Episode 19

Tools for Togetherness: Inside and Outdoors

While human life began outdoors, we now spend over 90% of our time indoors. If you’re interested in the movement to spend more time outdoors, whether socially or while working, join Thomas Wynants and Ashlee Anvik from Extremis to learn more about our relationship with nature and new tools to bring us together.

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So I think the first step, when we think about outdoor spaces, especially in the workplace or in the learning environment or in the healthcare setting, is what is the purpose of the space? And I think that's what I'm excited about. I'm excited for us to be just as functional and intentional about our outdoor spaces as we have been with our indoor spaces. Ashlee Anvik, US Marketing and Sales Manager


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Greetings! This is CCB from the ONEder podcast, and I have the great, good fortune of having another amazing conversation today about places where we spend our time and why they're so important to us. And it's funny to start that conversation because obviously the places where we spend our time have relevance for supporting our safety, supporting our movement forward, supporting our education, supporting our health. But we're thinking about at One Workplace, obviously, how it supports our work environment. And I start by saying we're stepping back. We're stepping back and asking - does it make more sense to look at the spaces where we spend our time more holistically? And when we think about that, we can't contain it to the indoor spaces. We have to start thinking about how does the outdoor integrate. Today's environment with the result of the global pandemic and the need for everyone to work from home has put a greater spotlight on what those solutions might look like when we get to move back into the office. And since safety is such a huge issue, might we not start thinking more importantly about what happens outdoors as well? So today we have two guests with us from Extremis, Ashlee Anvik and Thomas Wynants. And I'm going to let them introduce themselves before we start having our conversation. Ashley, tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:01:40] Hi, thanks for having us, first of all. Well, I'm Ashley. My title is Extremis America. I've been with Extremis for about five years now, I guess. And my skill set is mostly sales and marketing. I come from the world of branded content. Before Extremis, I was working at the New York Times and I guess love led me to the world of outdoor furniture. So I guess here I am.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:02:14] Thomas, that's a good lead in.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:02:18] Yeah, I guess I have to finish that off, don't I? I'm Thomas Wynants. I am 30 years old and I've been with Extremis for twenty-five years. My parents started it in their garage. My mother had inherited some furniture from her grandmother and it was plastic and my dad hated it. And he decided to deal with the issue at hand by designing a piece of furniture which then was received very well. And so a company was started which they would run on the weekends and in their spare time.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:03:04] Actually the first furniture was made designed for you. The first table had height-adjustable benches so the children could sit, could sit at the same level as the adults. So I guess you were the test subject.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:03:18] We still have that product in the collection. So it's not something from the past. It's call the Gargantua; it has height-adjustable benches, which accommodates seating for children and adults and it becomes a bigger table. Very functional, which really in the early days founded the whole brand, really. So, actually I'm going a little bit beyond an introduction to myself.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:03:45] And your title?

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:03:46] My title is "Next Boss". That's a bit of a joke. My dad's title is "Big Boss" and my mom's title is "Real Boss".

CCB (One Workplace): [00:03:57] We're always very, very entertained by the Extremis Team when they arrive.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:04:03] I don't know what I get to be boss of. Maybe I'll be in charge of the restrooms one day or something. But you know boss of something.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:04:09] Everybody's got to start somewhere.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:04:11] That's excellent. We're so happy that you're here starting, doing something. We wanted to have a conversation with Extremis because as we mentioned here and everywhere in the world, who's kidding? I was going to say here in the United States, but we're all thinking about this. How do we move forward safely back into a more collegial, a more collaborative environment, a more inspiring location? The nature of work with people so separated now has clearly lost some creativity. It's clearly lost some productivity. We can look at all the different research studies and notice in the beginning the productivity stayed at a certain level and then it even tipped higher because people didn't stop working when they're working at home. Now, a year in, it's astonishing to have to say a year into this situation, it's clear that productivity is eroding, and connections are eroding because people have been so isolated for so long. The Zoom environment, as helpful as it is, and all of the different technology platforms that allow us to communicate are not allowing us to have that connection. All that being said, we're thinking about how do people integrate outdoor working more effectively to heighten that safety and increase that ability to reconnect as we go back into a more collective work environment. We know that Extremis has been thinking about this and has been working on different types of solutions. But what we'd love to hear is how you started thinking about outside, because outside seems to be much more integrated in the Extremis world than it has been in many others.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:06:13] I guess it starts with the company started designing outdoor furniture,

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:06:13] We did not move from the inside to the outside. We actually started out with the outdoor spaces. And for us, it always has been mainly about bringing people together, those connections you were mentioning earlier, than about the product. But back in the 90's when my father started the company, there was not much outdoor furniture available, especially not in the contemporary style. He at the time, knew very well what was available and couldn't find anything. So, he decided to design something himself for himself because he didn't feel like he could buy anything that would fill his needs.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:07:06] And another fun anecdote is your father a son of a carpenter. His mother is the daughter of a metal worker. And so those are the two materials that were initially selected to design the first table. And those, I guess, are some of the best outdoor grade materials you could start with.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:07:26] But it has always been about bringing people together, and bringing people together in the outdoor space since, nothing to do pandemic really, it has been always the DNA and the motto of the company. We always say, "We don't make furniture, we make tools for togetherness".

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:07:43] On that topic, Thomas and I started that US division of Extremis about five years ago and started our partnership actually with Steelcase a couple of years ago. We were already seeing this trend of outdoor spaces becoming more and more important in the workspace. But over the last few years, I would say, even prior to Covid, we saw just a little bit of interest in companies asking themselves, can we make more of our outdoor spaces? The baseline of Extremis is we design tools for togetherness. Everything is designed by observing the interaction between people and offering them a new way to connect. So we kept observing the behavior in the workspace and watching why employees started coming outside. It wasn't just to have coffee with a colleague. It wasn't just to have a five-minute meeting. People were bringing their laptops out and staying for several hours or as long as their technology resources enabled them to stay there.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:08:53] And most other workspaces that most companies are truly spaces to take your lunch break. And that is something we see a clear shift in that companies are looking at as well. If we have to do something with the space anyway, well, maybe it can be productive. And therefore, new solutions are needed and we are working hard on those.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:09:17] You raise an issue implicitly in this conversation, in that Extremis thought about outdoors before they thought about indoors, they thought about that connection between human beings. But there also is a reason for the benefit of the outdoors, which clearly has been talked about endlessly I would say, over the last decade at least, for Biophilia. The nature of the value that the connection to nature in the outdoors bring to the human being because that's where we come from. So knowing that, was that a knowledge at Extremis that was explicit? Did you understand that connection early on? I mean, were your parents actually thinking about that or was that just a growing knowledge base that you continued to support?

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:10:19] I think it was always, always a big part of it, but maybe not as consciously.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:10:26] Well, I think I could shed some light on that, too. So I'm from Montana, I'm from the US, and Thomas is from Belgium. In my first trips to visit Thomas and his family, I was amazed of how much time these people spend outdoors. Everything was centered around being outdoors. Dining, coming together at the table was a must for every meal, and it was often as they could outdoors. I think it started a little bit as a cultural thing. I think here in the US we certainly enjoy the outdoors and we love visiting our national parks and spending time outdoors. But I think it's a little bit more ingrained in the culture there. And maybe that's why.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:11:18] Well, it could also be that the climate in Belgium is so unpleasant in the winter that people are really trying to take full advantage of every single minute they can be outside in the summer months.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:11:31] But certainly Biophilia and the science behind our innate connection to nature and its effects on our well-being is the impetus for us bringing ourselves outside more. We see the benefits. The best expression of Biophilic design is actually designing outdoor spaces, right? I'm actually proud that we're putting a lot more emphasis on designing spaces with the intention of making people feel safe, enhancing their well-being, and just the notion of understanding that nature also helps productivity. Again, being outside, bringing nature inside is a beautiful thing as well, and I think helps foster creativity and productivity indoors, but being outdoors is actually the fullest expression of biophilic design in our opinion.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:12:28] It's even interesting that study, you probably know the numbers better, that are that we spend, what 95?

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:12:32] You spend 90 percent of our time indoors. It's appalling if we understand our connection to nature, why we don't explicitly try to bring ourselves out more. But again, we are making big strides in that. And we've seen it over the last couple of years of people really putting emphasis on their outdoor spaces, not as a secondary or a last objective, but one of the first or second objectives. We're seeing that shift.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:13:03] We could talk about this even more universally when we think about it, we're not just talking about the working environment. I mean, Thomas, you started talking about home environments and how that connection and that collegial and that collaboration and that your togetherness is so much more rich in the outdoors as compared to the indoors, even though we do it in both locations. But we're not just talking about home, but we're also talking about where we learn. And so the learning environments and how there's a huge movement in learning environments and in education to integrate more of nature and integrate more of the outdoors in learnings because of those wellbeing elements and because of the ability that people have to make connections in those natural environments. And so learning is enhanced. And we also know in healthcare that has been for over 30 years, there have been interest in understanding in what that connection to nature does and that moves into the healing gardens and some of those other external outdoors environments that healthcare environments put together.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:14:21] Stress is, also, there're a lot of studies that show that your heart rate slows down, releasing some stress. So, if you have a tough day at work, it could be a solution to have the option to go sit outside for a second to tackle this job that's stressing you out, maybe. It will help you.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:14:42] Getting the fresh air, we've also done some studies or some learning at One Workplace around sensory design, and that also is attached to the wellness and well-being that comes from those full connections, be it to the visual or to the auditory or to the sensory or to the tactile. You get that immediately in any kind of environment. But it needs to be more thoughtfully designed in the interior spaces because you don't have access to all the nature, whereas outside... And I'm curious, and I know a lot of people are, about the nature of the design of those outdoor materials, those outdoor resources and solutions that you come up with. And if they are tools for togetherness, could you speak a little bit more about that?

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:15:36] When you're designing an outdoor space, there's several factors that you may have to consider, mostly as it relates to the weather.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:15:48] And also depending on the function of the space itself.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:15:51] Right. So I think the first step, we think about outdoor spaces, especially in the workplace or in the learning environment or in the healthcare setting. Is what is the purpose of the space? And I think that's what I'm excited about. Again, we often think about outdoor spaces as secondary, or if we have budget left, we will put some picnic tables out there. I'm excited for us to be just as functional and intentional about our outdoor spaces as we have been with our indoor spaces. And so there's so many more things. And the studies, actually Biophilia shows that you don't need to spend all day outdoors to feel its effect. Even just a 20-minute walk outdoors can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and give a sense of calm for the rest of the day. And so just knowing that, there's so much more we can do than have have a coffee with our colleagues. We can bring our laptop out for a couple hours of work. We can work on a project together. We can host a meeting outdoors. So it's first defining kind of the purpose of the space and then tying that back to what functionality do you need in the furniture? I guess the first thing that we think about is, can this furniture stay outdoors? If you had to have things that are blowing away and moving around, it's sort of defeats the purpose of having a sustainable outdoor space. So that's one of the things that we focus on, finding the materials that last, creating heavy, durable furniture that you don't have to worry about blowing away, that can be exposed to all the elements. I think that's the baseline that you have to think about outdoors.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:17:30] If you don't do all these things well, then it could potentially have an opposite effect where, for example, if there's a glare in your screen from the sun because the shade isn't sufficient, if there's wind or noise pollution, wind is not the pollution, but noise pollution or wind that bothers you or your Wi-Fi is constantly cutting out because you're too far from the source. Well, then it can actually create more stress than it solves.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:18:01] I think it's just defining the function of the space, the intention for the space and then understanding what tools are necessary. And I think technology has been the main limitation for outdoor spaces, but we're making strides on that. It's something that we at Extremis are focusing on, how can we provide as many tools as possible and as many postures as possible and functionalities to make outdoor spaces successful.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:32] I would say that we are really grateful and delighted to have the thinking that you have been working on for as many years as you have, because it's so much more iterative than, "Today we need to move outside so let's decide what outdoor spaces we're going to create." I think what Extremis, I know what Extremis helps us with, is the amount of information and the amount of time that you've spent thinking about this, because within our environment, we clearly have been concerned about technology and data and power and how does that enable lengthy outdoor time? So that's something that, just as you bring up, is a huge concern. And there are many, many factors to be taken into consideration in order to provide that seamless moving from the indoors to the outdoors. And I know you also have had, and we've had examples together, opportunities together to work with clients who are very interested in evaluating the capabilities and the capacity that they have in their outdoor spaces or can build in them. So I'd love for you to talk about the LinkedIn example, if you might, because that's got a lot of rich data.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:19:52] Yes, absolutely. Something we're super proud of, actually, in partnership with One Workplace and Steelcase, LinkedIn tasked One Workplace with the assignment of helping them think outside the box with creating new workspaces, literally outside the box. They wanted to create an outdoor workspace. At the time they were actually asking us about picnic tables. “Can we put one of your Helper tables outside?” And we said to ourselves, well, "Why don't we think about it a little bit more in depth and actually understand what you want people to get out of the space?" And the intention was to have people coming outside for anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours a day and doing work. So we actually created some custom solutions to be able to accommodate having monitors outside on long tables, plenty of space for employees to sit there with their laptops hooked up to their monitors, power management solutions, plenty of shade coverage. And another important factor that we learned, if not really a sort of a necessity, is reducing distractions. So space dividers and biophilic elements, plants and such to drown out any distractions. At first it kind of felt like a pie in the sky idea. And we're like, "Oh, is this going to work?" And actually, they said it was one of their most successful experiments that they did at that innovation lab compared to an indoor space with a similar setup. Their utilization rates were 40 percent higher than that space. So they did quantitative feedback. They monitored when people were coming, when they were leaving, how long they were staying. And they also did qualitative feedback with surveys. They had a whiteboard where they asked employees, "What do you like about the space, what can be improved?" And the feedback was actually overwhelmingly positive. People loved the opportunity to actually sit down and actually do work instead of just have a small meeting or a cup of coffee. I would guess they're one of the only companies that did that kind of experimentation and to that extent, and I think we can all agree it was a nice success.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:22:19] And it was interesting to see as well that it was, I think, a demographic that didn't have access to outdoor working at all. If you mainly have to respond to emails or something, then if you're locked up, you can go sit at a picnic bench. It might not be like perfectly ideal economically and everything that you have that option to do that. But bringing those monitors outside and everything, we saw programmers coming outside to do programming there. And I think for them that probably was one of the first times they had the option to do their daily task in the outdoors in a productive way.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:23:03] Absolutely.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:23:05] But talking about the outdoor workspace, I think there's also a great future for outdoor meeting spaces, maybe even more than them.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:23:16] Yes, that was actually one of the feedbacks, one of the requests from the employees is ‘we would like a bigger meeting space. We loved that we can do our heads down work here, but we'd like to also host meetings outdoors.’ But we learned a lot from that experiment and about things we can improve and what elements truly do bother people. Glare on the tables, if that's an issue, a lady bug coming on your keyboard every once in a while. So, you know, those are things you have to think about when you think about outdoor spaces.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:23:53] Another thing that the LinkedIn example raises, another kind of issue that it raises, is the nature of the culture of the organization and how it accepts and/or is willing to experiment and willing to learn, fail and learn. We have an example that we had found in our studies, L.L. Bean had tried that outside spaces for their people. Sixty-five percent of the people that used the L.L. Bean outdoor spaces, which was in the last decade, were not happy with it. And predominantly the number one concern was they didn't feel that their supervisors approved of it, that it wasn't accepted. And we have found that, I would say, constantly over changes in design, even in interior space design, when the mini cafes and mini kitchens kind of came into vogue and they were placed around environments, when they were intentional as part of the initial design and completely accepted by the organization, they were successful. But if people saw them because they had them at, you know, A, B or C tech firm and they were very, very popular and they brought them into their own environment, without that kind of acceptance, the spaces would just sit there dormant, literally. People would not use them. Or if you started using them and got a funny look, you wouldn't go back. So it's curious how the culture, how all cultures need to be embracing of whatever the changes are being made. And I wonder if you have other experiences of organizations where outdoor spaces were attractive but not utilized.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:25:48] It's a very good observation. I definitely believe that if a company is not ready, culturally, for, let's say, ancillary spaces and all that kind of stuff, then the outdoor workspace is probably a stretch, and you might see some of those stretches now with Covid because, you know, safe working, well they might skip all the rest and just go straight to the outdoor workspace. And if the company culture doesn't support it, it's the same as with everything. But I don't think we have really seen from our own experience, good examples of companies that decided to do something like this and weren't ready for it. But at Steelcase itself, at their headquarters, they've been since the Covid pandemic completely. I mean, we had a lot of our furniture out there already on their campus, but the way they started using it was very different. And we started rearranging stuff and they started rearranging stuff. And it sort of was an organic progression of how it was used.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:27:12] Well, and since we started partnering with Steelcase, you know, they have such a focus on flexibility and giving user choice and combining that with the insights into well-being and really focusing on intentional spaces and based on who's coming to work, why they're coming to work. So the clients that we were working with had already had that kind of ruminating, that mindset. And so the idea of not having employees fixed to one desk all day long, that was yet part of most of the projects that we worked on. And so outdoor space was just another ancillary space to give employees an option for working or meeting. But I completely agree that culture is key and trusting your employees, that if they're outside with their laptop, they're actually doing work. It should be a no brainer too with the studies of enhanced creativity and productivity. By nature, a couple hours outdoors actually goes a long way.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:28:16] If management sees it as going to play outdoors instead of going to do work there, then what I would say is if people had the intention of getting away with not doing any work, it's much easier to just hide in a cubicle.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:28:32] Or stay home.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:28:35] Right.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:28:37] So I have another thought that I know you will have more knowledge about than we will here in California. What about the climate and kind of constancy of outdoor spaces? Have you thought about places that are more like Belgium than California? And how can that be helped? Are there kind of hybrid models of indoor/outdoor spaces?

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:29:08] What I what I like to say about climate is that people always assume that as an outdoor brand, our best, most successful markets are in the southern areas where it's warm and everything. But it's often wrong because the southern climates sometimes take their good weather for granted because it's there all year long. And the northern climates, they really want to take advantage of the good weather months to use that outdoor and actually build up the energy to get through the winter even. I feel like the outdoor spaces are appreciated more in the climates that don't have access to it all year round. When it comes to hybrid models, there are solutions, pavilions. We have a sort of a partnership of a brand called Remsen, which makes pavilions that kind of allow for sort of a hybrid space with some infrared heating and stuff like that. We are getting one of those pavilions ourselves at our headquarters here in Michigan. And we are also working on solutions to try to extend the season, but we don't have in our own range, on our own, a solution that allows you to be in Michigan weather, we have about, what, two feet of snow here now? Yeah, it's probably not the best time to go outside.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:30:54] I don't think you're going to get all the infrastructure that you need from one manufacturer. Let's be honest. I think when the concept of an outdoor space starts to become more central to the design process of the entire workspace, you will just be able to source all the infrastructure you would need to create a middle of the winter outdoor workspace, whether it's a pavilion with heating, whether it's light sources, and making it feel a little bit more part of the infrastructure and not just a temporary set up, that's when you'll start to see real outdoor workspaces popping up. And there are definitely many solutions to create such an environment. We're working on things like power, lighting. Our furniture perfectly accommodates outdoor working. But I think some of those more semi-permanent infrastructure type things will be part of this change post-Covid.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:31:59] And our stuff can just stay outside even when you don't use it in the winter. It's not that it has to be like stored away. It will be there already for the next season.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:32:09] It will be part of the infrastructure.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:32:11] You will see that people will get quite adventurous in the northern climates as soon as it's spring and the sun comes out a little bit, people will probably start using it in 15 minute increments because they just can't wait for the weather to get good enough to really, like, use it fully.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:32:32] You have, I think, successfully considered not only the challenges but also the aesthetics so that it does. You have created through a lot of your solutions, very attractive environments that people are going to want use. And we're always delighted to be able to work with you and also work with all of our clients to think through what those best solutions might be. We're coming to the end of the podcast time. And so I just wondered if either or both of you have final thoughts that you would like to share almost in the nature of takeaways, either a take away thought for people to consider or challenges that maybe you'd like to suggest to people.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:33:28] Where to start, I guess we have so many. Where do you want to start on that? I guess for me, what I find interesting is in the early 20th century, when we were dealing with the tuberculosis pandemic and the Spanish flu pandemic, outdoor learning and outdoor living was sort of second nature and a no brainer for people. They adapted to the classroom for outdoors, even in colder months. I think what's exciting to me is that I guess we're becoming more intentional about outdoor workspaces. They don't just have to be cafe space, it can be a place to learn, a place to meet with colleagues and connect, it can be a place to actually get heads down worked on. There are some things about the natural elements that maybe people aren't as comfortable with. But I do feel like in terms of well-being and an added layer of safety at the workplace, outdoor spaces are going to be critical for the future office.

[00:34:42] And our best, most notable piece so far for all working is still in the making. So we have a really high expectation. I think it's our best piece for outdoor working, but it might also be, in my opinion, the best piece for outdoor working. We are looking into new technologies like LightFi, which is a data collection which allows you to have access to Internet only when you're at the table, so you don't have to, like, give out Wi-Fi to the whole parking lot where everybody can hack into it. All kinds of new technologies that will move us forward in this space. And we are partnering for that particular technology with Modular. They really have some exciting stuff going on.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:35:39] Yes. And I would say one last thing. I think we're all starving for connection. And one of the biggest reasons to come back to the office will be to be together with our colleagues and meeting new people and connecting with clients. And we're going to need nice spaces, and safe spaces to connect with people. So if anybody's questioning the value of the outdoor spaces, don't be afraid to consider them as part of the office.

Thomas Wynants (Extremis): [00:36:08] And tonight, we actually even have an outdoor meeting with the local Chamber of Commerce in two feet of snow.

Ashlee Anvik (Extremis): [00:36:13] Yes, so if we can do it, anybody can do it.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:36:17] Thank you so much for honestly sharing the information, the knowledge, and the experiences that Extremis brings to this particular market, but also the universal nature of togetherness and your part in emphasizing that and the importance of it, which is absolutely lovely. We want to thank Thomas and Ashley from Extremis for joining us today on the ONEder podcast and let you all know that the ONEder podcast can be heard, downloaded on all of your normal streaming services, and we will look forward to talking to you again sometime soon.