This is the next part of the conversation with Ryan Anderson (Vice President of Global Research & Insights at MillerKnoll) and Joseph White (Director of Design Strategy at MillerKnoll). Ryan Anderson tells us about how digitization is changing the way we perform tasks related to everyday professional duties. And why it is worth considering the influence of ubiquitous technology when designing a workspace.
The pandemic has become a powerful accelerator of changes in work models and methods. Remote work, hybrid work, all kinds of online meetings are common today. How do office layouts and equipment catch up to these changes?
Ryan Anderson: Let’s start with what was happening just before the pandemic. Many modern office designs were still based on old assumptions – that it was the office that offered the technology necessary to do the job and you had to be there to use it. Workplaces were equipped with desktop computers meant to last for 20 or 30 years. People would come where technology was. This attitude has shaped many assumptions about how work is to be done. We moved within the same rooms, the same groups of people, in the same space, working at the same time. It was a joint, synchronized work. But the possibility of change could already be glimpsed a dozen or so years ago.
Wi-Fi networks started to emerge around 2004-2005. This has gradually led to the development of remote work, i.e. work performed outside the office. I remember that I started seeing people sitting with laptops in coffee shops and working. It was something that had simply been not possible before. There has been tremendous progress since then. If we think about platforms such as Google Docs or Slack, they have radically changed teamwork: thanks to them, it no longer has to take place at the same time and place. We can collaborate from different places and at different times, which we call asynchronous cooperation.
So these changes and remote work support were already well advanced before the pandemic. But its outbreak and the fact that people were forced to work from home, from distant places, rapidly accelerated the digital transformation. The number of meetings on Microsoft Teams and Zoom during the first three months of the pandemic increased unimaginably. Unfortunately, this did not mean that people knew how to use these tools effectively. What we were seeing at the time looked like trying to translate the office experience into the video format, and it was really exhausting. Participating in teleconferences for up to 8 hours a day caused great fatigue and various other problems. It was very limiting. Some companies have come up with useful solutions for this issue and are now using technology in a more balanced way. Others continue to abuse video.
But, back to the initial question, the most important thing is that work is becoming more and more digitized, wireless, freed. The materials and information we use and the conversations we have may be stored in the cloud. Thus, the office becomes a space that supports digital work. And I really don’t think that now that offices are opening up again, we should take all the accumulated data and information out of the cloud and put it back on company servers. We don’t necessarily want someone writing on a whiteboard set up in the office when two or three people who are online at that time can’t see anything. We don’t want key decisions to be made during corridor conversations because there are people in the office who can’t be involved. We need to think of spaces – no matter where they are based – as places meant to support a variety of new work-related activities that always include a digital element.
This does not mean that space is not important anymore. In fact, it is critically important – not only the office, but also the home workspace and other places where people carry out their professional duties. In fact, the workspace is becoming a place to support individual groups using technology in a much more modern way than the one we had opted for until recently. This has its practical implications, such as the need to find wi-fi or a power supply to operate the device wherever we are. We should think about video and its use in office spaces, however many people will still use it individually. The video systems that developed in 2020 were not designed for group conversations. They are meant for conducting individual conversations. We will see more and more people engaging in video calls using only their personal digital devices.
So I think the offices are halfway there. Most meeting rooms used to be equipped with some sort of video camera, and there were some assumptions about how video interaction would work. But today people can use technology individually or in groups in a really streamlined way. And what is worth emphasizing – they do not need fancy solutions that they will be unable to use. They opt for a very intuitive, simple experience using their personal devices from anywhere in the office. So it sets a completely different standard than before. We must recognize that modern work is digitized and that office space must support it. But everything really starts with individual devices that are in our bags, backpacks or pockets.