What if an egg's flavor and nutritive value depended on the carton it was sitting inside of?
Until the pandemic hit in 2020, most of us worked in an environment of strictly defined work hours and hierarchies; it was a predictable, consistent paradigm: workers overseen by managers overseen by executives. Some days were good; others were meaningless.
When Covid arrived and most employees were sent home to work remotely, new career options emerged. Some of us considered changing employers and gave great thought to what made us happy and fulfilled. Some of us embraced our hobbies and created a ‘side-gig’ that balanced our lifestyle. Some of us toyed with freelancing and contract work.
The key question during this period wasn’t ,”How much are you making these days?” Instead, it was more thoughtful and personal: “How do you feel about your job and your employer these days? Is there a path forward that helps you look forward to your future?” Another question has emerged over the last two years that pushes the envelope: “Do you usually feel energized at the office? Or do you feel stifled, frustrated and unimportant?”
This level of honest reflection leads us to a new type of happiness that we often see when we watch top tier athletes (think Tom Brady or Serena Williams) perform. It’s called ‘flow’ and it has been enthusiastically embraced by hundreds of companies looking for increased productivity from their employees. The basic idea is that we should be given tasks that are hard but not so hard as to exasperate us. Doable, but not so easy that we become bored.
This is the sweet spot. If you can navigate your work into a place where you have to stretch yourself so that you grow a bit everyday without becoming overwhelmed, you are in the ‘zone,’ a mental place where everything is connected; a mental stance where you can anticipate the next move and the next and move forward effortlessly on your project without worry or fear that you will fail. In effect, you are creating as you move,
This also suggest that the office furnishings industry take the bull by the horns—and stop waiting for companies to call and "order some desks."
In this new culture built around flow, self-doubt and fear of failure are set aside. Every twist and turn are merely ‘interesting lessons.’ Egoic superiority and over-control have become irrelevant baggage. This new era, post-pandemic mindset rewards collaboration, interaction and agility.
Workers in a flow mindset are focused while connecting the dots. They see where a task came from, where it’s going and where they fit in. They work on multiple projects that intersect and overlap without stress. Flow jumpstarts performance through new energy—a new vibe. A new culture that appeals to the postmodern worker, one who has limitless choices, but makes the decision to join your team based on three considerations:
1) How well they get along with the Boss.
2) How relevant, positive and actionable the employee culture is. (What kind of behavior gets rewarded?)
3) How the office environment makes them feel the second they open the door.
Fusion is the future...and the future is now: There are three trends that are converging right now in the world of work and officing that require new thinking, new management behaviors and new partnerships.
The first two have been mentioned already: 1) A more autonomous, entrepreneurial mindset among young workers who are comfortable using technology to get what they want out of employment. 2) Cultivating and rewarding a flow mindset that gives workers achievable-stretch projects that make a difference. The fusion of process, empowerment and meaning.
The third trend enables and empowers the first two. It has to do with the correlation between the physical environment and the feelings and cultural spirit that pervades and defines a company. This is always important, but is especially critical now as recruiting is getting tougher and applicants are demanding bigger salaries so they can keep up with inflation. Something special must occur in the office environment to keep employees and impress employee-applicants that seek a place to ‘do their thing’ and feel good about life. (See Jon Clifton's book, Blind Spot (Gallup). This manifesto leads to the future of work, the future of officing and the future of business recruiting and business culture.
Earlier in this paper, the words “agility,” “movement” and “mobility” were mentioned often. It’s a mental construct, but it’s also an environmental design tenet: all desks, chairs, tables and room dividers should be equipped with casters or wheels. Employees need to be empowered to move them around fluidly (within limits) to stimulate ad hoc discussions. This concept is called WorkFlo. It complements the psychological notion of adjusting and accepting obstacles without stopping forward movement. Go with the Workflo is the theme line of this design manifesto. It incorporates the work-style of many self employed or entrepreneurial executives. Stay in the zone, go with the Workflo. Keep moving forward with your career, your project, your team and your career progression.
Go With the Workflo is the kind of message today’s worker wants to hear. But forward movement and staying in the flow isn’t enough. In 1981, two scientists received the Nobel Prize by proving that certain ‘high contrast’ visual images stimulate the release of dopamine in the human brain. When two colors or (building materials) that are opposites are brought together, the human eye sees novelty. Novelty is what attracts the attention of the visual cortex. Novelty is what stimulates a good mood in the human brain. This phenomenon in interior design is called ‘neuroaesthetics.’
Office furniture that is designed around the principle of neuro-aesthetics will evoke a generally good feeling in the office environment. Examples are tables with industrial, metal legs and an open-pore, wooden surface. Concrete floors with vintage wood walls. Smooth and rough. Synthetic and organic. Again, the contrast between the two surfaces or materials ‘creates good vibes.’ This is a proven research-backed fact that is becoming commonplace. McDonald’s, Chic-fil-A and many Main Street, consumer-branded facilities are leveraging this scientific research. But few architects understand the emotional impact.
Having ‘insider’ information about neuro-aesthetics or understanding the psychology of today’s young knowledge worker isn’t enough to jumpstart the office furnishings industry after several years of soft sales, factory shut-downs and consolidation.
Furnishings dealers, business owners, property managers, HR execs and architects need a complete rethink, a new vision of who they are and what their true mission is. Most importantly, is the industry ready to think out of the box? Guy Kawasaki, the former VP of Marketing for Apple, once said, “Never sell a product. Sell a movement.” What kind of movement would a forward-thinking local furnishings dealer or commercial real estate broker sell? What if these organizations partnered with a recruiter or personal development organization that existed to help Workflo furnishings clients attract or retain top-tier employees? This kind of service-bundling adds value and is becoming popular.
The great management guru, Peter Drucker, once said, “The only things that matter are innovation and marketing. Everything else is a cost.” What would Drucker encourage office designers to do now? Certainly not, “Twiddle your thumbs and wait for demand to normalize.” Here is the catalyst that will bring 1) changing employee behaviors, 2) flow mindset and 3) Workflo furnishings all together:
There are 50 million knowledge workers in our economy that are approximately 25 -44. They comprise 38% of the population. They are tech savvy and love to restore old, historical buildings. They take sustainability and diversity very seriously. Most importantly, they like to combine opposites—opposite colors, opposite materials and opposite ideas. UrbaNatural workers combine urban materials (steel or glass) with rural or natural materials (wood). They like furniture that combines urban sensibilities with natural sensibilities.
The people and the furnishings they prefer are both described as “UrbaNatural.” If a corporate manager tells a potential employee, “Come see us at our newly refurbished offices...they’re UrbaNatural. Lots of good vibes, you know what I mean.” By offering new, additional services, making everything mobile and calling an office “UrbaNatural,” the industry will rapidly rebound from its malaise. Go with the Workflo!
Note: Hinderaker’s firm organized and executed the Workflo concept 20 years ago for a furnishings dealer struggling with price resistance in Omaha, NE, an excellent test market. Within six months, the Workflo concept became so dominant and so attractive among facility managers that the number two furnishings operation in the market closed its new showroom and went out of business. The concept described in this white paper takes the general idea of fluidity and mental acuity one or two levels up. Nevertheless, the psychology of the end user is foremost in both respects.
Author Lynn Hinderaker is a principle of NEWbraska, a consulting firm focused on business development, organizational development and leadership development. Their specialty is innovation, change and transformation. Hinderaker is also a speaker, designer, podcaster and TV talk show host (Youtube). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.