Steelcase’s Anthropologist On Remaking Offices To Create Happier Workers

Human nature changes slowly, but the way we work and the idea of the “office” changes fast. Here’s how to harness those opposing forces for a happier work force.

Steelcase’s Anthropologist On Remaking Offices To Create Happier Workers

You text, you Gchat, you hop on Facebook–why? To communicate. Soon you find yourself turning the phone off, going invisible, and signing out of your social networks–why? To get some privacy, to gain some focus.


The need to text is new, while the needs to make contact–and to find privacy–are old. Same old human nature thrown into constantly new contexts. It’s the job of Donna Flynn, who directs Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures, a 19-member independent research group within the global office design company, to understand how these timely (and timeless) trends shape the way we work.

“We are human and actual human behavior changes very slowly over time,” she says, while “the ways in which we’re meeting those needs can change more quickly.”

An anthropologist by training, Flynn’s team is responsible for “thinking into the future”: understanding the trends shaping the ways we work and sharing that intelligence with Steelcase and its customers.

The initiatives that WorkSpace Futures tackles are so big they call them “quests,” as they are long, oft-meandering journeys of discovery. Flynn talked with Fast Company about a few of the most pressing quests for leaders to wrap their minds around: the ongoing redefinition of collaboration, the role of privacy in getting work done, the progression of worker well-being, and how all of these trends relate to the places in which we work. Places that are changing.

The workplace is becoming distributed.

If you work from home once a week, jet out to a cafe once in a while, or share a desk, you’re part of a distributed workspace. On top of that, any company with employees scattered across time zones is in a distributed context.


WorkSpace Futures is itself a case study: Flynn’s team is arrayed across North America, Europe, and China, all in orbit of the Steelcase campus in Grand Rapids, Mich. And Flynn herself is an example, as well: She lives with her family in the mountains outside of Boulder, Colo.

But it’s not only geography that necessitates distributed work: One of the major trends in promoting worker well-being is what Steelcase refers to as a “palette of place,” what Flynn defines as “a variety of different spaces for individuals to choose from, based on what they need and who they’re working with.” Ideally, spaces can be suited to deep-focused solo work, chatty collaboration, or supporting work/life balance (read: if you have a two-year-old, you may wish to work from home occasionally–or not).

As teams spread out, the nature of collaboration changes.

Let’s admit it: “Collaboration” is bordering on buzzword. So what is collaboration? Again, WorkSpace Futures supplies a definition (this one inspired by Michael Schrage): “Collaboration is a shared effort by a group of people with complementary skills and a common purpose to create a process, product, event, or experience.” All up, collaboration is a “complex system of human interaction,” one that has a few levers for leaders to pull.

It’s easy to envision how that takes form in a conference room–but what about when you’re only tethered together by Yammer and email? What if your team shares the same physical space a few times a year?

One of the first keys is balancing group “we” time and individual “I” time. Leaders can be strategic with “we” time by “focusing it on the hard work of aligning the team, creating together, and building trust during enriched and intensive periods of face-to-face time.”
During the times when the team is again distributed–giving lots of “I” time–leaders need their team members to focus on executing on milestones, while still bringing the group together through sharing sessions, reviews, and checkpoints.


Flynn uses herself as an example: She finds she’s way more productive working from home–she can protect her time there–and when she heads to Grand Rapids she can throw herself into “we” activities.

While the distribution is an important, ongoing trend, at the center of collaboration is a constant: trust. “We think of trust as the currency of collaboration,” Flynn says, “both an input and an output for that “we time”: You’re really building up trust, enriching the team, building memories and experiences, and doing things together.” As a currency, the trust will be spent while people are apart from one another, so a wise leader would being the team back together at strategic times–what might be every few months, though every team has its own rhythm.

This quest leads into another: privacy.

“In this new world where you can always be contacted and always on 24-7 and you’re working in these big open spaces,” Flynn asks, “how can people find the privacy they need to actual reflect and focus and think creatively to get work done?”

To help carve out that privacy, managers should clearly communicate (and encourage) workers to take “me” time. Somewhat counterintuitively, alone time is a key to collaboration: Flynn emphasizes that solo time allows for creative reflection and gestation of ideas.

“Collaboration is a creative process,” she says, “but it is also highly dependent on the creative thinking of individuals, and much of this happens when people can sit back and reflect, or read or research adjacent topics, or simply take the time to turn off the tasks and emails and think deeply about a topic.”


That being the case, Flynn recommends that employer consider the kinds of places and spaces that workers need to get their work done, and give them control over where and how they do their work through a day, week, or month. Employees seeking solitude may decamp to a library, coworking space, or cafe, and their silence could be golden for your bottom line.

At the core of all this is well-being.

Another quest, another question: “People are the most important asset of a company,” Flynn says, “so how can we think holistically about creating sustainable work environments and work practices for our people?”

Steelcase considers well-being in the three spheres of the physical/ergonomic, psychological, and social.

The ergonomic is the most ostensible: Sitting at a desk all day is making us unhealthy. So WorkSpace Futures is doing a lot of thinking about how to encourage more movement at work, whether through sitting/standing options, creating environments that encourage more active postures, as well as walking meetings through common areas or the outdoors.

Innovative thinking around emotional needs can also bolster worker well-being. “Many of us are constantly toggling between work and life across a day,” Flynn says, “fielding calls from our bosses as well as our childcare providers.” To create a more emotionally supportive work environment, managers can help foster informal social interactions (which build supportive networks), and provide flexible schedules and environments so that workers can decide on their own integration of work and life.


Intuitive, right?

“It does seem intuitive,” Flynn says, “but at the same time, if you go into many modern office spaces, they’re still set up in a way that does not support individual choice.”

To get a better handle on the importance of place for work, leaders would do well to understand the work practices of their people and the intersection of spaces, individuals, and the work to be done.

The next quest for a manager? “You want to build a better understanding of the different needs of your employees and the different behaviors and work practices that they’re currently engaged in.”

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Mugley]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.