James Ludwig is vice president, global design and product engineering for Steelcase. This is the second part of our conversation with James on the impact technology is making on the workplace. In part one, James gave us a peek into the future of technology at work and how it’s already changing the way workplaces are designed for people. In Part 2, we talk about how organizations can use technology to improve employee’s experiences at work.
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Steelcase 360: Let’s start by talking about how technology at work helps organizations perform better? And how can the environment help?
James: Imagine spaces telling us in real time whether they’re actually being used the way we thought they would be. We’d know if the spaces we thought people were going to collaborate in all day are actually only being used a couple of hours a day. If we had temperature data, light data, data on who shows up and why, we could make better spaces for people.
Here’s another possible advantage — I spend a lot of time asking myself, “Is that conference room available? Where can I go right now?” It’d be such an easy thing to imagine a space that actually just told me that when I asked the question. Echo, Google Home or Siri are all great things we’re experimenting with and incorporating into our lives. What if we could connect with our spaces to say, “James, there’s a meeting room available very close to you. And, I know from your preferences, you love sunlight after lunch.”?
Steelcase 360: When working with distributed teams, how can technology help make sure those human beings working remotely can participate equally?
James: We’re concerned about how to connect people who aren’t in the same physical space. It’s about removing the remoter penalty. For example, it’s one thing to look across the room and see somebody’s eyebrows raise at an idea and realize you can go down that path because they’re enthusiastic about it. So, when someone’s in another city or even in another location on your campus, some of that can be lost.
We think as tools increase their capability to know us and help us make those connections, that those will remove the remoter penalty. I think that there’s still an equation that needs to be solved with artificial and virtual reality to allow for better remote connections to simulate real‑time, in‑the‑same-space connections. But, right now, I think there’s still a benefit to people connecting socially and physically in that same space that makes the workplace relevant. I don’t believe technology will supplant the need for us to connect as beings together in the same space.
Steelcase 360: We’ve talked on 360 Real Time about today’s workplace striving to be adaptive. There’s a need for an agile culture in today’s fast-paced environment. How does being smart and connected support this kind of workplace in your mind?
James: The challenge of physical space is that it’s physical. You have to wheel it out. You have to replace it. Whereas, the digital layer can be upgraded in real time or overnight while we sleep. Anyone fortunate enough to be driving a Tesla knows they wake up every morning to a better car. It’s not unthinkable that the office would do the same for us. That’s our vision — the space learns how it performed the day before, what the preferences were of the people working in it and is able to upgrade and update itself for the next day so it’s better. In the future, the workspace is one that’s constantly upgrading itself and updating itself to be better the next day than it was before.
Steelcase 360: Overall, what does it mean to you as a global designer to create smart and connected spaces?
James: Putting the person at the center of the problem really means trying to solve persistent human needs or persistent human problems, removing friction people are experiencing at work. It’s not smart unless it does that. It may have tech in it, but really to us at Steelcase the idea of smart and connected is to the benefit of the people who are there doing the work.
The connected part means it’s connected back to the network which means there’s not only an augmentation feature or a feature benefit to the user, but it’s also connected back to the benefit of the choosers or the people who are designing and making these spaces. It’s creating some data that’s useful for the organization that’s invested in it. Our vision of smart and connected is to benefit the user and benefit the organization that’s investing in those things.
We feel great about where we stand as we define this new future. For 104 years, we’ve been studying how people work in space. Now, we see these new technologies and these new opportunities as a way to propel that forward. We think we have a unique perspective on work and how the digital and the physical will intersect. And from there, we see an exciting future.
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. In Part 2, we talk about how organizations can use technology to improve people’s experiences at work.