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Future of the Office: Just One Piece in the Hub-and-Spoke Puzzle

The onset of the pandemic redefined the role of the office space and accelerated the dynamic transformation Australian workplaces had been going through. We sit down with Kirsten Brown, National Insights Manager for Australia and New Zealand at Herman Miller, to talk about why the office of tomorrow will have to work harder to prove effective and why designing a space with fundamental human needs in mind is the best way to future-proof it.

I sit on a kitchen stool that doubles as an office chair. Kirsten, 200 km away, sits on Herman Miller’s Aeron task chair, one of the world’s most coveted work chairs. She heads up the local insights team, socialises the brand’s global research in the Australian market and is completing a doctorate in health in the workplace. Nobody is better placed to discuss the predictions on – and the hopes for – the office of the future.

‘The office is still very relevant,’ she starts by reassuring that the idea of an office is not going away. ‘Just like restaurants. Even though we’re all getting takeaways, restaurants are always going to be around because they’re a place that people want to go to, to connect with others. The same fundamentals apply to the office environment. We’re social beings, and there’s a lot of work that’s done best face to face.’

It is clear that the role of the office has shifted significantly and, moving forward, office spaces will be used very differently. Desk utilisation in densely-packed open-plan offices has dropped, and COVID-19 has turned the work-from-home experiment into a pretty successful reality, setting the scene for a more distributed way of working. Possibly a more effective and more natural way of working, according to Kirsten, as it enables the individuals to use different spaces for different kinds of activities. ‘For example, the individual work might be done at home, at the local library or the local co-working space. The team and collaborative work, on the other hand, can be done in the office,’ Kirsten highlights that the office workplace is only one piece of the puzzle as the home environment and local spaces are effectively becoming its extension. ‘We’re moving to the hub-and-spoke model, rather than just the hub model,’ she sums up.

That means that the future of the office will be more about allocating the floor plan to more collaborative spaces. ‘Traditionally, we’ve seen large parts of the floor plan committed to workstations or individual work points. Moving forward, there might be more focus on creating spaces where people can work collaboratively with their team members,’ she says. ‘However, the office will have to work harder to attract the employees,’ she points out. ‘It will have to offer people what they don’t have at home – connections, service and effective spaces.’

Providing adequate spaces and fostering connections in a place with an irregular influx of people requires flexibility; already in high demand before the pandemic. ‘Now the flexibility has become paramount because we needed to adjust the space to allow for safe work practices,’ explains Kirsten. ‘Providing solutions and creating well-designed products that are modular, and can come apart and be reassembled will give people the flexibility to deal with the ebbs and flows of the workplace, a crisis and government requirements as they change,’ she adds.

And while some of the workplace innovation has resulted in further developments of digital booking systems to help manage the on-demand character of the new office, Herman Miller’s new range celebrates the practicality of a flexible furniture set-up. Set for release the middle of this year, the new range is called Office Essentials One. Built on a kit of parts, it will allow people to make everything from drop-in points where they can do quick video conferences, through to large, collaborative spaces, ensuring that an office equipped with the range can provide high value in both individual and group settings. ‘It will also allow the user to start getting involved in how the space is designed,’ adds Kirsten.

Like all other Herman Miller products, Office Essentials One was born out of a real human insight, which is key to future-proofing both the product and the space it exists within. Kirsten explains that while the tools and processes used at work might change and become more digital, those fundamental, basic needs – such as autonomy or sense of security – are universal and will continue being crucial to making people feel valued and safe in a workplace. ‘When we design for spaces, what we really look at is whether it will actually improve the art of everyday living and working,’ she explains the belief at the core of the brand.

Following the thread of improving lives and ways of working, for Kirsten, it is the focus on employee health that will gain much more traction in the future. ‘At the moment, we’re dealing with health at a crisis level. But the long-term issues related to the sedentary nature of the workplace are much bigger than the pandemic,’ she cautions. ‘I’m hoping that the hybrid model improves health outcomes as people are more active, not being stuck in the office five days a week. We have to get the world moving again.’

However, the responsibility to stay healthy will not sit solely with individuals. Ensuring healthy working conditions and practices is becoming essential for any employer. ‘We can already see the advent of new standards in the market,’ says Kirsten pointing to the WELL Building Standard and Fitwel. ‘In the future, health-related standards will become the base level when it comes to responding to and enabling people’s health within the workplace.’

The in-depth research on health in the workplace and commitment to scientific evidence form the basis of Herman Miller’s design practices. ‘When people buy our products or solutions, they know that this crucial part of the equation has been addressed’, explains Kirsten, making it evident why Herman Miller is the go-to when it comes to insights, products and services that help businesses keep up with the dynamically changing nature of the workplace. Their human-centric, purposeful and improvement-led offering enables designers and employers worldwide to look towards the future of office with confidence.

For more insights on the ever-changing future of the workplace, the latest research and even some office inspiration, explore Herman Miller’s online resources.

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