Listen: Designing the Future of Work with Technology

James Ludwig is vice president, global design and product engineering for Steelcase. 360 recently sat down with James for a two-part discussion on the impact technology is making in the workplace, the kinds of tensions it’s creating for people, how workplace design can help and what we may see in the future of work. Part 1 is all about you — how Smart + Connected Spaces can improve people’s experiences at work.

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Steelcase 360: Technology adaptation at home and at the office is accelerating and shows no sign of slowing down. Designers are problem solvers. How do you see the current relationship between people and technology?

James Ludwig: In a way, we talk about technology as another way to help us become our better selves or our most authentic selves, especially at work. What we’re seeing more and more is the workplace wasn’t ready for all these new digital tools, whether it’s mobile devices or even laptops or Wi-Fi. We’re seeing some of our large customers still wrestling with the impact of moving from wired to wireless. As a designer, we see that as great new fertile ground to continue to design new solutions.

Steelcase 360: How do mobile technologies impact people at work? These devices give us so much freedom – but at the same time, we may be carrying a bag, laptop, power cord, connector, phone and more with us everywhere we go. How can the space be better designed to support us?

James: One of the things we talk about as we start to innovate around spaces is we want people to be able to carry light and live large. So part of that has to do with when they come to spaces, the spaces should be ready for them to do their work. The spaces should know who is in the room, what their preferences are and they should be able to help them get into their work as soon as possible.

It’s not just about mobile devices and the things we’re carrying. It’s about the kind of spaces that we’re creating that are ready for people who show up to do their work. That’s the kind of thing we aspire to as we design these Smart and Connected Spaces. What’s resident in the space should augment you and be ready for you when you show up.

Steelcase 360: How do you see technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality impacting the built environment?

James: Let’s take artificial intelligence as an example. We’re already immersed in a world of AI whether it’s nascent or more mature. The devices we’re carrying search — whether it’s computer vision or in the background. We see the positive sides of those as removing the kinds of friction that keep people from being able to collaborate, having the data at the speed of thought or the speed of conversation.

Often if you look at the 2009 version of search, the collaborative process is interrupted when people say, “Let me look that up.” Imagine if spaces could help facilitate the conversation. Rather than spaces just being the vessel of human experience could they be a participant in human experience? And, it’s just not a stretch to think AI is going to participate in that. We think that the partnership between AI and people is the most powerful one, rather than it’s supplanting us as participants. So, we see great possibilities in that in the future of work.

I believe we’re physical beings and we need physical space. And, the best physical space will actually help us leverage the best virtual space. It’s truly a combination of those things coming together. It’s called augmented reality — not just because of the way it participates with the virtual and the physical. But, because it augments us — our imagination and our tools.

Steelcase 360: Can you describe where we are right now in terms of a workplace culture around these new types of technologies?

James: The design process is an iterative process. So, we’re going to see experiments that succeed and fail. We’re at a time where I jokingly say it’s like teenagers learning to put on makeup or cologne. It’s a little overdone and clumsy at times until we understand how to use these things to make them our own and they become assimilated into our lives as if they’re second nature. I think that we’re right on the cusp of some really amazing experiments.

Steelcase 360: Clumsy is a great way to put it. We’ve seen companies like Google and Snapchat experimenting with glasses to incorporate technology into our everyday moments. But, these don’t always seem to fit. How do these kinds of experiments factor into workplace design?

James: The reason why design’s important in this equation is because we’re always looking at the person first. The most successful technologies are the ones that are assimilated or backgrounded enough that they don’t disrupt the natural human experience. It’s a line we’re constantly negotiating as individuals and as a collective society as we adopt tools and become used to them in our experiences.

Steelcase 360: You’ve mentioned many advances are not that far away. What can you tell us about right now?

James: Recently, we launched a product called Brody, which was designed to help people focus in what we call a task lounge. One of the things we realized, though, as we started to develop this was that sensing technologies could help stop interruptions. By simply adding a light that shines red when the lounge senses it is occupied, we’ll cut down on the number of people who peer over the edge and disrupt somebody’s focus. We can add a smart sensor that allows the temperature to elevate or reduce based on your comfort and your preferences. Those are things we’re doing today.

All of these elements could be connected to a larger network telling people if all spaces were occupied or not. We see that as a very near term future for us. Another example is Smart Ology, which is a height-adjustable desk. It will know when it’s time for me to take a break and can nudge me into healthy behaviors. And, it could let people know in a shared work environment that it’s occupied, directing people to desks that are available.

Steelcase 360: When you’re thinking about space at work in relationship to how people are going to use the technology, how important is it that they’ve begun to adopt it in their personal lives?

James: I think a lot of the things that we’re experiencing, whether it’s using iPads at work or mobile devices, were driven into the workplace as much as they were pulled into the workplace by our own personal use and our personal preferences. Whether it’s using Pinterest as a tool for creativity or curation in the design process, it started with our own individual use versus a business use. The fusing of those lines, those areas and those tools is a good thing. We’re seeing people fusing their external lives and their work lives. It shouldn’t just be that I have to do email in the evening for the benefit of the company. What are the tools that I’m bringing in from my life that actually make me better at work as well? A lot of the things we’re experimenting with in the world of work came from and started with our own personal use.

James LudwigJames Ludwig is vice president, global design and product engineering for Steelcase. 360 recently sat down with James for a two-part discussion on the impact technology is making in the workplace, the kinds of tensions it’s creating for people, how workplace design can help and what we may see in the future of work. Part 1 is all about you — how Smart + Connected Spaces can improve people’s experiences at work.

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Rebecca Charbauski

Senior Communications Specialist

Rebecca, an Emmy-winning journalist, reports on global research impacting the places where people work, learn and heal. Over her career, Rebecca spent 17 years covering local and national news events on television and a variety of digital platforms. She directed a digital news group in Kansas City for three years before becoming news director in Grand Rapids, Michigan for more than five years. Prior to Steelcase, Rebecca worked with one of the four largest media groups in the United States to coordinate news coverage among 48 newsrooms from the east to west coast.


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