The Remote Show

Show Notes:

Ryan's Links:

Ryan on LinkedIn

WFH at Herman Miller

Future Forum

Herman Miller


Tyler Sellhorn (00:02):
Hello everyone. My name is Tyler Sellhorn and welcome to another episode of The Remote Show, where we discuss everything to do with remote work, with the people who know it best. Thanks so much for listening. The Remote Show is brought to you by We Work Remotely, the largest community of remote workers in the world. With over 220,000 unique users per month, We Work Remotely is the most effective way to hire.
Tyler Sellhorn (00:21):
Today, we are blessed to be learning out loud with Ryan Anderson. Ryan Anderson serves as vice president of global research and insights at Herman Miller, where his team focuses on gaining and sharing insights to help Herman Miller customers thrive. Previously, Ryan was vice president of digital innovation at Herman Miller. With over 25 years of industry experience, much of Ryan's work has centered on how technological and social changes have enabled new ways of working and living and how the places we inhabit can support positive, productive experiences. Ryan regularly speaks about Herman Miller's research and has been featured in Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Fast Company, NPR, the BBC and beyond. We here at We Work Remotely are excited to be part of that "beyond" today. So Ryan, welcome to The Remote Show. Tell us what are you figuring out inside of the digital innovation and global research and insights part of things there at Herman Miller?
Ryan Anderson (01:15):
Well first thank you for having me, Tyler. I appreciate it. And I appreciated the introduction. Yeah. So we are carrying on a long tradition at Herman Miller. For those that don't know Herman Miller, we are a global furniture company, but we've been researching future of work and workplace in all of its varieties since 1960 and with our roots as much in residential and consumer design is commercial. We're looking at all the different places where work happens and thinking about how to create better experiences. And beyond work, by the way, we also research things like the future of home life to understand how all facets of what we do in our homes, working, living, playing, healing, learning, it's all changing. And so, we're really fortunate. We have fun jobs. We get a chance to understand these patterns.
Ryan Anderson (02:01):
Ultimately, we want to do two things. We want to make better products of course, to support people. But we also want to share these insights just to have people be able to glean useful information, to help them have better experiences. And these days on the topic of working remotely, it's a super fun time to have that conversation. The world has opened up very new levels of interests and opportunities to go deep into it. And we've actually been looking at working at home since we launched our first desk in 1942, which was both for home and the office. We called it the executive office group, because back then the only people that had the freedom to choose were executives, but that's now been democratized as you know, and it's a fun time to be talking about these things.
Tyler Sellhorn (02:41):
Yeah. I'm really curious to zoom in on that both and, right, that overlapping perspective that you all have taken and are taking and are boosting the signal on the idea that there is both a use for office equipment in the home and changing what it is and changing what it might look like to work in the office. We've had hybrid leaders on the podcast, obviously we're We Work Remotely. Right. But it's kind of that all of the above sort of situation now that we're looking at the potential of a post pandemic world. So I want to ask a specific question about that, right. When you think of both and right, when you say overlapping or hybrid, how does Herman Miller, how does Ryan Anderson think about the solutions that are going to solve for the workplaces that have both?
Ryan Anderson (03:42):
Sure. Well, I'll start by saying, we have amazing customers that have taken a variety of approaches. There are some that are remote first where virtually all of their employees are working from home consistently, including many of the well-known technology companies that we see in the media. Thankfully they're Herman Miller customers. Others have taken an office first approach. And yeah, we do think that a majority are landing on some sort of hybrid strategy with the goal of offering increased amount of choice, just providing employees more options to create more equitable experiences, give people the chance to do more and have more in terms of their work experience, which is not to say that completely remote can't be enormously successful. We've actually been studying all remote or remote first companies for a while.
Ryan Anderson (04:27):
I'll give you a little side story. I was in London at the Herman Miller space in London years ago, it was like 2012 or 2013. And there was a guy who was working in the technology field, who challenged me to a public debate on whether or not offices were going to be relevant in the future. And I'm a former debate geek. I was like a debater in high school. And so this just got me going and we did, we had this debate. There wasn't a ton of people, maybe 40 or 50 people in our showroom. But what I loved about being a debater back in high school was that you were forced to look at both perspectives. So after the debate was done, I'm like, I need to know his perspective better. We started looking at companies like Automatic. We started looking at Base Camp and Digital Workplace Group, which he was with and others. And it was great actually.
Ryan Anderson (05:13):
because from a research standpoint, it actually helped me and others to have a clearer sense of what an office might need to do if it wanted to be complimentary to people being able to work at home and beyond. And so since then, we've actually tried to push the boundaries of it. We think we know more about how to create a great home workspace if we understand what an office can do. We did a collaboration with Nissan during the pandemic on their prototype NB350 caravan, which was a minivan that supported nomadic work, people literally hitting the open road and working from wherever. And, a few people were like, do you think this is the future? Maybe, but by exploring it, it gives us a clearer sense of how these other environments need to compliment one another.
Ryan Anderson (05:58):
And so I think if an organization decides to support their employees entirely at home, they really need to think through all facets of that at home experience. And some of them are spatial, ergonomics, lighting, even air quality. I mean, we can provide advice in these arenas, but if they're going to go towards more of a hybrid route, they do have a little bit of freedom at that point to say, well, there's probably some activities that people are going to really love doing at home like taking video meetings, doing focused, concentrated work, and then there's other activities like community socialization as an example that they can begin to bias their office towards because offices, they had gone down a path that wasn't really very good if I'm being super blunt.
Ryan Anderson (06:41):
A lot of offices have become really generic, just like a sea of open desks, basic conference rooms. And if you walk through and you say, well, what activities does this office really support well? Is it about building community? Is it about group co-creation? Is it about individual focus? You'd go, ah, none of them. It's too generic. It's trying to do everything for everybody. And when you overburden the design like that, you end up with something that's super generic and often very bland. And so for those organizations that are thinking hybrid, we're simultaneously reminding them that supporting people at home in terms of their productivity and health is critical. You don't want to leave 20, 40, 60% of an employee's productivity and health to chance. You need to support them, but also rethink what your offices are designed to do and begin to make them less generic, more purposeful, more desirable. That way you'll see both spaces being used effectively.
Tyler Sellhorn (07:35):
Really cool. There's so many things as I'm taking notes here, I want to pull out from there. I guess maybe the first thing that I want to say there is that just to peek behind the curtain of the podcast a little bit is that Ryan and I grew up near one another in west Michigan. And so I'm thinking of east Kentwood versus Rockford public debates, and taking opposite sides, but plus one to the Automatic and Get Lab, all remote research. I know for myself, I learned a lot in my first days of working remotely. I learned so much from what they have shared publicly. Let's pull apart two ideas that you mentioned there off the top. You mentioned remote first and office first as ideas, and we've thrown around these ideas, but as someone who's done the research on these ideas, tell us what you mean by remote first. Tell us what you mean by office first and kind of expand on those ideas, please.
Ryan Anderson (08:33):
I'm so glad you asked that because I do think these terms can really get in the way. So I'm actually going to start with a different term, which I think is the most important one to understand which is distributed work. And if I were to say that there's one big theme that in particular organizations need to understand it's distributed working. And what I mean by that is we lived through 30 years or so of desktop computing. In fact, when Stanford showed the world the first personal computer in 1968, Herman Miller designed the environment for it. So we saw this coming and we were all because of those technologies effectively tethered to a very specific place to do our work. And when wifi and mobile technology became more common, 2004, 2005, somewhere in there, you started to see people taking advantage of that autonomy, working in different places.
Ryan Anderson (09:24):
When the cloud came around and gave us access to content and conversations anywhere, you saw that spreading out of work, which is what distributed work is really amplified. So in 2017, 2018, 2019 distributed working was already a major force. The challenge was organizations by and large had not said that they were going to figure out how to manage work that way. They may have had a telecommuting program for people that live far away. But what a supporting distributed work look like that was not a conversation by and large happening between real estate, IT, HR and others. And so when the pandemic hit and everyone was forced to work exclusively remotely, meaning from home, no opportunity to work in a corporate office setting ,attitudes about remote work changed, and by and large people understood that it's certainly possible. It can be very successful. It can be managed.
Ryan Anderson (10:16):
And we saw a pendulum swing a little bit between, well, do we even need offices, or hang on. Maybe we want everybody to get back into the office when this is all done. But most organizations, what they're really doing is asking, huh, what does managing, distributed teams and distributed work look like in the future? And so we have simplified the conversation in a way to say that there's these three strategies. To be honest, we could probably parse them apart into a dozen or more. But office first is the mentality that most work will be done in the office. There will be a degree of remote work, primarily for those who live more than an hour or two away from the corporate office. There is always the work that happens during travel or at a supplier or at a consultancy, et cetera. But by and large organizations see office as the epicenter.
Ryan Anderson (11:04):
Now to be super blunt, they're going to face a challenge because the data is very clear that employees around the world, and we do our studies broadly across the globe, that employees want more flexibility in where they work and they want more flexibility in when they work. I can get into that if you would like. And so if you're going to tell people that your expectation is that they're in the office every day, you're clearly leaving yourself vulnerable to another employer who might say otherwise. And because the data indicates that people are willing to even take a pay cut to have that flexibility, it might mean that those organizations are going to have to shell out even more money to try to make the office first approach appealing.
Ryan Anderson (11:43):
So if I'm again being kind of blunt, I'm not sure that's where a majority of organizations will land, but if an organization wants to go that route, we can certainly help them to make their workplaces super desirable and cool and fun so that people still enjoy going there. The opposite end of the spectrum, remote first is the decision that home is the primary workplace for most employees. Now this can still be supplemented with corporate offices. If I think about Dropbox as an example, they're building those hubs. I think Shopify has landed on a really strong approach where they too are building some hubs to compliment people working in their homes.
Ryan Anderson (12:19):
But I also think co-working memberships can play a really nice role here because you never know what somebody is facing in terms of their home conditions. And it could be everything from their relationship with their partner, to their wifi, to any number of things, caregiving responsibilities, that sometimes giving people that little escape valve of if it's a really important call or I need two hours of focused work on a spreadsheet, there's some other place that I know I can go is still pretty smart. So that's remote first.
Ryan Anderson (12:49):
Hybrid is probably the most confusing given all that's being said in the media. And I frequently find myself kind of helping people to see that some of the articles being published in the media are confusing the term, but it basically means you're giving people the choice of where to work and you're giving them multiple choices. So your office won't just be you're assigned to one desk and you do your work there. You might have multiple places within an office. You might have multiple offices. You certainly could work from home and beyond. And I think the reason that most organizations that are landing on hybrid, which appears to be more than 50% now are doing so is because of a desire to create equitable experiences, kind of this thinking that well, it's really tough to predict where somebody might do their best work and we hope that they can do it at home or we hope they can do it in the office.
Ryan Anderson (13:45):
But beyond the factors I mentioned before, there's dozens of things that can impact people's productivity. So they're trusting their employees to have more choice. Now, the conversations they're having, and by the way, we're one of those organizations. We've worked this way for a long time, but we are broadening our approach to hybrid. It means that managers have to move beyond presenteeism. It means they have to be really clear about setting goals, measuring people to performing those goals. And the employees need to pick up that and say, I'm going to make the most of this, to whom much is given, much is expected. You're giving me the chance to have more freedom. I'm going to deliver on these.
Ryan Anderson (14:23):
And Tyler, I know, you know a little bit about our history at Herman Miller, but we were founded by the De Pree family and, and Max De Pree in particular has written extensively about servant leadership over the years that he was alive. And so there's a new dynamic happening within any organization that's going down this path where managers need to think a little bit more about servant leadership, what it really means to equip, what it really means to trust, to give people space. And then the employees have to be accountable to that. Like they have to be responsible to that. And those that aren't who really don't rise to that challenge of you trusted me to have more flexibility and now I'm not using that responsibility are not going to thrive in this new era of work.
Tyler Sellhorn (15:05):
Well, good on you for bringing up servant leadership, right, and the call to service as managers, the call to trusting those that have chosen to exchange their labor for compensation at a company, right? It's a relationship that more and more we're recognizing is a relationship that is not a given, right? This is that moment where people are wondering, is this really where I want to be working? You mentioned even like, okay, what does this mean for how we're managing the workplace? Well, flip it around for those that are choosing to work at a place. Thank you for drawing out those differences between office first and remote first and the most confusing words of all these days, hybrid working. I do think it's going to be interesting to see where different organizations land. Is it the hubs? Is it the coworking? Is it third places, generally? It really is the call to move away from presenteeism, right.
Tyler Sellhorn (16:09):
It really is to move away from the more crass butts in seats, kind of version of management. I know for me, I'm very, very grateful for the Herman Miller astronauts of remote work to go and build digital nomad vans with Nissan. Right. But one of the things that I'm hearing you say, and I'm curious to hear you kind of talk some more about how, you mentioned this phrase. This is what I'm trying to draw back to is can you discuss overburdening the design, right, of a workplace, be it an office first remote first or hybrid organization, right. What does it mean to overburden a design in those different contexts?
Ryan Anderson (16:52):
Great question. So a little bit of history. We have an amazing design team and we're known for our history and modern design, but we also work with amazing designers from around the world. And one of the things that we've learned from our history here starting all the way back in the 30s is that the best designers do very well with constraints. And it's actually not an effective approach to say that something has to do everything because you water it down. And I'll try to come up with some sort of analogy from our personal lives, but let's say you and I decided that we were tasked with making everyone a meal and, you have whatever you cook well, and I have whatever I cook well, but then we were told we need it to be available to everyone, despite their food preferences, to be eaten everywhere on earth, every meal of the day. We probably wouldn't get into something really interesting.
Ryan Anderson (17:45):
We would have to make it more and more bland, more and more universal, more and more generic in order to satiate everyone's appetite literally. And the same is true for clothing if you had to come up with, I don't know, some sort of piece of clothing that can be worn in every culture in every climate every day of the week, you would end up with something super generic. And that was the problem with offices. So we created... It's kind of weird, even though we're talking post pandemic future, you will hear me reference stuff from our history a lot. We wrote this piece, I wasn't there, but the person who led our research at the time, Robert Prost wrote this piece in 1968, called the office, a facility based on change. And it was about creating human centered experiences that were inclusive and dynamic and changed.
Ryan Anderson (18:31):
And we had created modular furniture, which was ultimately what became cubicles, but that was not the intent. In fact, Prost railed against the use of the product as cubicles, because what was happening was that with desktop computing and with the desire to create more real estate efficiency, people were kind of saying, well, not only does the office need to support every type of work activity, but people need to be able to do all of their individual work in a six by six, even smaller footprint and any sort of group activities should be in a 12 by 18 room with a long skinny table, a screen on one end and a whiteboard on another. And if you look at our research, we did this project back in 2012 called anatomy of collaboration. People kept saying they wanted their offices to be more collaborative, but when we asked them what that meant, some people wanted the coffee bar and some people wanted instant messaging.
Ryan Anderson (19:23):
And so we broke it down into a whole series of activities. Literally we got it down to 10 activities. And then when we started looking at the offices that were created around the world and asking which of these activities are really well supported in an individual workspace. I mean, the answer was always none of them really. And so it is possible to do it. There's this movement that has been going on for years in different parts of the world called activity based working. And it basically frees up the office to become a landscape of spaces again.
Ryan Anderson (19:52):
The analogy would be, if we look at our homes, let's say you were to go buy a new home, you would probably think what are the activities that need to be supported here? Want to play basketball in the front yard. I've got my PlayStation. I want to do a little bit of gaming, definitely want to cook. Want to have some people over, you want to be able to sleep. You wouldn't just look at how many bedrooms there are, count the number of people in your household and say, you're good. You're going to be really intentional because the support of those activities over time is what enables your family unit however you define it to grow. So that's how we have to look at offices.
Ryan Anderson (20:25):
And when it comes to home offices, by the way, we're doing even more work here. We in fact, literally yesterday, I was just, a synthesis of a research project where we've been looking at people working across the globe in many different ways. We find that some people are privileged to have a dedicated space, but even those that do usually find themselves using all different portions of their home, even if it's a 400 square foot apartment in a big city for a variety of activities. You transition, those moments in between meetings where you go get a cup of coffee, we might just think we're just taking a break, but no we're actually cleansing our mind a little bit there. Outdoor space, the occasional phone call from the sofa.
Ryan Anderson (21:07):
We have to think about all of the activities we do, and then try to figure out if there is a purposeful way of having wherever our workspace is to support it. Because just saying everything happens in one place, burdens the design of that place and that piece of furniture to the point where it's probably not going to be good at doing anything if it's being asked to do everything.
Tyler Sellhorn (21:29):
Thank you for drawing out what we're saying there when we say it's overburdening the design. Shout out to Robert Prost for being anti cubicle. We here at We Work Remotely definitely count ourselves among those that are railing against that version of work. You mentioned activity-based working and then you kind of talked about homes. I also count myself among the privileged that have a dedicated space to work from in my home. But when you think about homeworking, right? And you think about having the workplace, including a space in the home, how are you thinking about designing that space to be effective?
Ryan Anderson (22:11):
We use a process for all of our research that starts with people then looks at process then place. If we get really like brass tacks here, if somebody is trying to think about the design of their own workspace, I would go through these thoughts. First, the people. We have found that even if it's a situation like yours or mine, where there's a dedicated workspace for an individual, it's rarely used by only that individual. Multi-generational households are at an all time high in North America since 1946. So we've got people of all ages. We've got different people who are working in the same space, but like I said, it's also e-learning. Some people actually stream content from Netflix or Hulu at their desk. There's a variety of users. And so I would begin to think about, well, who is this really for, and who might spend the most time here?
Ryan Anderson (23:02):
And then what activities are most likely to happen? I kind of made the jump to activities when I said doing e-learning and streaming media, et cetera, but it's highly varied. I mean, yeah, there's some common things, email, expense reports, video meetings, those are pretty ubiquitous, but based on a person's work, there's any number of things that they might also be trying to accomplish. Some people have work that has a degree of physicality to it, where they might be using models or tools or materials. There's something that needs to be accommodated, or maybe it's really paper heavy, or maybe there's like a Cintiq tablet because it's digital design. What does that process, which also includes what are these tools? Right. So I'm just looking at my home workspace. I have an external mic. I also keep a fan near me, external webcam.
Ryan Anderson (23:46):
And those are all things that I want right in the foreground, because those are things that I might use every single day. But there's also this set of tools that are kind of anticipated. So only a few feet away from me would be printer, a cup with pencils in it, all of those sorts of things. Those aren't things I need right in my primary zone, because I'm not using them constantly, but yeah, they are a few feet away. And so give some thought to the process and the tools, what do I really do? Are those really being accommodated? And then it's time to look at the space. And when it comes to space, there's a few different things to consider. The furniture, yes, but let's not start there. Let's start with the environmental conditions. Natural light, really important, but usually you don't want it behind you because it's going to screw up the video camera and it's going to create glare for you. You usually want it in front of you, or maybe on the side of you.
Ryan Anderson (24:36):
If you don't have a lot of natural light, what does it look like to augment that with other sort of lighting. Fresh air, there's a huge movement in the world of office design right now to think about better air quality and believe it or not, I have a $40 CO2 monitor that I bought online in my own home office. I won't get super geeky on you here, but there's pretty good research to indicate that elevated CO2 levels, diminished cognition, meaning CO2 gets high, you'll feel tired and you won't think as well, literally. And so I find that when it's the dead of winter here in west Michigan, and it's very unlikely that I'm going to open up the window, by the end of the day, CO2 levels can get really high. I actually opened up the door to my office and I point the fan from the rest of the house in, and I'll see those CO2 levels drop from like a thousand parts per million down to six or 700. You really want it under about 1200.
Ryan Anderson (25:27):
So things like lighting, air quality. I keep an aquarium in my office because there's good research to indicate that staring at fish lowers blood pressure and some days, I really appreciate that. Then there's the furniture. And the here we get into physical ergonomics and the need to really support people. Because this answer is already pretty long-winded, I won't get super deep here, but we do have resources on hermanmiller.com, but give some thought to your back. Your head basically weighs as much as a bowling ball and it needs to be balanced on a spine that is in the shape of an S that's how your body does it. Our technology wants to pull our eyes forward, which pulls that bowling ball forward, which is kind of like a bowling ball on the end of a fishing rod, which is why the majority of people who use our work from home tool, which I haven't told you about yet are suffering from neck, shoulder, and back pain.
Ryan Anderson (26:18):
I mean, that is by far most common. So it doesn't have to be a Herman Miller chair, but I'd highly recommend it. The key is engage your back, get your spine in that good position. Don't worry too much about lumbar. Everybody is always interested in well, does it provide good lumbar? What you actually need is the lowest part of your back, your sacrum to be supported and rotated forward, so that basically you feel in balance. And so, give some thought to the ergonomics and finally, really think about it as a space that you control and adapt over time.
Ryan Anderson (26:48):
Our chief strategy officer, I report into her organization. She always laughs that every time she's on video with me, my office looks a little different. Yeah. I can't stop tinkering with it. Plants, lighting, the photographs behind me. It's important to feel like you have control over this space so that you're cognizant of, if it's not working for me, I'm going to change it. This is not like a corporate office. It's your office. Even if it's you in the living room, in a corner, you control these sorts of things. And so I think that ownership is something that sometimes we have to remind people of. You get to make this space what you want it to be. So make it a space that you love because heaven knows you spend enough time there. Right?
Tyler Sellhorn (27:28):
Exactly. Exactly. Oh gosh. Thank you for taking us inside the home there, Ryan. Let's conclude with my favorite question of the moment here. Let's zoom out and look at the whole timeline, right? Let's say, okay, here is remote work back in 2019 and earlier, right? And then here is this current epoch that we are saying, okay, we're dealing with shifting sands of what are the current requirements to be compliant with the various health departments that are giving us advice. And then let's imagine a future where we're not with bated breath paying attention to those updates that we're saying, okay, this is beyond the pandemic. What's the through-line that's among all of those. What are the things that are specific to each of those? Give us some thoughts as we zoom out to that broader timeline.
Ryan Anderson (28:19):
Sure. Well, I'll start by saying, I think when we look at the longer term and if I'm getting specific on the places where we work, that the entire domain of workplace will ultimately be understood as a key HR area of expertise, which historically it has not. There are a handful of organizations like Hulu and others where HR was leading workplace, but for the most part corporate real estate is where workplace resides and that reports into the CFO. And so moving from viewing these investments as an asset class, basically, and a major expense on the balance sheet to deeply talent related is where this is headed, which is one of the reasons I'm excited to talk to you and your listeners. But I think an organization's DE&I strategy, their diversity equity inclusion strategy will increasingly be determining the long version. Meaning what does it look like to keep working moms, African-American knowledge workers, others who have said we really value flexible working even more so than others, I think will be really important, which I should pause for a second and reference two sources of information that I haven't referenced yet.
Ryan Anderson (29:32):
The first is the information we've gleaned from our work from home tool, which is WFH at hermanmiller.com. Over 21,000 people have used it globally. It's there just to help you have a better work from home experience, but in it, I get to see the anonymous, aggregated data on what people are struggling with and what they want. We are also a founding member of future forum along with Slack, Boston Consulting Group and others. And we have an index that we do quarterly of 10,000 people from around the world. And so when I start quoting some of this stuff, much of it is from our work with future forum, as well as the data that we've got from our work from home tool.
Tyler Sellhorn (30:04):
For the audience, we will include those links in the show notes.
Ryan Anderson (30:07):
Awesome. And so yeah, the red thread to your earlier question is really that there's, I hesitate to use this phrase, but a shifting of the power balance from employer to employee, that people have more and more options where they can work because they're not tethered to just the employer in their backyard. And that means that if an organization is going to get good at attracting and retaining talent and providing equitable inclusive experiences, they're going to have to get a broader view of workplace than just corporate office and begin to try to create workplace experiences that are really positive subset of employee experience.
Tyler Sellhorn (30:45):
Awesome. Ryan, thank you so much for learning out loud with us today. We're really blessed to be learning like we say, with those that know remote work best. So thanks again, blessings.
Ryan Anderson (30:56):
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Tyler Sellhorn (30:59):
Thanks so much again for listening to the show and be sure to check out weworkremotely.com for the latest remote jobs. And if you're looking to hire a remote worker, We Work Remotely is the fastest and easiest way to do so. As always if you have someone we should talk to, any advice you have, or if you'd like to advertise on the podcast, please reach out to us at [email protected]. That's [email protected]. Thanks so much for listening and we'll talk to you next time. 

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