The Future of Work: What We know Now

The Future of Work

What we know now.
Everyone is talking about the future of work.
Let's talk about the opportunities.
Future of Work
The effects of the pandemic on knowledge work have put a spotlight on the commercial design industry more than ever. From mainstream to independent media, Twitter and TikTok, nearly everyone is talking about if and when people will return to the office. Many workers are in the driver's seat: Refusal to come back. Slow quitting. Actual quitting. This trend is brought on by the information revolution and accelerated by the pandemic.

As an industry focused on the workplace, we should have answers.

We try. Furniture companies claim to know about work, but most of their insights are about the hardware. As an industry, it could be we know less than we think about the true nature of work. One thing is for sure: the future of work will come from the changing reality of work. Starting with email, document sharing, SaaS platforms, and web calls, and now the emergence of chat agents, machine learning, and AI, more than ever, work may be less about furniture than we'd like. The industry has walked back some of our worker productivity claims of the 80s and 90s to focus on ergonomics, hospitality, wellness, and culture. That might be a good thing.

Surely we know work is about more than furniture. But it's not all software, either. Whatever Web3 Metaverse emerges in the next decade will impact how we communicate, entertain ourselves, and work. This larger digital transformation bundle will test our cultural norms. Zealots and Luddites will push the extremes, and the middle will shift toward what's most effective and economical.

There is no one way to be productive. Individual preferences, group behaviors, and cultural norms all have an impact. We are still determining how we will change based on what is available or will become socially acceptable. How we measure productivity is itself a mystery. You can measure widget production on an assembly line, but measuring the value of good ideas is a different story.

The future is hard to predict, but let's plainly state what we know. Even if changes make us uncomfortable or rock a familiar industry, we all know what’s true.

Let's explore the challenges – and opportunities.

People will work from home. Full stop.

Not everyone will work from home, and not all the time, but some will. It’s a permanent change. Some people have worked from home for years and wouldn't have it any other way. Many more started because of the pandemic and are not coming back. For some young people who began their careers remotely and have never even worked from an office, there's no going back.

Post-covid, we all know that technology enables remote work more than ever. We are still determining the impact. Some companies – mostly tech firms – have embraced remote work for years. They praise personal flexibility, talent reach, and uninterrupted asynchronous work. There has been a lot of good thinking here about saving time, money, and perhaps the planet.

Working from home is here to stay. As the economics kick in, it will be even harder to go back. This situation sounds like a disaster for an industry based on creating offices in city centers. However, it could be the most incredible opportunity for startups and leaders with a startup mentality.


Lean into the future
How might you capitalize on this new trend? First, we must accept reality and lean into the future. There have been times the commercial design industry has adopted and forged new territory. Now is one of those times. Change is disruptive and uncomfortable, but we have advantages that others don't. Without your asking, the pieces on the chessboard have changed position. It's your move.

Hybrid dreams?

There has been much talk about hybrid work by commercial interior providers. Some competitors have adopted the hybrid message so completely that it feels like an overcorrection and an excuse to keep selling at least some furniture for an office.

Workers might favor hybrid work plans, but Yelp CEO and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman isn't a fan. He called the oft-suggested compromise between fully remote and in-person work “the hell of half measures” in a 2022 interview with the Washington Post. Although he recognized that workers enjoy the flexibility that hybrid policies offer, Stoppelman insisted that hybrid work was “the worst of both worlds” and “the worst of three options.”

Working from home 2-3 days per week sounds perfect as a non-investor, but physical offices have a hard-cost reality. Through the shared economy lens, a traditional office is bad enough already: A 24/7 facility has 168 available hours – a 40-hour work week is already using the place less than 25% of the time. Cut that to 3 days a week, less than 15%. Even if you don't look at this through the lens of economics, the sustainability of heating and cooling an underutilized facility is ludicrous.

We are still at the beginning of the sharing economy. Communications technology and the supercomputers in our pockets we call a phone have reorganized entire industries. Consider that Uber and Airbnb rearranged how their markets work without fundamentally new technology. How might the commercial design industry look if reinvented through a shared economy lens?

To its credit, Steelcase identified this opportunity years ago, launching WorkSpring, a shared workspace concept launched a year before WeWork. The effort may have failed because there was likely pressure to have all the products made by the mother ship – a focus on hardware over experience. The same may have been true for Herman Miller, who might've launched a DWR-style retail brand when it reintroduced its classics in the early 1990s. It didn't, mainly because of its focus on selling its products instead selling modernism as a whole – only to acquire DWR years later. Each may be a victim of the Innovator's Dilemma, how market leaders can't get out of their own way to reinvent the future.


Create shared economy solutions
WeWork has become a punchline, but shared solutions have a future. New economics based on availability and sustainability will enable different ways of working and living. Shared hybrid solutions may be like WeWork or a combination of partner companies. Office malls with shared services. Working every other day or in shifts. Whether it comes from real estate, hotels, or furniture companies, there will be great opportunities in flexible and shared spaces.

People will work at coffee shops, restaurants, airports, hotels, Uber rides, malls, and Disneyland.

Technology enables knowledge work to be more portable, permeable, and asynchronous. For many, it's more of a work-life blur than a balance. There is rightful pushback. Drawing healthy lines between commercial and personal time makes sense. No one really wants to be scanning emails at your kid's soccer game or the opera. Proactive time management, mindfulness apps, and time-limit software will help. But we're going to carry only one phone. The devices that keep you connected with the office are also playing music and finding dates.

Some work will be nomadic. We need new, better third places. Flex spaces. It's partly what helped Starbucks grow and what WeWork had right. Hotels recognize this opportunity with existing voluminous spaces in good locations that can be put to better use. For enterprising furniture companies that support workstyles, there are new trajectories.


Support In-Between Work
There need to be better options for various types of meetings at different places and times of the day. Work will happen everywhere – in cafés, airports, on a bus, a park, theaters, living rooms, malls, hospitals, walking trails, and campsites. What products can support this kind of work? Who are the competitors and market alternatives? Who are the buyers, and how can you reach them?

People will work in offices.

Remote work is here to stay, but not everyone will love it. People want to get together. A sense of management oversight or theories about productivity and collaboration drive the discussion. Or a need to get out of the house.

A century-old industrial habit of being in the office 9-5 is hard to break. Some company leaders will mandate the “good old days” with mixed reactions from next-generation staff. To a degree, pushing back on remote work can succeed, but rigid policies may not age well.

How people resolve their approach to physical offices may divide companies with differing philosophies. While the Mad Men days are over, some younger people may long for a “retro” office lifestyle when working from home is the norm. A deliberate choice for in-person teamwork may emerge as a competitive differentiator for attracting customers and talent.

What will in-person work need to be going forward? There is not likely a one-size-fits-all approach to effective workplaces. Can workplace companies help their clients truly navigate these changes?


Deepen Workplace Strategy
How might furniture companies diagnose customer needs and prescribe the right product mix? How do these decisions reflect the brand, culture, and purpose? Can you grow to make recommendations that don't involve buying your products? For many manufacturing companies, services sound complicated and less profitable than selling widgets. Remember that before we started paying for so many monthly subscriptions, we used to pay for software products in a box.

The case for same-time, same-place

What is really better done in person? Can you have a “handshake” deal over email? Can you look someone “in the eye” on a web call? Is it okay to “phone” it in? To get to the bottom of this, you'll need to confront old paradigms about why in-person is better than other means. Many people – including office furniture companies – argue that some work requires being in the same place. The sentiment is that face-to-face collaboration is better than other kinds. It is undoubtedly the historical pattern, but you'll likely need better insights to understand what comes next.

There will be pressure to define which categories of work require acute face-to-face interactions. Like individual productivity, there is not likely a one-size-fits approach to effective collaboration.

Remote work champions argue that not only can work be done from home, but it's often worse in person. They say that the cost of distraction is higher than the value of proximity. This perspective may feel extreme, but many companies make this work with excellent results.

Humans are social creatures. Seeing each other in person, if only on occasion, is a minimum requirement for building teams and cultural alignment. Even WFH zealots agree that in-person meetups are critical for maintaining personal relationships. Beyond relating to our co-workers on a human level, we often meet friends and significant others at the office. On the other hand, socializing at work has been a primary source of awkwardness and humor. Who looks forward to the office party? Some distance may be beneficial in the wake of Me Too and unconscious bias in recruiting.

There is a strong argument for same-time, same-place work. Thought leaders will surface compelling evidence that doesn’t sound like selling furniture.


Make a Case for Place
As an industry, we need to create the argument why same time, same place work is still necessary. What does science tell us about what really has to be done in person? Office environment providers are biased on this topic, but drawing clear lines backed by substantive research can help make a case for an evolved office strategy.

Offices need to be smaller, nicer, and closer.

Money will go into technology and elsewhere. Ergonomics aside, it's hard to argue that knowledge work is more about your chair or desk than your laptop or software. Offices won't go away, but the pressure to decrease real estate investments will continue.

A central office must be nicer to attract people to visit. After all, you compete with other attractive environments – actual coffee shops, restaurants, bars, hotel lobbies, and parks, not to mention homes. Many companies are happily gearing up for this, seeing an overall cost reduction. Furniture competitors with high-design, higher-priced products are looking to capitalize with fewer products but higher margins. But not all customers will be able or want to invest in fancy lobbies and collaborative spaces, opening the door for more economical alternatives.

Not all offices have to be central. A few smaller offices closer to where people live will appeal to workers who have become allergic to long commutes. Hospitals evolved to bring care closer to people, lower infection rates, and reserve central hospitals for the most acute care. Likewise, offices will have to come closer to people with less friction and reserve the main central office for the most concentrated work. Office parks are nothing new, but in the past, they were too often poorly designed and far from services. High-quality satellite offices will emerge with good walkability, coffee, and lunch spots.


Create Office Destinations
Offices need to be desirable places to visit. What price/value mix of products targets these kinds of environments? What will feel like higher quality? What will work in a tighter space? Companies will decrease their office square footage in favor of higher-quality environments in good locations. How might commercial design providers partner with or bundle real estate offerings to help find good locations? How will an office destination contribute to an emerging satellite neighborhood?

Beyond the backpack

Most remote work only applies if your work fits in your backpack. People who work with their hands or other equipment don't have a choice about working from home. The borderless war for talent only applies to the laptop crowd. Some companies will have different policies based on role, which makes sense, but risks creating an us-vs-them dynamic. It may seem unfair if some people can work from home but others can’t. Other companies have forced in-person work out of a sense of fairness between white and blue collars.

On the other hand, new technology is creeping into all walks of life. There are laptops on construction sites, tablets in restaurant kitchens, and mobile devices in every pocket. How might commercial design providers promote what we've learned about ergonomics and wellness? What is an ergonomic chair for a factory worker? Do serving stations need adjustable-height tables?

Our complex world requires specialists. For example, it's hard to believe you're a part-time healthcare specialist when it's one-sixth of the U.S. economy. People expect to find exactly what they need in a world shaped by Google and Amazon. Customers, armed with ever more information and choices, have leverage. That'll seek out the highest ratings and the best deals. Being a generalist may not work in an increasing niche economy.


New Workplace Targets
Go deeper and specialize. Circumstances vary in each market: Healthcare, education, hospitality, retail, and industrial work all look different. The user needs are different. The market dynamics are different. Specialists can thrive if they aim to own a category, rise to meet the deeper unmet market needs, and develop solutions that generalists can't identify and won't pursue.

From B2B2C and back again

It's not news to anyone in the industry that the line between B2B and B2C has gotten blurry. Majors with resources and startups with a sharp focus are moving quickly to capture the opportunity. In the wake of a home office revolution, workers are buying chairs and desks from small players well positioned for selling direct but not yet on BIFMA’s radar.

The commercial industry has some disadvantages. Smart, nimble startups focused on consumers will focus on building brand loyalty. Manufacturing-based B2B organizations are unfamiliar with reaching, appealing to, and converting direct customers. B2B providers are more familiar with discount and SPIFF strategies than loyalty programs and holiday sales. Your mature selling organizations and supply chains exist for a reason; disrupting historical patterns is hard work.

But the industry also has advantages. For example, remote workers are just starting to have known issues like carpel tunnel and are googling to find solutions. More than ever, you have a wave of people who are used to sitting in ergonomically perfected workstations that they took for granted. Now they may appreciate the difference and are willing to spend thousands of dollars on their home office. It's no longer a hobby home office; it's their professional work office.


Get to End-user Customers
There is much potential in selling home office furniture to people who need it. As with any gold rush, there will be many new competitors, winners, and losers. The macro trend will be a shift in priorities, buying patterns, and investments. Some companies cannot make sudden moves or do everything at once. All market players will ignore this trend at their risk. There is more than one way forward, but get focused – and don't get caught flat-footed.
What is an office?

What is an office?

In times like these, we may ask ourselves more fundamental questions about work and offices. What is the office for, anyway? Where did it come from, and where is it going? These questions may sound scary, but the commercial design industry has weathered other transitions and thrived.

Looking back, we might reflect on the key innovations which drove the industry forward. There have been many great ideas and business decisions, but there have been perhaps two primary innovations before the current era: Systems furniture and ergonomic seating. The trajectory sparked by technology and knowledge work and accelerated by the pandemic has changed the space equation. The question is: What comes next?

1960s - Systems furniture
1980s - Ergonomic seating
2000s - (Digital disruption?)

This industry created and contributed to the development of facilities management as a practice, ergonomics as we know it, and the LEED standard. New themes will arise as “office” becomes more of a verb and work is more distributed. Sustainability has new meaning in the wake of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), climate change, stakeholder capitalism, and global economic upheaval. Knowledge workers with greater agency will seek organizations with a clear purpose that aligns with their priorities.

Can furniture companies help clients with these new challenges? It may sound far-fetched, but IDEO was an industrial design company before becoming a global consultancy competing with Accenture and McKinsey. Apple only sold computers, and Amazon only sold books. A hundred years ago, furniture companies weren't thinking about ergonomics, sustainability, or wellness, but they adapted to address the customer's problem.


Meaningfully Engage Stakeholders
Many leaders feel increasingly compelled to articulate their purpose beyond the traditional bottom line. All organizations can benefit from a sharper focus on customers, employees, and other stakeholders and align their actions accordingly. Meaningful engagement will be an important part of the recipe. How might commercial design companies help clients meaningfully engage stakeholders?

Reinvention and rebirth

The pendulum dramatically swung from in-person to remote work during the pandemic. For some, it's already returned to its original position. Nostalgia and a desire to return to normal are powerful urges, but even more potent forces – economic, cultural, and human capital – will find a new center.

The challenge and opportunity for the commercial design industry is to be decisive and pivot quickly. Wherever people work, live, learn, and play, people will need a place to sit, lean, focus, socialize, and collaborate. Tables and chairs aren't going away. People may use even more furniture, but less will be in traditional offices, bought in the traditional way. It'll be at home and elsewhere. Mature industries rely on momentum, but every business is built on an unmet need. New solutions will cater to people's needs – what they are doing, what they prefer, and what they are trying to achieve.
Here are a few themes to consider:

💡 Lean into the future
💡 Create shared economy solutions
💡 Support interstitial work
💡 Deepen workplace strategy
💡 Make a case for place
💡 Create office destinations
💡 Find new workplace targets
💡 Get to end-user customers
💡 Meaningfully engage stakeholders

Are you ready to embrace this new future? We all know the market landscape is shifting. We know the built environment and its effects on people – purpose, wellness, and culture. Does your offer reflect the needs of today? Does your brand anticipate the needs of tomorrow?

It's your turn to envision a future that meets the moment.

Ways to get started