As leader of the Coalesse Design Group, it’s quite an honor to reflect on how the process of design plays such a unique role in the evolving conversation about work. Design is central, not just to the character of Coalesse over the past ten years, but in the whole cultural response to the rapidly changing workplace that we all experience.
Design functions as a solution where other disciplines can’t—where technology delivers new tools and poses new situations, but doesn’t provide the environment that those innovations will live in; where research points us to new insights but doesn’t instruct us what to build with them; and where the pendulum swings from the hard, mental work of problem-solving, back to the human experience we most want to improve at work—to enhance wellbeing every day in a place where we spend so much of our time.
The conversation we often have about work is about the blurring of lines—between the workplace and other locations, home, outdoor spaces, third places. Yet, what equally interests us as a design team at Coalesse is the actual tipping point of that integration, and what new possibilities were unleashed that prompted us to design very different things.
In retrospect there is now the clear idea that life and work were blurring at a certain moment; we stopped having the distinct separation between the two activities that we used to have. The map is new, yet already habitual. Many of us experience a quick and constant shifting between states throughout the day—we wake and check email; we go to work and attend meetings, do timely tasks; we pause to drive kids; go back to email at home; do concentrated work in the evening.
What exactly happened? The enormous acceleration of technological change turned a largely static work environment to a fluid one, and allowed workers to become mobile, to choose where and how they wanted to work—in a most physical sense. What was replaced? Not that long ago, the monitor for your computer had a certain shape and thickness; it was not movable, it sat on top of your work surface and required an L-shaped corner that the monitor could sink into. The longtime archetype of cubicle design was a direct result of the shape and configuration of the tools people were using and had to use.
In other words, we used to have to go to work to do our work because our tool was there and it wasn’t mobile. It tied us to a specific location and even a specific posture. That monitor didn’t come home with you; you went to it.
Smaller, flatter computers moved us from desktop to laptop and eventually, to handheld devices and tablets that integrated so many tools – phone, camera, messaging, internet, search, even design. Technology has freed us to review our work on a phone, with anyone, from anywhere. Tools have evolved so rapidly and in such rich ways that they now allow us to work entirely differently – to collaborate and create and even think differently – than we did ten years ago. This is the real paradigm shift that enabled Coalesse to address workplace design in such a forward direction.
If our technology no longer holds us in place anymore, what does tie us to a workplace? What makes us want to be there? As designers, the fact of mobility releases us to consider new spaces that will benefit the deeper quality of our time at work. We now must envision a workplace that accommodates people in social, collaborative, and focused work modes that hardly existed as dynamic chapters a decade ago. Rooms and floor plans are being reconfigured to serve a wider range of personalities and groupings, more social and communal than ever before, as productive phases of work, not just breaks from work. And from these developments arise the desire and expectation for more comfort, more beauty, greater aesthetic variety and customization, that bring in the qualities of a more aspirational environment from home and elsewhere to enrich our senses and confirm a satisfying sense of place.
These more social and personal work modes build trust: they add to the power of what we can create when we feel comfortable not only in our environment but also with our coworkers. Social connection and trust are subtle elements to design for, but they are the future of how we can think about improving the experience of being at work. Because the complex problems of so much knowledge work today are solved best when working with others. And we know people tackle bigger, harder problems better and faster when they are in a space, together. Bringing people together at this high level is the reason to keep translating the new and most potent demands of work into design.
Furniture is an eventual endpoint of these investigations, as the resulting object we will sit in or at, together or alone, with our tools or away from them, to work as well as we can. And furniture is the beginning of changing the conversation again about work for the next ten years. We can engineer better ergonomics into tailored postures that are more comforting and stable for various durations of work. We can add selections of color, pattern, texture and material into the way that designers and customers can specify the aesthetics of a piece, to make it their own. We can affect the shape, size and features of other pieces to accommodate different and newer kinds of spaces and requests.
We can use technology to create more sustainable and economical manufacturing. We can bring warmer natural materials into the palette of high functioning office furniture without diminishing performance. At Coalesse and Steelcase, we try to do all these things in ways that connect to our values and let us be part of the world we want to help shape. We can blur the lines more than ever before.
When I tell this story today, people fully expect a superior level of design quality and freedom in their work settings. But it was controversial almost ten years ago to give workers this much choice, and in that choice, to help reinvent what an office could be. Our design goals move with that tide of choice. We move the needle from need to want: not, I need a chair, but, I want that chair. I need a space but I want that particular space. I go to the office, not because I need to work there, but now, because I want to work there.
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