There Is No ‘Workplace of The Future,’ Says Knoll VP

By Lilly Milman |  December 8, 2020

“I am not an epidemiologist,” disclaims Tracy Wymer, VP of Workplace Strategy at design firm Knoll. Wymer’s background actually lies in industrial design, tech, and architecture. But, since the onset of the pandemic, Wymer’s role has required him learn public health and safety guidelines fast.

Headquartered in East Greenville, Pa.,  Knoll specializes in designing and manufacturing office systems, as well as workplace furniture and equipment. In his role, Wymer focuses on research, identifying new product directions, and working with clients. In 2020, he has helped the team pivot to meet new office needs created by COVID-19.  

In a recent interview with InnoLead Knoll postulates what a safe return to offices might look like and how his team approached this year’s remote reality. 

Tracy Wymer, Knoll

What Does a Safe Office Look Like?

“Early on, it was reactionary,” Wymer says of how companies responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in its earlier months. “It was, ‘We’ve got to create the plexiglass bubble’ or…’the shields to everything,’ without really giving credence to the science…” 

As COVID-19 spreads through aerosols, these earlier measures alone fail to create the office of the future (a term Wymer dislikes, as he believes “there is no workplace of the future, there is only change”). Companies must take much more than physical separation into account when it comes to protecting employees, like getting them to work safely on public transit or preventing office visitors from spreading the virus.

Some potential solutions take longer to implement than throwing up temporary cubicle walls or limiting travel between floors for employees, Wymer says. 

“Now, companies are taking more of a longer-term view and saying, ‘…How do we think about it more from a planning standpoint?'” Wymer says. But the worst thing a company can do is nothing. 

“The thing we’re suffering right now is corporate stasis…the fact that people aren’t doing anything. … [Company leaders are] looking at the economy…myopically for their business… We have to expand that view,” Wymer explains. “There are installers, there are manufacturers, there are janitorial [staff]. There’s a whole ecosystem of work that they could really help support by simply beginning to make some of these decisions.” 

The thing we’re suffering right now is corporate stasis.

Accelerating the Hybrid Workplace

Prior to 2020, Wymer and his colleagues had been heavily invested in researching what office life might look like in the next few years, but nothing pointed toward a fully remote world.

In a report published by Knoll about five years ago, representatives from companies like Ernst & Young, Microsoft, and eBay, espoused the benefits of what’s called the hybrid workplace. That included more collaboration on synchronous work, more random collisions due to less fixed offices and spaces, office design that emphasizes wellbeing, and hospitality at the forefront of the workplace.

According to Wymer this is still the case in many ways, but there’s been an acceleration of certain strategies — as well as certain pivots. For example, hospitality and the offering of amenities (which, in office spaces appeared as gyms or lounge areas) are still just as important, but now must focus on what a company can do for an employee in their own home. Companies must figure out how to offer amenities digitally, Wymer notes. 

“[There will] be five star amenities [offered to employees,] but they’re likely going to be more personable,” Wymer says. “[In the way that you are given] a personal shopping experience or personal engagement on an app or a webpage…translate that into the amenities that will be delivered in the office.”

One of Knoll’s recent innovations began when they acquired a company with a direct-to-consumer channel called Fully, which allowed them to start offering a “work from home” kit that delivers home office supplies directly to an employee’s home with one click. 

Wymer’s other predictions of what will change include an increased use of IoT and wearable devices to keep people connected to each other seamlessly, as well as smaller groups and meetings. 

There is no workplace of the future, there is only change.

“From a scalable planning perspective, [it will be important to] think about how people collaborate in small settings. It may not be about the grand boardroom that is encompassing 20 to 24 people, but it may be a series of spaces that are accommodating smaller groups. But they may be virtually connected, even if they’re in the same physical space,” he says. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

However, the work doesn’t end at giving everyone a device and working in smaller groups. It’s also vital to create equity in hybrid workspaces, Wymer says, especially when certain employees are staying home for safety or personal reasons while others are commuting into an office. And while some people adapted quickly to working from home, others still struggle to focus. 

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Wymer says.

Best practices for maintaining equity and connection are rooted in rituals for Wymer’s team. With the loss of personal rituals like picking up a pre-work coffee, listening to podcasts on a commute, or stopping by a coworker’s desk in the morning, it’s important to introduce new behaviors.

Furthermore, it’s just as important to keep these rituals alive once people do begin returning to the office. Wymer notes that a few aspirational workplace characteristics for his team are togetherness, sanctuary, and equity. People need a space where they can engage and feel heard — whether that’s in-person or online — and many need a place separate from their home as a sanctuary from any personal issues. And as far as equity — “we all occupy an equal square on the screen,” he says. So, companies must begin thinking about how this equity can be translated into the workplace as well, even if that means going through growing pains and even further digitizing. Constant change is to be expected.