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On Creating a More Fluid Workplace

Episode 104 with guest Cheryl O'Neil
Zach Dunn
Published on

Listen as Robin’s Zach Dunn chats with Cheryl O'Neil, a workplace strategist at Herman Miller, the iconic office and furniture design company founded back in 1905. We talk about how planning for office changes evolved in recent years, activity based work and how to manage all this change.

Cheryl O'Neil: I don't see the office going away, but I think it needs to be better than it was to serve the needs that have really risen and come to be acceptable around, work doesn't just take place in the office going forward.

Zach Dunn: Welcome to In The Works, a podcast with people who are building what the next era of work in the workplace looks like. I'm Zach Dunn, co-founder and head of customer experience at Robin. This episode, I talked to Cheryl O'Neil, a workplace strategist at Herman Miller, the iconic office and furniture design company founded back in 1905. We talked about how planning for office changes evolved in recent years, introducing activity based work and how to bring together key departments from across the board to make these changes possible. I'll let Cheryl take it from here. When you are asked to come in for a client today, what are the problems that you're seeing show up, and what are the approaches that you've found useful in getting people up to speed?

Cheryl O'Neil: So oftentimes there might be a lot of work already done within the organization to really identify their goals, and we're brought in either in the beginning, the middle, or end of the process. For me regardless of where I'm brought in, I like to hone back into what are those goals? In essence, what's working well that you want to carry forward in your new space? Sometimes that's more around culture and departments, and what's not working well because that helps you to determine how we're going to provision these spaces that might be new to many in the organization. So certainly collaboration, working together has been a buzz term for many years and that really only works well when there's policies to support giving people the flexibility to work where they want within a building or space or home, as well as the technology tools. So now you're really understanding why we need to round out who has a seat at the table early on in the decision making process, and need to work together to be certain that we're fulfilling those needs.

Zach Dunn: And so when you think about those integrated project teams with a project that you might engage with today, what are you looking for from each of those roles and what advice would you have for somebody who's just joining one of those types of teams for the first time and learning how to navigate those relationships?

Cheryl O'Neil: What's interesting is when you do bring a dynamic integrated team together, that is always good. As simple as it sounds, start with the introduction of who you are, the department you work for, and what's your question for the team as an icebreaker. It's always amazing to me when we work with a team that's more of a holistic approach to space with those apartments we mentioned, who may have never really had a seat at the same table to talk about the same desire and outcome. So from Human Resources, I would like them to bring to the table, how we could be certain that we're considering equity of places and where people work, how wellbeing is certainly top of mind, we're hearing more and more about that. Mental wellbeing is certainly on the rise as well in talking about the tough year and how people have lived through.

Cheryl O'Neil: So all of that builds into how also the workspace can help in attraction and retention. So that to me all falls under Human Resources, and certainly there's way more than I'm even mentioning that they bring to the table. From IT and technology, it's really about what are the best tools that are going to enable our employees to work wherever work takes place. We think about work as a network of places, whether it's the office, home, cafe or someplace we haven't even determined yet. What are the tools that we can provide that enables that movement throughout the space or cluster of spaces? Certainly from the facility standpoint, I think it's really about how do facilities deliver spaces that they'll have to manage long after the project is done? How do we help facilities determine through what we call design programming? That's the information gathering session around understanding what's common to all employees and what's unique to each department, so a marketing department will have different needs than finance, but what we leave behind is a space that the facility team can manage.

Zach Dunn: That was the debate, who has jurisdiction over the thing that connects the technology to the desk, and this was causing all sorts of problems as they were starting to roll out because there was a lot of territory the stake claims for, and they had a hard time divvying that up. And so, these are the little friction points that we see with teams that aren't maybe that integrated, but I don't know if you see similar tension at all-

Cheryl O'Neil: Absolutely. And I think a lot of times the learning of that becomes without mentioning names or organization, the story in the next company who only has facilities at the table. I've been brought in to facilitate these change management conversations and we only want facilities, it was like, "Well, for us to come in, we really need a broader team because here's why it's important to have technology at the table. Here's why Human Resources finance should be at the table, so how are we sharing this? And you as the facilities team is the one bringing everyone together. So you're bringing people together." Every time this happens, most times these teams, A, don't know each other even though they've worked for the company for a long time. It's interesting, it usually takes third to fourth personally, "Am so and so, from such and such. I'm not sure why I'm here but..."

Cheryl O'Neil: And you're here because you're important, but you're absolutely right. And it's not unusual for... as you said, IT to own the monitor, facilities own that, but sometimes that monitor arm isn't even represented in either of those. It might be health and safety that owns the monitor arm. So that always-

Zach Dunn: For ergonomics purposes.

Cheryl O'Neil: Yeah. For ergonomics, but that builds the case as to why you come together early on. Why everyone has a voice in it and an understanding and some skin in the game, and it delivers a much better outcome.

Zach Dunn: From your vantage point, have you seen leadership teams get more involved in today's environment with that project planning in that direction? Or I guess what observations have you made?

Cheryl O'Neil: I think leadership comes before that team sits down. You have to have leadership support for the capital spend that's going to take place, that they believe in this change of the way they're going to work and they support that. So I'm glad you brought that up because I should have started there as opposed to rounded it out. And there's also one other position, the finance procurement who's going to agree to that. So if leadership agrees, finance will most likely be on board and that supports that ecosystem of that holistic project team.

 Zach Dunn: Is it too early to point out success stories or what does success look like for companies that have reopened in your mind, or that have successfully adopted this flexible work environment?

Cheryl O'Neil: Sadly it's little too early and things continue to evolve as much as we'd like to say the pandemic is done. Certainly the Delta variant, we're going into winter in New England. Many organizations who thought they would be back labor day have pushed to November 1. Many of my clients are now looking at January. So it's a variable and I feel like we're learning in the moment. I think most of the clients I work with are going to go with a level of hybrid, whether it's hybrid by schedule or what they... It's funny plus I just put out these two topics around hybrid by schedule where the organization says, "Zach, you're going to be in the office three days a week, and you choose with your manager when that happens," or hybrid bespoke, which is you decide when you come to the office, just communicate with your manager.

Cheryl O'Neil: So planning what the expectations from the organization are key, and then how do you articulate or put some policies around it. So I only have one client who's back, they are in a mode of, "It's your choice if you come into the office." They've divided their workforce by two different weeks, so you're in one week, I'm in the next week. They have enough in their space because they're back at 50% to accommodate people who might want to come in and off a week. But because it's optional because of the Delta variant, their utilization is maybe 10 or 15% of people showing up.

Cheryl O'Neil: So I think once we know that we're in a healthier place around this pandemic, I think we'll probably see organizations wanting people to come back for some of those community connections, nurturing that culture, mentoring and coming back to the office to really get the fulfillment of what you can't really duplicate at home. The other piece is in terms of the equitable experience, is what we've learned. A lot of my coworkers who live in urban centers, who live in a very small amount of square footage and have roommates. Sometimes going to the office is almost a respite from what they've had to experience in the last year and a half.

Zach Dunn: Things that we need to start designing that space for. And you just touched on one that folks may overlook and that is teaching opportunity, or at least you can absorb skills just by serendipity or sitting in close proximity to other folks.

Cheryl O'Neil: Well, we're renovating all of our West Michigan workplaces, and it's been interesting through data collection and certainly ethnography qualitative and quantitative research is really looking at every... You've heard clients early on say the office is only for collaboration, but the reality is based on what your private life might be or the resources that you have or don't have, the office still needs to support individual focus work. So we look at each department as a neighborhood type setting where we supply privacy on demand that's adjacent to where you work, whether that's a phone booth, a meeting room.

Cheryl O'Neil: We provide a workshop that you could determine what the layout of that furniture is in a small defined space because safety and circulation are important, but where we're seeing the office is really around that community socialization piece on bringing people together who want to come back to the office, that team collaboration in those spaces to support it but also the importance around having spaces that support individual focus work. So it's really around that variety and choice that those spaces where you can pick where you want to be, and that has always been a tenant of our living office point of view.

Zach Dunn: We've talked about two different types of work, focused work and then probably more broadly collaborative work. And for many folks when they're thinking about an office it's basically conference rooms and desks, and they're going back and forth, back and forth in their heads. But what folks have maybe discovered throughout this entire journey over the last few years at bare minimum is, "Hey, you can actually design a space to do a little bit more than just two things." And that's where maybe more conventionally activity based work comes in. And I wonder, for people who are unfamiliar with these concepts, how would you introduce them?

Cheryl O'Neil: We used to base our real estate on, how many workstations? How many private offices and how many meeting rooms? Right? And thankfully we've moved away to variety and choice. So we know from utilization as do you that most of the office had been underutilized for a very long time, because I'm not going to go in and sit at my desk all day if I have a meeting. So sometimes my desk could be empty for a long time. So what we saw is this shift from individual large spaces to really creating some of those more meeting spaces, and it wasn't necessarily another 12 seat conference room. It was really around, oftentimes I want a place where you and I can work together, or it might be a small group, or it might be doing a video conference and I need a space to do that. So that variety and choice around the spaces and the expression of those spaces and scalability has grown significantly bigger.

Cheryl O'Neil: And from our utilization, we know three and a half seats in a conference room is the typical utilization of that space which cues us to say, "We need more two and four person meeting spaces." They could be in the open, they could be semi-open, they could be fully enclosed. When I talk to customers, and that's why design programming is so critical to understanding where people are and the needs that we need to meet and understanding what has worked well or not well, that's where you start to uncover and have that validation process around those variety of space types. And certainly we know we have a building envelope to pay attention to, so how do you increase collaboration? Oftentimes we do look at the reduction of some of those individual spaces as long as they meet the needs of the people doing the work.

Zach Dunn: You just used a really great term there that I would love to introduce more people to, and that's design programming. What is that?

Cheryl O'Neil: Actually, it used to be a little easier because how many people do you have, it was all assigned. It became this floor plan of a six by six workstation, six feet by six feet or six feet by eight feet. But now it's really... especially in the last year and a half looking at this hybrid model in shared seats, and whether an organization wants to move towards what we call an unassigned experience, meaning we provide work space in meeting rooms that anyone can use, but nobody owns them. Some organizations that's probably a little bit too far off of the assigned that you know Zach, you come in on your days and you know exactly where you're going to sit and what you need. So the design programming is understanding where an organization is assigned versus unassigned, right? Because, that gets into what we call shared seat ratios.

Cheryl O'Neil: So one desk might serve two or more people. Then it gets into once that decision is made, that's what drives the headcount ratios of what we're trying to achieve. So now we've really established what we need for our people. Now I look at departmentally, what are those unique needs of that department? So in the past file and file cabinets were driven by the fact that people needed paper retention, but thankfully in this digital era that has somewhat gone away. So that again, starting to free up the floor plate, there still might be a desire that even though they don't need that paper on site, that they do need storage for coats or boots or whatever it is you bring, our thinking and our design there it is we call that in the beginning of each department area, we call it the mud room.

Cheryl O'Neil: What are those things you're bringing to the office that you need to offload, but it's adjacent to where you work so it's there, and then you take that at the end of the day and it becomes a space that other people can use when they come on the off days. So the design programming is about understanding whether you want assigned or unassigned spaces that then gets into how many of the employee population are we serving, understanding what those meeting room needs are open or enclosed, and then putting those elements together into a floor plate that really resonates with the amount of square footage in our organization is going to lease or own, and then how do we communicate that strategy to the employees.

Zach Dunn: For folks in the facilities and commercial real estate say that this is probably old news to them, but I do think that for folks in IT and maybe on the people operations HR side of the hall, it's worth reiterating. A lot of office design was probably based on how many people per room, what? 10, 12 people per conference room?

Cheryl O'Neil: We used to plan for three things. Private offices, workstations or cubicles, which I'm not a fan of the latter word in conference rooms, right? And I would like to think that was 20 plus years ago. I'd like to think we've moved the needle but those were the core spaces that we planned for, and also then and even till this pandemic many organizations were still... had one to one assignment, one person to each of the space types. And we had a ratio on how we factored in conference spaces and how many seats we would need.

Cheryl O'Neil: Today, and our thinking around living in an office which is probably 10 years old, that point of view. And I have to pitch, because I know you have some of these in your office because I've provided them for your reading is researching the future of work has been something that's always made me interested in working for Herman Miller because we've been doing it since the... for 50, 60 years now, is really understanding how people work, what we need to do to provision for their work, but also organizationally what's common to all, and what's unique to each department.

Cheryl O'Neil: So what's common to all, who want to give a healthful ergonomic chair, either a sit to stand desk or a provisioning in the office where someone can have that choice. And what's unique to each is what's unique to each department, but understanding facilities still needs their reality of how they provision and provide for what they need today and what that might look like in the future. But I think overall that variety and choice that's what makes the office a desirable destination is really understanding those needs.

Zach Dunn: So what do you think about unassigned desks or unassigned workspaces where you can no longer predict how many people are going to be using the office on any given day?

Cheryl O'Neil: It was six years ago, I worked with a large company and they had a huge issue. So the CEO of this company really wanted to get to the heart of how this problem happened, let's figure this out and be certain it doesn't happen again. So at the end of the day, the high level outcome was departments weren't working together towards a common goal of delivering a product that was successful. So the thought was they really spent a lot of time refining their vision, why we're here. Why we're doing what we're doing. And then the implications in the workplace were tearing the walls of cubicles down. We want to help create those fortuitous encounters where people come together to solve a problem and their vision was to do so, they would go to an unassigned experience. They would take the storage away to allow for more meeting spaces, ideation spaces and so forth.

Zach Dunn: And just to be clear, whenever you've referenced unassigned experience, some folks might know that as hot desking, hoteling that kind of environment where people are choosing maybe a different workspace for themselves but it's not strictly theirs, right?

Cheryl O'Neil: That's correct. To get there this particular client had spent an enormous amount of time crafting these great spaces, and where we came in to help was really helping on how do you articulate that change management piece, because you might have a 25 year employee who's used to an eight foot by 12 foot space, six foot high walls, 20 some odd years have worked for me and going into a 30 by 72 inch high adjustable desk with no walls, no storage and I could use it or you could use it, Zach. So I think the management of change was important and the outcome was certainly there were still some people who were not happy with that, but they started to drive business results for people working together and really understanding what the organization was trying to achieve and why. The biggest challenge from my standpoint is that while there was a great spreadsheet put together on, "We're going to provide 100 desks for 120 people," they never really had reached the density level to test their ratios.

Cheryl O'Neil: So it became... Joe and Susie came in every Monday early to stake their workspaces by the window and not only did they do that, but they brought pictures of their families that they left on the table. So the other piece we learned in this whole process is there was a group in the engineering design team that had two to three monitors, two to three... intensive amounts of technology that really didn't warrant them to be untethered because of the equipment they needed to perform their job. So they were not on a laptop that can go from any desk within the campus to work. They really were tethered by the technology tools that they needed to perform. So it was interesting. We started a hundred percent and then we had to back it out once you learned and designed programming, what people need to do their work.

Zach Dunn: Couple years ago, we had invited you to speak at a company event, and one of the topics that you had brought up at the time was the difference between effectiveness and efficiency as goals. And I would love to spend a minute talking about that.

Cheryl O'Neil: Back then organizations thought of efficiency is how many people can I squeeze into a space? But we didn't find it... It created effective spaces. There's one large tech company on the west coast, I could still see pictures of their spaces where they're all crammed in. People are sitting on the floor and they've been coming to us for years to help them decouple some of that. So efficiency isn't always about how many people I can squeeze into a space. It has to be outfitting spaces that give people the ability to do their best work and the outcome is effectiveness, that's the way that I look at it.

 Zach Dunn: From your vantage point, what has you excited about the months and years ahead?

Cheryl O'Neil: I'm completely positive and jazz that the office is still a viable place that people want to go to to fulfill the needs that either they can't get at home, or just really want that connection to others and that's what jazzes them, so I'm in.

 Zach Dunn: Links to learn more about Herman Miller, the work that Cheryl's doing or any of these topics that we discussed today can be found in the show notes. If you want to learn more about the work I'm doing, go to I'm Zach Dunn. See you on the next episode of In The Works.

Episode Notes

Cheryl's LinkedIn Profile


Zach’s LinkedIn Profile 

Robin Website

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AI, Automation and the Future of Workplaces