Canada's Condominium Magazine

Herman Miller has new vision of the modern office

Do you feel disconnected and out of sync, your needs unmet, in a shifting landscape of work? Do you feel that your workplace is beset by uncertainty and disruption? Are you unmotivated by the way your workplace is equipped and managed? Do you feel that your workplace is “from another era”?

Of course you do. You are a modern worker, and the world you work in has not kept pace with all the dramatic changes that have overtaken every aspect of the global economy, from structures and organizations to workforce demographics to the personal needs of workers. It is a frightening picture they paint, this workplace of unfulfilled ambitions and failure.

And who has painted it? Left-wing academics? A government committee? A labour union?

No, it is the work of a furniture maker, though calling Herman Miller a furniture maker is like calling Thomas Chippendale a wood worker: true, but so inadequate.
The Eames lounge chair, created by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller in 1956. It is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Herman Miller, remember, is responsible for one of the most famous chairs in the world, the much admired and copied Eames Chair, which is so highly regarded that it may be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Miller also brought us iconic twentieth century furniture items like the Noguchi table, the Marshmallow sofa, and perhaps most importantly of all, the office cubicle.

It was the latter, the office cubicle, also known as the Action Office System, that reshaped the modern office in the sixties. Millions still work in offices like these, sitting on a rolling, flexible office chair, at an L-shaped desk with a couple of filing cabinet-type drawers and a space for a computer, each space more or less identical to the one next door. It changed the look of modern offices, replacing those vast, wide open spaces where workers sat at endless rows of desks, in full view of each other and of managers. With the cubicle, every worker had a modicum of privacy. Unfortunately, the cubicles also have an isolating effect on workers.

Now Herman Miller wants to change all of that again, and the company has come up with a “progressive” new model. The Action Office is out: the Living Office is in.

And what is the Living Office? It is “a naturally human integration of people, ideas, tools, furnishings and spaces, to create a more desirable workplace.” It is designed to help people and organizations “uniquely express and enable their shared character, activities, and purpose, promoting employee engagement, creativity, productivity, and wellbeing, and ultimately greater prosperity for all.”

That may seem like a lot of weight for office furniture to bear, but the Herman Miller people have not rushed into this. They have spent “more than two years, on six continents, surveying hundreds of organizations in diverse industries,” exploring the ways people work. And one of their key findings is that improving employee engagement is a top priority for managers around the world. Creating teams is the big thing now, fostering a sense of community and belonging. They predict that dedicated individual workstation space will decline, and non-dedicated team areas will grow to replace it. According to their research, those individual work stations are vacant most of the time anyway, unoccupied for 60 per cent of the time. Private offices get even less use: they are vacant 77 per cent of the time.

Their research also found that the way people work is much more complex than we thought. They identify ten “primary modes of work” for individuals and groups, and ten “settings” where the work takes place. The modes and settings, Miller says, are universal.

A successful office plays a role in facilitating and maintaining a symbiotic balance between individuals and their groups. It connects people to their work and to each other. Workplaces must emphasize that which can’t be accomplished on a screen or through a device. They must proliferate an atmosphere of trust and fellowship. For workers to reach their potential, the office must always feel like a community worth belonging to.

Why Living Office, Herman Miller

The modes describe the key behaviours that people engage in, some of them done alone—contemplation, creation—and some with other people—chatting, conversing, co-creating.

The settings support the modes, and include the haven, the hive, the clubhouse, the cove and the meeting space. So a group might get together in a meeting room to brainstorm, an example of co-creating in a meeting space.

Each of these settings offers a specific design challenge, requiring a specific type of office furniture—that is what Herman Miller is about, after all—to help optimize its performance. So you would need a “landing” space next to a “meeting” space, where meeting attendees can gather. The landing space, says the Herman Miller statement, provides an aid to memory after the meeting and “helps drive work.”

“Each of the ten settings are (sic) distinct in purpose, scale, and social support, and can be designed in great variety using a wide range of furniture.”

It might be tempting to dismiss all of this as an attempt to create new markets for its products, and that’s certainly what’s behind it, but Herman Miller has proven that it is more than just a furniture company. People will pay attention to the “living office.”

Auberge on the Park-Tridel


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