"You need to design office spaces for the next generation" says Haworth's head of research

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Haworth white papers: work is changing and workers are changing – so workplace design needs to change too to keep up. To kick off a series of articles in collaboration with Haworth, the office furniture giant's research head Michael O'Neill explains what the company is doing to help clients provide the ideal office (+ interview).

"Even 15 years ago, creating office spaces was a pretty straightforward kind of activity," O'Neill, Haworth's senior research strategist, told Dezeen.

"I don't really think work was simpler then, but the way people worked was much more straightforward."

O'Neill leads Haworth's Global Workplace Research department, which investigates how changes in technology, employee demographics and social norms might affect office design. The department then publishes its findings in a series of white papers.

Portrait of Michael O'Neill, head of workplace research for Haworth
Haworth senior research strategist Michael O'Neill

These documents are intended to help clients develop tailor-made office solutions in times of dramatic change.

"Now we need to consider the impact of mobile technology, employees' demand for choice over the type and location of their work, and especially the implications of culture on workplace design," said O'Neill.

Dezeen spoke to O'Neill to kick off our collaboration with Haworth, for which we will explore a number of issues that will affect office design in the future.

White paper research by Haworth
Haworth's Windowseat chair by Dutch designer Maaike Evers and American Mike Simonian is designed to wrap around the sitter and create a refuge in busy interiors

"Our strategy is to look at issues that are affecting our clients right now so that we can give them help with today's issues, but our responsibility is also to offer insights based on what may happen three to five years in the future," he said.



"Because the planning process for office spaces runs for several years, you could have a building that you're going to be in four years from now, so you need to have a sense about what's going on in those kind of time frames."

White paper research by Haworth
Haworth's Los Angeles office design showroom opened last year and helps demonstrate different types of layout using the company's products

O'Neill, 50, has been studying the relationship between office design and worker performance for over 25 years. He previously worked for companies including Herman Miller and Knoll, and was professor of Interior Design and Industrial Engineering at the University of Wisconsin.

His department has a network of researchers around the globe, who work on live projects with Haworth clients and analyse the potential impact of trends in hospitality and home design, consumer behaviour, well-being and technology on office design. This information is then fed back into Haworth's product design process.

White paper research by Haworth
The lounge area in Haworth's Los Angeles showroom showcases a variety of options for more collaborative and creative work environments

"In an earlier era, I was involved in product design for seating with a different company, and the whole emphasis was: how can we make a chair that will allow a person to sit for four or five hours at a time without getting up?" said O'Neill. "That's because then, workers were tethered to their technology, they had to sit in one place for long periods."

"We would never do that in today's world," he said. "It's just accepted that you not only will be getting up and moving around frequently, but you should be. It's a different philosophy."

White paper research by Haworth
Haworth's Workware Wireless Software 2.0 system allows multiple employees to use the same screens and systems to share information and communicate ideas within the office

The white papers O'Neill's team have published cover a wide range of topics including company culture, employee well-being and how technology will change the workplace.

The global research team's next task is to help designers understand how to create environments for multiple generations.

"Right now the dominant generation is Generation Y, the Millennials, and we're designing spaces for them," he said. "But if your time frame is several years out, you need to be designing spaces to accommodate the next generation and also have a more inclusive environment that supports the needs of all generations."

White paper research by Haworth
Patricia Urquiola designed the Openest furniture collection for Haworth, which aims to make employees feel more at home and relaxed in the office

Founded in 1948, Haworth specialises in products for creating flexible workspaces, manufacturing everything from movable walls to desk chairs. It is one of the world's biggest furniture companies, with more than 6,000 staff and 650 dealers worldwide.

In 2014, Haworth acquired the Poltrona Frau Group, which includes iconic Italian design brands like Capellini and Cassina, as well as Poltrona Frau's own luxury furniture business.

Haworth white papers is a series of articles produced in collaboration with Haworth exploring the brand's white paper reports into workplace design. Download them all here.

Read an edited transcript from our interview with Michael O'Neill:


Anna Winston: Why is research about the future of the office space important for Haworth?

Michael O'Neill: We want to be of value in addition to the furniture that we're offering, because of the complexity of space and the complexity of work today. Even 15 years ago, back in the past, creating office spaces was a pretty straightforward kind of activity. I don't really think work was simpler then, but the way people worked was much more straightforward.

Now we need to consider the impact of mobile technology, employees' demand for choice over the type and location of their work, and especially the implications of organisational culture on workplace design.

We want to be able to add useful advice to our conversations with customers in addition to the furniture that we're offering, to help our team increase the success of any office work space they implement.

It's a big industry, and at the 30,000-foot level you could say "well a chair is a chair, why am I buying from you? What else do you have to offer?" And we genuinely believe we do have more to offer.

Anna Winston: Do you have a whole department working on this?

Michael O'Neill: Yes, Global Workplace Research. we have a wonderful group of people. We are proud of the highly diverse professional and cultural background of our research team members, as it helps us bring a global perspective to our work.

Our strategy is to look at issues that are affecting our clients right now so that we can give them help with today's issues, but our responsibility is also to offer insights based on what may happen three to five years in the future.

Because the planning process for spaces runs for several years, you could have a building that you're going to be in four years from now, so you need to have a sense about what's going on in those kind of time frames.

Anna Winston: How do you decide what you're going to focus on with each white paper?

Michael O'Neill: Some of it comes from the input that we get form our research team scattered around the globe. Personally, I do a tremendous amount of reading, and a wide variety – everything form the Economist to Popular Mechanics – because we're trying to understand wider trends. We look at consumer trends, we look at hospitality trends, and technology trends – we try to look at what these might mean for work three years or five years in the future.

Anna Winston: When did you start doing this?

Michael O'Neill: Oh, gee. I've been in specifically this research business for 25 years. Work has changed a lot! And not surprisingly, technology has been such a huge driver in that.

In an earlier era, I was involved in product design for seating with a different company, and the whole emphasis was how can we make a chair that will allow a person to sit four or five hours at a time without getting up. That's because then, workers were tethered to their technology, they had to sit in one place for long periods.

We would never do that in today's world. It's just accepted that you not only will be getting up and moving around frequently, but you should be. Your wellbeing requires it. So it's a different philosophy of designing a task chair.

Today, we do a lot of direct research with clients in real time who are struggling to understand what they should be doing with their spaces. We're able to live through the experience with them, which I think makes us more credible in our own thinking. So we're not just sitting back in a laboratory somewhere, thinking about this stuff.

Anna Winston: How much does what you do feed into what Haworth's design department is doing?

Michael O'Neill: It's a very direct and significant link. We have a department called Advanced Product Development, and our work directly feeds into what we call the strategic input. We are a product company, but we're looking at these big broad issues so we can feed these in as very broad design criteria. When our design staff start to develop a product, whether it's a new seating product or a workstation, they can say ok, it has to support x, y or z on these issues. And then we also help with research as they develop their ideas.

Anna Winston: So essentially you're trying to create this circle of research, product, client, designer, and user, and everything feeds back into the research and back into the product?

Michael O'Neill: Yes. That's the ideal. It's not always perfect, but that's what we strive for.

Anna Winston: What are the big issues that people are asking you about right now?

Michael O'Neill: I can maybe put that a little bit differently. What we're really leading with right now in our discussions is this whole notions of Generation Z – the children who are in middle school or high school right now but will be entering the professional workforce at the end of the decade.

Right now the dominant generation is Generation Y, the Millennials. But if your time frame is several years out, you need to be designing spaces to accommodate the next generation and also have a more inclusive environment that supports the needs of all generations.

A concern I have is that I frequently see spaces that are becoming designed a little bit too narrowly for one generation. We need to include the Baby Boomers who will still be around, and Generation Z, but even going beyond that inclusiveness in terms of the transgender community or people that are wheelchair bound. We need to think about inclusiveness for everybody that's out there. That's going to be a really big long-term mission for us.

Anna Winston: Does Generation Z really need a wholly different office environment?

Michael O'Neill: I think they're going to. We're designing spaces for Generation Y that celebrate the notion of surprise and complexity and ambiguity for fun. But this new generation is being raised to value order, predictability and clarity, and they're also going to be highly distracted because of the nature of the way that they use technology. They're going to come right in to the high point of the Generation Y workplace, which is the opposite of what they need. It is really interesting, because most people just assume that this new generation will just be an extension of Generation Y, and it's not true.