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5 Minutes With … Oliver Baxter!

Just returning home after 30 days travelling to workplaces throughout the Asia Pacific region, Oliver Baxter shares his insights on the global status of collaboration and the future of the working world.

5 Minutes With … Oliver Baxter!

Today, conversations surrounding design and the commercial space inevitably end up touching upon the theme of collaboration. Whether investigating why collaboration might be more beneficial than we had heretofore believed, or even looking at ways in which designers can approach collaboration-oriented briefs, such conversations aim to open up the floor to further questions about the status of the contemporary end-user and the way in which design might be able to empower the human condition in a digital era. But even approaching a working – or, indeed, workable – definition of ‘collaboration’ in today’s professional landscape continues to prove unbearably difficult as traditionally collaborative behaviours become constantly reimagined by the prevailing advances of technology.

Capturing the status and operations of ‘collaboration’ in the modern working world was precisely the impetus that lay behind Herman Miller’s most recent investigations into the psychology of collaborative working models throughout the Asia Pacific region. With Oliver Baxter – Herman Miller’s Insights Programme Manager – at the helm of an impressive thirty day tour throughout the various countries of Asia Pacific, a series of networking events, seminars and workshops explored the changing nature of ‘work’ on our doorsteps, today. Indesign’s David Congram sat down with Oliver Baxter upon his return to learn more about his findings – read the interview, below.


Congram:     After travelling through several countries sharing your insights into the changing nature of collaboration in the modern working world, were there some similarities that carried across countries?


Baxter:     There are definitely some problems that the contemporary workplace currently faces which could be thought of as being more global problems rather than solely local ones. Naturally, work is just as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a personal one – and our regional, ethnic, social and economic differences play a significant part in the way we approach our professional lives and environments. And yet, there are still difficulties we all seem to face irrespective of cultural difference.


As much as we all need to respect the differences between cultures, our R+D at Herman Miller focuses on commonalities and what unites us rather than divides us. Topics such as creativity in the workplace, or the nature of being an extrovert or introvert in a professional environment are shared conditions irrespective of cultural difference – to differing degrees and scale, of course.


Colour is a fantastic example. The way we use or integrate colour into our workplaces is one of those things that is equally influenced on a global and local scale. Colour trends, particular palettes and tones continually go in and out of favour, but colour is also something that is heavily translated across the world. The use of yellow in an office in India will be deployed significantly differently than it would in China, Australia or Indonesia, for example.


Congram:     How difficult is it, then, for architects, designers and workplace innovators to approach these global problems with a degree of cultural sensitivity at the same time?


Baxter:     Well this is one of those instances where we need to step back and take in the bigger picture. If you look at the state of collaboration in the contemporary world, the global problem we all face is a digital one. Every day we all collaborate and communicate using digital channels and platforms – which is great for bringing together many different voices and perspectives across the globe to reach a point or system of commonality. But at the same time, digital collaboration hasn’t reached its total potential, and we need material environments that actively foster positive spaces, models and connections between all stakeholders in a working environment.

For instance, the material spaces required for fruitful collaboration in the Middle East are radically different from those in Australia. The majority of collaboration in Australia occurs at workers’ desks or next to their workstations, however throughout the Middle East the mode and locations for active collaboration are very different. Due to the prayer requirements of these workers, a lot of collaboration occurs around or near prayer rooms and so breakout zones or a mixture of formal and informal collaboration areas near prayer rooms drastically changes the way designers and workers negotiate floorplates, the movement of traffic and even the types of furniture or tools needed.


These conversations are happening everywhere – and one of the most interesting examples, I think, is in India.


Congram:     Well, India is experiencing an enormous education, health and commercial boom at the moment, so do you think that this phenomenon has changed the way people approach both working environments and their working habits?


Baxter:     Absolutely! When I was in India delivering a presentation to 220 people within the architecture and design industry there, the future of work and the psychology of collaboration were definitely two of the hottest topics under consideration.

In particular, I was especially surprised to notice the beauty of workplaces in India at the moment. Not only are these spaces beautifully designed, but the research and development behind them really highlights new modes of thinking that India’s architects and designers are using to meet the demands of an emerging workforce generation. One I visited particularly stands out because you could see just how much stress the new emerging workforce is placing on the benefits of activity based working models, and the need for a multiplicity of different types of spaces available to workers – spaces more akin to the hospitality world for more mobile workers, spaces for focus and spaces even for retreat and relaxation.


Congram:     How does our region stand up, then, in how we approach and innovate workplace design?


Baxter:     Well I truly believe that Australia and the Scandinavian countries are the global leaders in workplace design today. And I always think that if we want a glimpse of what the working world of tomorrow will look like, you only need to look at workplaces in those countries.

But because of the growing popularity for activity-based working models throughout Asia Pacific in the past five years or so, we’ve collectively made huge strides to step away from open-plan spaces that cannot cater democratically to both introverts and extroverts alike. The fact that we’re seeing open-plan workplace design less and less everyday throughout Asia Pacific, means that we’re now looking to create workplaces that can truly become living offices to cater to the needs and requirements of every possible stakeholder.


Congram:     So where, especially, do you see the greatest value in corporations foregoing open-plan workplace design and instead choosing to embrace methods and environments that celebrate collaboration more?


Baxter:     It’s absolutely undeniable that collaboration will continue to become more and more necessary to the happiness, fulfilment and productivity of workers in the future. For this, you need look no further than the concern currently being generated by AI.

AI and tech-heavy processes are nipping at the heels of a lot of ‘process and response’ professions – even those professions such as nursing or law where we don’t imagine there are simple processes achievable for AI to work! The more professional behaviours continue to be automated our outsourced to smart technology the more we’re seeing a backlash in the opposite direction too. The number one thing we – as architects, designers, and workplace innovators – need to remember is that humans are still the heart of the modern working world. It’s not about technology or even space, but rather about understanding the important role that each individual plays.

Take for instance the rhetoric of overheads. Every day we hear corporations and the general media lump human resources into conversations on overheads – and it seems like absolute madness. Ninety per cent of an average balance sheet is spent on people, with the remaining ten per cent allocated to space or amenities overheads. So we’re noticing that there needs to be a shift from perceiving our working environments as a cost, and more of a value add to support the backbone – which is evidently people. And, when I say ‘people’, I mean individuals and not broad, sweeping categories. We need, that is, to provide design solutions that foster everyone’s individual talents, solve their individual challenges, and offer strong support that can allow collaboration between individuals to flourish.


Congram:     What kind of difficulties lay before us, then, in providing those design solutions?


Baxter:     At the moment, collaboration environments and collaborative models suit the people who require them that very second. There’s not too much foresight in play. What I mean by this is that we need more forethought to see what provides the groundwork for collaboration to be both productive and long-term. For instance, plazas and cafeteria spaces are an important ingredient to consider in the pursuit of productive collaboration. Because these places are a little informal, they promote mingling and connection between individuals and, as such, therefore also contributes to the building of interpersonal trust while also knocking down hierarchical boundaries.

When you begin to think about the fact that white-collar work in the near future will comprise 20-40% contractual workers, then these trust-building areas like cafeterias will only become more and more influential. These spaces within a design scheme cater to both contractors and salaried staff equally, providing a very important footing for collaboration between those parties to flourish.

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