Experts’ Interviews: Bertie van Wyk; Herman Miller about the workplace of the future

The world of the workplace is increasingly fascinating and complex as we continue to learn more about how people perform at their best. Through our many years designing and building workplaces for organisations globally, we have gained a tremendous amount of insights, all thanks to our clients.

Whether we work closely with the head of Human Resources (HR), the head of Facilities Management (FM), or the head of Corporate Real Estate (CRE), one thing is clear: these roles are becoming increasingly intertwined. In recent years we’ve started to see the emergence of an entirely new, dedicated role that blurs the boundaries between HR, FM, CRE, and even IT and Corporate Communication. We call this role the ‘Workplace Professional’.

Over the last few months, we have been interviewing leading Workplace Professionals in the best companies from around the world. In this series, we engage in conversations with those at the forefront of the world of the workplace, to understand and communicate their specialist insights, best practices, and most successful case studies. Welcome to the Workplace Experts’ Interviews series!

This week, we share the extremely insightful conversation our CEO Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes had with Bertie van Wyk, Workplace Specialist at Herman Miller.

Herman Miller is a worldwide known design company that designs and produces office furniture, equipment, and home furnishings with their innovative and problem-solving designs. Herman Miller is a globally recognised provider of furnishings and related technologies and services. Headquartered in West Michigan, they have focused on innovative design for over 100 years to solve problems for people wherever they work, live, learn, and heal.

Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes: Bertie van Wyk, welcome. Welcome to this conversation. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Bertie van Wyk: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

Stephanie: Thank you for joining this series of the Workplace Experts’ Interviews. Let’s dive right in. Would you be able to describe your role in one or two sentences?

Bertie: Absolutely. I’m a workplace specialist for Herman Miller. As an organization, we are very much a research-based company that looks at what things work and don’t work in the workplace ‐ whether that’s in the office or at home ‐ and how we can improve that through innovative design. My main role is communicating that research with the aim to make organisations and their employees more productive, healthier, and connected.

Stephanie: I love the emphasis that Herman Miller is putting on well‐being. Going from a piece of furniture to the impact of furniture, which is well‐being, is so much more elevated than talking about the physicalities of furniture only. So that’s fantastic. So obviously COVID has happened and is still happening. What can you tell us about the impact that COVID‐19 has and might continue to have on our ways of working and the workplace, which is now any place we work in!

Bertie: That’s, that’s the first thing, isn’t it? It’s the fact that we now have hybrid working. And if your company didn’t have it beforehand, it does now. Because a lot of us are forced to work from home almost on a permanent basis, this kind of working is here to stay.
The hybrid work strategy is going to be right at the forefront of most organisations going forward. For instance, we predict that two to three days a week you will work from somewhere outside of the office, whether at home, a co‐working space, or a cafe. At the same time, we have to evolve office design, because the big change we are facing is the decreased utilisation of those spaces. Even though open offices are increasing, utilisation is decreasing. This is a really big issue for us because you don’t want a big, open, empty office. So redesigning workplaces for this new normal should be the top priority.
I think the other thing that we have to understand is the fact that we’ve now proven that home workers are just as effective and productive as when in the office. We have discovered that we can trust people. There is no need for managers to look over shoulders or employees to be constantly checked on. People have been given trust and it would be counterproductive to remove that. Why should employees have to be in the office if they can work just as effectively elsewhere?

Stephanie: That’s true, and we’ve all now seen the pros and cons of each extreme – the working from the office full time to working from home full time. We all have found different reasons why something works or doesn’t work for us. What I wonder is, if everybody’s making their own individual choices about what suits them, how can we ensure there is still a coherent, and cohesive team dynamic?

Bertie: I think this starts right at the senior level of any organization. Your hybrid work strategy needs to be clear and concise. If you build a workplace and tell everyone they can work from home whenever they want, you could potentially end up with a dead office on some or most days. You need a concise strategy that gives you effective use of the space and reinforces team dynamics ‐ and communicates this well and often. This will give you a good understanding of how teams are working together and within the office.

Stephanie: If you look at the big picture, and draw from all the research I know you have access to, what would you say is the main challenge or threat that this pandemic is creating for the workplace?

Bertie: That’s a very good question. I think the biggest one is people saying that “the office is dead. We don’t need an office”. That’s probably the biggest threat, the biggest risk. I’ve even seen some organisations get rid of the office completely. The challenge here is, how do you build a community while everyone is working from home? How do you build a culture? What makes your organization, your organization? If you never meet, how do you connect with others? What about that five minutes before the meeting and that ten minutes after the meeting? You miss out on all that potential connection with others.
I think we’re currently seeing a lot of people having knee‐jerk reactions to what they think is going to happen in the future, without looking at the data. And one of the main threads coming from that is people talking now about creating offices for collaboration only. For instance, questioning whether there are going to be any desks. And that’s one of the biggest mistakes organisations can make. The Leesman Index states, with over 800,000 reviews of different spaces around the world, that spaces designed solely for collaboration significantly underperform. This makes sense when you think about it ‐ work isn’t only collaborative, we need time and space to be able to do individual, focused work.

Stephanie: Absolutely! An easy conclusion of this entire pandemic is that we don’t need an office anymore. Since we seem to have survived a year without it, the office now finds itself in a position to prove itself. So what would be your argument for the office?

Bertie: Well, I think the office can and should prove itself. One significant data point from the Leesman Index showed that the majority of people who enjoy working from home were previously working from low-performing offices. So if employees had a really bad office, the majority of them won’t ever want to go back. But if they had a high-performing office, the majority can’t wait to go back. So your office has a direct effect on whether people actually want to go back in. That is how important the office is. You need great amenities, a wonderful experience, and a space that works better for people.

Stephanie: Absolutely. The flip side of the challenge is always an opportunity. So what do you see as an opportunity for the workplace these days?

Bertie: For me, the main thing is to understand that the quality of your office directly impacts the productivity and output of your staff. It directly impacts whether people want to go back or whether they are going to want to work from home full time. So you have an opportunity to create a better, more inviting space, a wonderful connecting, productive space that becomes a destination. One of the biggest things that people might have been missing at this point is the connection, just connecting with someone else, just having a simple conversation.
The other thing to remember is there’s also a major opportunity in creating much better individual-focused spaces. There are a lot of offices where noise level distraction is a massive issue. So the quick conclusion has been that working from home is good for focused work. But think about it. A lot of people working from home have additional distractions. Whereas if you create a great office environment that allows people to focus without interruption, that’s where you’re going to gain some real advantage.

Stephanie: Absolutely. There are many things we can learn from the working from the home period we have been having. What would you say is the most important thing to focus on right now to ensure a successful recovery?

Bertie: In the healthcare world, they talk about a safety bundle. That’s a bundle of different activities that you combine to improve patient outcomes. Well, we want to create the same thing. We want to create a bundle of activities to make people feel happy to come back into the office and deliver a greater space and environment. We see this falling under the umbrella of three key areas: your organisational culture, your rules and regulations, and your actual physical environment. And these three have to work together.

Stephanie: When everything settles, what do you think the new normal will look like? Or what would you hope it will look like?

Bertie: I hope it will look like the way it does for a lot of companies that trust their employees. The future will be two to three days working from the office and 2 to 3 days working elsewhere. The main thing is I expect that people are going to want to have a choice.

Stephanie: Yes, I would tend to agree! Bertie, maybe one last question for you. What do you see that that could be a promising trend? What are you excited about in this space?

Bertie: Well, if you look at physical space, I think we are now all realising that we need a work culture and a community that cohabits a shared space together. We see that it is important that you can sit and do your work on your own and just hear people with a buzz in the background. I think the main point that we will also understand more and more now, is that we need to shift from privacy as a luxury to privacy on demand. And that makes me particularly excited about creating great spaces in the future. And so anyone who goes back into the office now should find a space to be able to do their uninterrupted focused work whenever they want. These are the things that I can get quite excited and positive about.

Stephanie: Brilliant Bertie. Any last thoughts you would like to share with us?

Bertie: I think there’s one more thing that people do have to take into account, and that is travel. Some people have got big reservations about getting onto public transport. So as an organization we have to be able to take that into account and understand that for some people this is going to be a big issue. So it is important that we remember to stay human ‐ understand that people are dealing with different environments and experiences. We need to remember to be more empathetic and allow people to make choices that will work for their own individual situations.

Stephanie: Empathy and choice are indeed going to become more and more important in organisations and relationships. Bertie, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you very much!

Bertie: Thank you for having me Stephanie.

To find out how optimising your workplace can help you retain your employees by fostering better social interactions, download here AKKA’s Innovative Workplace Expert guide, which contains the full version of one of our case studies and more practical examples of other projects that show you how AKKA has increased team engagement and boost productivity over and over again for small, medium and large organisations, in a variety of industries and countries from around the world.

Use your workplace as a strategic tool to attract and retain the best talent.

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