Episode 16

Smartworking into Our Future

Want to know the upside of the impact of Covid19 on the workplace? Join Gerry Taylor and Nathan Hurley from Orangebox for a truly upbeat conversation about their Smartworking research, the gift of time to think and reimagine, and their intention to bring people back into the workplace with vitality, new energy and positivity.

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Years ago, I used to be designing quite a lot of retail stores, and I always tried to say to the client, could we just design 70% of it and we'll leave 30% because you can never get it right. No one has ever gotten 100% right. Well, some people do, some brilliant designers get hotels that you walk into and you say, yeah, wouldn't touch a thing. But generally, you always want to leave space for change and evolution. And that's fundamental to what we are about as a company. That's what's Smartworking is about. Gerry Taylor, Creative Director, Orangebox


CCB: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the ONEder podcast. It's your host, CCB, with another conversation that will certainly make you think. Today we're very, very lucky to have with us two of our friends from Orangebox, a furniture manufacturer in the U.K. who has an incredibly long history of supporting their design with research that goes into enormous detail. Today with us, we have Gerry Taylor, who is a creative director with an incredibly long history in the design world that we're going to ask him to share a bit of. And Nathan Hurley, who is their director of research. Gerry, Nathan, welcome to the ONEder podcast.

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:00:48] Thank you for having us.

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:00:49] Thank you so much for having us. Carolyn, we really appreciate it.

CCB: [00:00:52] Excellent. All right, Gerry, how about you spend a little tiny bit of time and introduce us to what brought you to this place where you are today?

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:01:01] So I'm GT. How's that, CCB? That's nice and succinct. I'm a designer and I've been a designer for a very long time. And what I love about being a designer is it gets better as your career progresses. And I spend as much of my time thinking and writing now as I do with designing. Why? Because I think we're living in the period that, first of all, there's too much design. There's too many. Although sometimes when you travel around and you think, really? We've got too many brilliant architects looking at mediocre? Yeah, I don't think so. The reason I'm saying that is because I think we live in a period of saturation, saturation of choice, and I think when you design you're talking as much about narrative and the purpose of, as you are, of the piece of itself. And we're also living in a time where you can have a five hundred pound vase sitting beside the twenty $ dollar vase. And we don't make any distinctions anymore, those hierarchies have gone. What's important is the narrative that has those two vases sitting beside each other within your house. And I believe that's the same within office furniture in this stage that we're working in. Yes, my career goes back a long way. One of the prides of my career was last year or the year before, doesn't time fly? Sotheby's had the sale of all of David Bowie's collection and I discovered he had three of my lights, which I thought, yay! So, if ever there was an accolade, forget any design awards, the fact that David Bowie was living with three of my objects probably is one of the highlights of my career. Which brings me to today. I've been working with Orangebox for a decade or more, since the beginning of Orangebox. And we're having a great time! We're now part of the Steelcase family, and we're still having a great time. It's a story that doesn't seem to stop. And I think it doesn't seem to stop because we pride ourselves on being a collection of individuals, and what we try to do is to give each other the space to have fun and achieve. That comes down from Mino, our CEO. And yeah, and we'll come onto this during the discussion. I actually think we're now entering one of the best periods for me and office design because of the dramatic consequence of this global epidemic and how it's changing all of our lives. And, you know, the idea of the Black Swan. Yeah, you know, a few years ago when Taleb wrote that book, we thought, yeah, maybe, and now it's coming on a weekly basis, it seems.

CCB: [00:04:13] Flocks of black swans.

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:04:15] That's how I fit into this picture.

CCB: [00:04:18] Excellent. And Nathan.

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:04:21] As you can hear that the sort of passion and the intelligence that Gerry brings to the team really just makes the business of Orangebox really magnetic. And really, I found myself working for Orangebox since I was 14 years old. So when I was still in school, the sort of proximity to the business for me back in South Wales in the United Kingdom, meant that I got to touch the business on my school holidays and I would do a few months here and a few months there. And I sort of eventually started to climb the ladder and I came into contact with Gerry and the design team. That was such just a rich tapestry of skills in their team. And it's really quite as I mentioned, magnetic. And so Gerry took me under his wing and we started working on some fabulous projects together, research projects. I did leave for a moment in time. I was working for a branding consultancy. I was doing some sort of trend mapping, try to understand how consumers are behaving, certainly in young markets, startup businesses. And now I'm back with Orangebox and focusing on behaviors in space and interior architecture and how people are moving and feeling in environments. And so it's a wonderful organization to be working for. They give you the room to grow and to control your own projects. And that's just wonderful for somebody like me learning their craft.

CCB: [00:05:57] Thank you so much. There's such a richness in the topics that we could discuss, but I wanted to start with, I'm going to start with Jerry and the article that you wrote about why the death of the office is a new myth in the making, because I think it begins to wrap around a number of the conversations that we'd like to have.

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:06:20] Well, I think also it comes back to this idea of we're now about to begin to redefine for me what the workplace is about, because we've come through a scenario where very rapidly we were scattered to the winds. We were all working from home because we had to be. And what's amazing is that thank goodness it happened now and not five years ago, because technology has enabled us to achieve this and achieve it with consequence, not to achieve it in insignificant way. The consequence of that is that we have to really reappraise why are we coming into offices in the quantities that we were doing so previously? I always like to use the idea we always believe we're smart cookies, right? I've often given presentations to point out that actually we might not be as smart as we think we are. The way we were overusing cities, for example, is a perfect example of this. San Francisco suffers, this is probably more than most, there's too many people wanting to be in the city. There's too many people commuting in and out of the city. And the fresh blood that give the vitality organizations are being priced out of the cities. They can't afford to live in these cities. Here we were, and wherever you go globally, it's the same phenomenon. Too many people coming into the cities. And you know what? We can't even regulate when we're coming in. We can't stagger it because people will come in at this time and we all live even that time. And now we’re starting to look at that with a clarity that remote working has given us and saying this is idiotic. Why have we allowed them to do this when we're actually, through the last five months, we have proven that we don't need to behave. Even architects and lawyers, lawyers who have always said that the domain, the privacy, of the security of the office is sacrosanct. They’re now actually saying we can work quite successfully, remotely.

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:08:32] At the same time, we all know that we have an environmental catastrophe, over the hill, if we not paying super attentive to this. And what I think is this is now a gift that we've been given. We've been given the gift of solving part of the screw up environmentally, by not needing to commute as much as we were all indulging in commuting. And therefore, the office building, in my opinion, is up for grabs, is up for redefining, because if we're not all coming into the office, the volume needs, the dynamics that we were indulging in 2019, I suggest, don't need to be the dynamics of 2021, but the office has to become a new proposition because you don't build DNA by being scattered in separate places. The DNA comes from all of those fabulous interactions that happen within a building, a building that's reflective of the culture of the people within the organization and why they are in that place. So I think now its that clients know, I mean, so many global CEOs are saying the same thing, you know, Zuckerberg said with Facebook projecting forward maybe 10 years down the line, at least 50 percent of our employees can be working remotely. And in all the cultural changes and all the societal changes, you know, the kind of clothes that we used to buy will change as well. And feel sorry for that, yes! I mean, pajamas will take on a completely new fashion.

CCB: [00:10:21] There's a whole spread of that leisurewear making it's a giant resurgence. And there are many, many people who have closets full of very expensive shoes, that are frightened to death they will never wear them again. So that's going to bring us really to the people. We've talked about the broadest concept of this, and then the need for narrative and the need for narrative is there because that's how people relate and that's how we connect. So, Nathan, how about if you spend a little bit of time and talk about the work that you've been doing on the impact on the younger people that have been coming into the office or that may want to come into some form of office someday?

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:11:07] Sure. I think that's really important to really consider the younger people. I mean, I was just reading this morning, as we begin to enter the beginning of October, the end of September 2020, 44% of young people polled sixteen to twenty-four-year-olds in the United Kingdom have given up on their dream job. They've given up on that on that sort of chasing of their ambitions and their goals, sixteen to twenty-four-year-olds. We do have to really consider, and this is the generation as well that we bracket, we call them "iGen". The "Internet Generation". Generations are defined by primarily two things, parenting styles and usually a technological innovation within your lifetime. So the reason we call iGen is because they're the children of the Internet. Instant access to information at any time. But what we've been tracking is that that causes all sorts of mental health issues for our young people. And this really isn't going to help. But I think the reason why that statistic is so high at 44% is really, really troubling and something that we're going to have to deal with. But you mentioned about narratives, about people, and that's really the heart of this story. And at Orangebox with Gerry, Jim, and I have been working on a wonderful project called the "Hula Hoop Office". And so this is our post-Covid and pre-vaccine workplace project. Really at a knee jerk, we recognize that other storytellers, estates, management organizations were being a little bit downbeat and at Orangebox we like to sort of look at the lighter side of life; And we felt that this hula hoop was a wonderful hearts and minds project, really, to get us to start to think about how we can bring people back into the workplace with a vitality, with a new energy and with some positivity.

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:13:12] How can we change the angle of approach in regards to the tone of voice that's currently circulating, some of that negativity? And the hula hoop’s a wonderful way that we can think about that, because when the craze first swept across the states in the ‘60s, not only was it incredibly fun, but it was really democratic because it really captured a nice spectrum of society. Whether you were in a ballet studio in New York, whether you were in a nightclub in Detroit or whether you were in a schoolyard in California, it really captured this kind of real spectrum of society. And that's really reflective of what we're going to need to sort of replicate, because there needs to be one rule for all, really, when we try and build that story of coming back into our space. It's not just our juniors and our graduates, it's our CEOs as well. So this new behavioral contract that we're going to need to be signed up for when we move back into our space needs to be bought in by all. So I imagine if it's Carolyn and Gerry and I, we've all got our hula hoop working it away around our waist. And it's just a wonderful way in which we can adhere to these new social distancing measures and behavioral contract. So it's a great project that we're working on. There are lots of accessories that our design team have been using as a springboard off the back of it. So it's a great project that we put together. Gerry was a really key, integral part of that project.

CCB: [00:14:46] So, Gerry, when you're talking about, I let Nathan take the ball with young people, but we still have numerous generations that will be in the work environment and I'm going to say work environment, because we are recognizing very clearly, as you pointed out, that there's going to be, there must be a new way of the blend of remote work and together work. And where does that together work take place? So when you think about pulling together or creating or watching that new space evolve, what are you thinking about the way that the new work environment in its breadth will play out?

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:15:34] I think, in the eight reasons in that the article... But we’re only as good as what we can remember, and I think maybe now more than certainly before, with five, six months of absence, we're actually in a better position to judge the real values of the office environment. When you wear something day in and day out, familiarity breeds contempt. You lose the real values of what you have. And I think we have a chance, and we mustn't lose this chance. As we come back into the workplace, we have a chance, a gift, if you will, that doesn't often come our way and we shouldn't get it wrong. So we need to do a lot. There must be a lot of discussion and experimentation, trial and error going on because we have a one off chance to recalibrate the office in a way that hasn't happened, I would say, for thirty odd years. We really have to use this time with intelligence and with insight. We know that the biggest thing, we are sharing a screen now and we're on different continents, which is in itself beautiful. But those personal things are five people sitting around the table and you can see that someone's not quite right. Those dynamics of human interaction are fundamental to a good life, fundamental to a good work life. So what we have to try to ensure is as we come back into the workplace and as we recalibrate the dynamics of that workplace, please let's get right the hierarchies of the where’s and the whys of why we're coming and because we've actually proven that so much work is actually done better remotely. So we don't need to bring the better work remotely into the work environment. So what do we do when we come? And then it's got to be all of these dynamics about the relationships between people, within organizations. And if we're only in two days a week, three days a week, I think we might be much more circumspect about how we use our time together. What's the point of this? Because I'm not going to see you until next Thursday. Let's make sure that we do this. And then conversely, once we start to do that, we could back-story, backfill into working remotely and make that experience more rich as well. I think now’s a thinking time. I think, now’s a thinking time and now’s discussion time and now’s time for a little bit more experimentation than perhaps what we've done before. And as a designer, I would absolutely, I mean, years ago I used to be designing quite a lot of retail stores, and I always tried to say to the client, “could we just design 70 percent of it and we'll leave 30 percent?” because you can never get it right. No one has ever gotten one hundred percent. Right? Well, some people do some brilliant designer get hotels that you walk into and you say, yeah, wouldn't touch a thing. But generally, you always want to leave space for change and evolution. And that's fundamental, I think, to what we are about as a company. That's what's smart working is about. And we've got a whole new bandwidth of product coming through called Campers and Dens. And I think that can really fundamentally redefine this idea of, if we're in a period of flux and change, why build fixed architecture? That's a question we've asked. And I think with this product bandwidth, I think it's a question we found quite a good answer to.

CCB: [00:19:41] So when you talk about getting it right and why would you come, why would anyone come back into the workplace, that is, not the home workplace. So if we're talking about the office, if that's what the title is going to be, there's also been an enormous amount of conversation about innovation and collaboration. So, Gerry, you raised the issue of the five people sitting around the table where you actually can see and play off with one another. But there's also the serendipity of overhearing and participating in conversations. So a number of, there's an article in The Wall Street Journal just recently that was interviewing a number of CEOs and regardless of the industry that they were involved in, there was that concern about collaboration, innovation, creativity, and how can we manage that or harness it when we're distributed? So it begs the question, will that be what the office is for? And then what does that mean for, from a design perspective, if at all, there is any concern when you think about that?

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:20:53] That's an idea that's really interesting, Carolyn, because those moments of, as you mentioned, osmosis between team members, between generations, sharing knowledge up and down your organization is incredibly important. And architects and interior designers and product designers will try and facilitate that at any point. And those are the moments that are really celebrated about place. I think we're simply just going to have to celebrate them and focus upon them even more, because as we take away some of the subsidiary things like focused work, Gerry mentioned just a little earlier that we're doing better types of work at home and focused individual isolated work being one of them. We really need to focus on a space that facilitates learning, facilitates that sort of transfer of knowledge. That's going to be really important, certainly for our young people. But let's not forget, we are pieces of meat. And so over the last 20 years or so, technology has allowed us, as a piece of meat to go from a battery hen to a free range chicken. We've sort of, as designers, as thinkers, we've been able to really focus our spaces on kind of facilitating people and connecting them, not just really dumb bits of wood or metal and furniture. And we just really need to continue that journey. I'm running with a little project at the moment called Data Driven Design, all about how we're going to be utilizing all these data points that we've been capturing in our spaces and then the algorithm’s going to throw out this wonderful new space for us to work in. We would need to be careful there, because we are those pieces of meat and we need to focus on the human and that osmosis that you've talked about. So it's something that we do need to center on. And as Gerry said, a real moment in time for us to pause, reflect, and hopefully get that right as we move forward.

CCB: [00:23:05] Back to Gerry, the nature of the positive, open, clean slate almost, that you have to think now about what might that workplace look like and how might it function? You're a brilliant thinker when it comes to lots of things and your ability to marry the humanity and the place is very demonstrated. And I'm wondering how you, what you are actually thinking? What are you thinking about today?

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:23:46] One thing that concerns me is the discussion we were having before we came online. I'm a boomer and to be honest, I've never been happier in my work since locked down. I have a lovely house in the country. I have a studio in London. And I've only been to London twice since March and it works fabulously for me. And I'm coming towards the end of my career. Flip that to me beginning my career and the whole point of being young and being effervescent is that you're firing on all cylinders and you want influence, influence, influence. And I want to see, I need to see, how do you do this? One fundamental thing we have to do as a generation, perhaps more in a position of control, we have to ensure that we yield new dynamics and new mechanisms for young people to come into the privileges that we all experienced when our career started. And I think that's something that we can't afford to get wrong. It's all very well for me to say, yes as a boomer, I love being removed three days a week and I'll come into the organization two days a week. If you're a young person, you're so hungry for being mentored, and observing and learning. So we're going to have to set up completely new systems within our organizations to allow that to happen. And the other issue is if you're absent, will I be thought of in the same way as someone who's in the office four days a week? So the way we share trust and openness, that dynamic is going to come under pressure in a new way for all assets within an organization. Because everyone, we have to set up new mechanisms so that everyone feels that they are a valued contributor to this team, to this part of the company. So how do we do that if we're only together short periods and maybe some people are remote? Fabulous as it is, and I'll go back to what I was saying earlier on, environmentally, we know we have to do this. We have to do this because this is a way of solving a big environmental problem. But it's going to require really new thinking and new ways of getting organizations to work. And all the presumptions, all the defaults that we had for how we achieve success, I think, is going to be rewritten.

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:26:33] There seems to be a new pressure on the workplace that there may now be more weight, more responsibility on that place for us, because as Gerry was mentioning, wellness and well-being, the office used to be seen as a culprit, as the Disney villain, if you like, of some of that stress and that strain. But I think now, due to people craving connecting and collaborating with their colleagues, it can be seen as a remedy. It can be seen as that Disney hero. A space in which we can design properly to be that remedy to wellness. And OK, part as designers, we can certainly help, but really it's organizations at least putting that on the table and discussing it with their teams internally. We can design all the products that we want. Architects can design the spaces. But it's really those organizations and those sort of property managers, estates managers to really see the value in that. That the workplace can play a huge role now in achieving the correct balance.

CCB: [00:27:51] Gentlemen, this has been a lovely, lovely conversation, which could go on forever and ever, but since we must draw it to a close, I'd love to ask both of you to, is there something that we haven't mentioned that you think is critically important that be heard, or any final bits of wisdom you'd like to share?

Nathan Hurley (Orangebox): [00:28:15] Well, one thing I would say currently, because you were sort of touching upon how may spaces start to shape up, and Gerry had a really good insight that we need that space because we're a little unsure, you know, we need some of that margin so that we can grow or flex or contract. And it gives us that great flexibility. One thing that I would say, I spent two years researching the world of higher education and our university campuses, and I would say, let's have a little look in those environments because they've been activity based learning for a lot longer than we've been activity based working. With the last financial crisis in 2008, lots of quantitative easing in lots of different industries, but not the world of higher education. So they stormed ahead in regards to their investment in space. And they did a wonderful job of creating all of these typologies and wonderful ways in which they can connect students. And maybe the workplace of the future is something that reflects some of those learning campuses. So maybe a little place we could look.

Gerry Taylor (Orangebox): [00:29:27] And I think for me, I think I'll go back to what I said. Let's not waste the gift that we've been given from this forced absence from the workplace so that when we come back into the workplace, it's going to change because if an organization needed this amount of property within the portfolio, that's changing. So change is going to happen. And my plea is we have to recognize this is a gift and we have to use this gift with intelligence and wisdom because it will evaporate really quickly if we don't, I think.

[00:30:08] Thank you very much, Gerry Taylor and Nathan Hurley from Orangebox, we've been privileged to have some time with you. There will be a transcript of this recording on our Web page. So in case you wanted a translation for either Mr. Taylor’s or Mr. Hurley's comments, you'll be able to read that. And this podcast is available on all the streaming services. We will look forward to what the world will bring, hopefully with the optimism and opportunity that our friends have shared with us today. Thank you and goodbye.