike?

Mike: The one that stood out to me, and it really was sort of a surprise, I didn't think that the conversation was going to go this way, was when he started talking about air quality at home. I am definitely going to be blaming all of my little errors and mistakes on CO2 levels from here on out. That's where it's going.

Siobhan: Honestly, Mike, I didn't bring that up because that one blew my mind so much. I'm still processing. I mean, it's just, it's so obvious and yet at the same time, it was like, "Oh, right."

Mike: Alright, so Siobhan if people want to know where you're at, where do you recommend that they follow you?

Siobhan: They could find me on LinkedIn. I am pretty active on it although I do not post frequently, but I definitely respond to any kind of comments. So just my name is Siobhan Fagan. And I think that would be a good place to start.

Mike: Follow me on Twitter @prokotweet and I think Siobhan you're also pretty active on Twitter at Siobhan Fagan?

Siobhan: @siobhan__fagan

Mike: Alright. We'd love to hear from you. We'd love to hear your comments and thoughts about this topic or any topic related to the future of work, so please do follow along and listen in. I'll see you next time Siobhan.

Siobhan: Mike, I think I'm going to use this as our new sign off: Keep the chaos in front of you, Mike.

Mike: I love it. Alright, talk to you later.

Siobhan: Bye.

Mike: We encourage you to drop us a line at [email protected]. If you have a suggestion for a topic for a future conversation, we are all ears. Thank you again for exploring the revolution of work with us and we'll see you next time.


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