As the world works

Editor's note: Brian Green is senior researcher/work environments lead, insight and exploration, at Herman Miller Inc., a Zeeland, Mich., workplace design firm.

Researchers all want to produce relevant results for their clients. It’s even better when they get to see the world along the way. As a senior researcher for Herman Miller Inc., I recently completed a project that logged thousands of frequent-flyer miles, taking me to the top of the London Eye, the steps of the Sydney Opera House, across the Hoover Dam and more.

By the time it was done, my ethnography-based research had touched four continents and involved interactions with over 10,000 people over the course of more than three-and-a-half months on the road. After over 730 hours of field research, over 3,000 pictures and almost 30 hours of participant-generated video footage, the study yielded a plethora of rich data.

Herman Miller is a 105-year-old global innovator in contemporary interior furnishings, systems and accessories designed to enhance people’s experience in the workplace, healing, learning and residential environments. We aim to create inspiring designs to help people do great things.

The company has a team of researchers as part of its insight and exploration team. This multidisciplinary group of researchers is part of Herman Miller’s product development team and conducts global research within each of its target markets. The group focuses on problems, has a culture that supports creativity and takes a broad look at emerging issues. Our explorations lead us down a variety of paths – some that are potential innovations in materials, some process, some in terms of the solution. Our passion is around innovation and this is what we strive for.

The ways people interact

The primary purpose of this internationally-inclusive study was to bring focus to physical and virtual work behaviors. Our team wanted to identify the ways people interact and how employers are supporting and fostering that behavior. What we learned would inform Herman Miller’s new product development and create knowledge that could be shared with customers.

There is nothing quite like seeing things in person. Two researchers – myself and a colleague – spent two days at 15 different corporate locations: seven in the United States, three in the United Kingdom, one in India and four in Australia. These companies represented a wide range of industries, a strategic decision we made rather than trying to dive deep into specific industries across the continents.

A complex approach

When our research team set up the study we determined that a successful project needed a complex approach, involving a variety of research methods. This would help us identify work behaviors in the office environment. Using mixed methods let us to hear directly from office workers, observe behaviors and obtain an understanding of why people do the things they do.


This was the cornerstone of the methodologies. We worked with the customer contacts to determine which departments in their buildings were best to observe. With this there is definitely some sample bias but it is quite intentional. We were looking for study participants who spend more time interacting with others as a function of their jobs. The observation tended to happen across a floor or two of an office building. This helped assure that one subset didn’t cloud the research findings.

We were often given a desk to sit at as a home base. From there, we spent our time watching employees’ interactions. While there was a risk that having us on-site might alter the employees’ behavior, this didn’t appear to get in the way. The employees’ interactions were between themselves; we weren’t really part of the office dynamic. In fact, most employees didn’t pay any attention to us.

Participant documentation

We asked employees to use an interaction log, which is a one-page form with check boxes, to chart the characteristics of interactions. We wanted an easy way to paint a picture of each interaction. It captured things like the number of people participating in the interaction, duration, space where it occurred, technology and tools that were used and the levels of privacy they had, both visual and acoustical.

A subsample of the participants, typically 10-15 over two days, was asked to complete the log. We didn’t want this to become a burden so each of these participants completed the log for only one of the two research days. The volume of completed logs intrigued us. In most cases, people were surprised how many logs and how many interactions they had in the course of a day.

The interaction logs were meant to be straightforward and easy to use. The process was seamless until we conducted research at a company that is almost entirely paperless. The employees each had laptops that they used for note-taking. I showed up with the paper-based interaction logs and was greeted with, “I don’t know where I am going to get a pen.” Note to self: Carry along extra pens when doing research at today’s progressive companies!

Online survey

The online survey was administered to all residents at the customer sites. Our survey gathered information similar to the interaction log. Employees were asked to think about one of their most recent interactions. They were then presented six different types of space and asked which typified where the interaction happened. The spaces were depicted with photography from their own spaces and a written description. Once they selected a space type they were asked about the characteristics of the interaction. The survey was customized for each research site with the company’s logo information and images from their company environment.

Focus groups

We gathered eight-to-10 employees for focus groups at each site to help us better understand what we were seeing. In most cases, the facility manager helped select the participants. The focus group was held on the second day of research, allowing us to gather our thoughts and look at the information coming in via the interaction logs and online survey. Each focus group was audiotaped. I led the focus groups while my second researcher took notes.

Participants in the focus groups were asked a variety of questions, some based on the research components, others from a moderator’s guide. We explored their most-favorite and least-favorite spaces. They talked about where they go to get heads-down, focused work done and where they go to interact. We asked where participants bump into others and have unplanned but meaningful conversation. We also discussed what tools and technologies were utilized in these spaces.

Video diaries

Day-in-the-life video diaries captured employee interactions. Employees were asked to find situations that might be insightful and in which they could tell us why they were doing things the way they did. We asked that they capture the environment around them when they were interacting. While these videos produced their share of bloopers, they also provided a wealth of information from the participants’ perspectives. The duration of the videos ranged from a few minutes to almost 90 minutes. It really varied by the participant.


We took many pictures at each site to document the types of areas and the interactions that took place within them. Photos were later categorized and tagged with descriptors using Google’s Picasa software program. This allowed for easy sorting of pictures based on the images’ visual content. The pictures, combined with the video diaries, helped demonstrate our research findings.

Utilization study

At the beginning of each site visit, we asked the company to provide floor plans of their spaces. These were used to chart interactions. Because we toured the space every half-hour, documenting where the interactions occurred, we were able to create a heat map of the space. This showed where interactions were happening and where they weren’t. This became great fodder for the focus groups. We also captured characteristics of the interactions, such as how many people, technology and work tools used and postures of the participants.

Challenges to overcome

There were a number of challenges to overcome for my research partners and me. The global nature of the project was a big one. Since I was the only common thread across all sites, the research was a slave to my travel schedule. The frequent-flyer miles were nice but traversing the globe takes time. The logistics also challenged our team to find company sites across multiple time zones.

Finding the right research site was a crucial part of the study. Companies were recruited by the Herman Miller sales force. The sales team was asked to find companies that have several cross-functional teams; are doing interesting things with their work environments; and have a strong real-estate team trying new things with their environments. These are typically companies taking a strategic approach to their facilities.

Finding candidates to partner in research is always a challenge. While we had only positive interactions with all the employees we observed and who participated in the study, at times it was difficult to make sure the data collection wasn’t too intrusive or disruptive to work flow. After all, employees are at work to get a job done. The companies were assured that we wouldn’t get in the way and we listed the steps we’d take to minimize disruption.

The multi-method approach we utilized provided for a lot of on-site management. We had to keep the participants engaged, particularly those doing the interaction logs and video diaries. Incentives ($5 Starbucks gift cards) were provided for people completing those two elements of the research while participants in the focus groups were given lunch or snacks.

A mountain of data

Having a plethora of methods is great for understanding but it leads to a mountain of data. This is a great thing for a researcher but it called for a rather complex series of analyses.

The pictures were sifted through and tagged with keywords using Google Picasa, which involves entering keywords into the program as descriptors of the visual content. The team did a cursory analysis of a couple hundred pictures to determine the appropriate tags. While this was labor-intensive, it allowed us to go back and sort the images based on the tags. A subset of the pictures were selected to create a collage of images on 4 x 8-foot foam-core boards. These helped provide some visual interest around the room during the presentation of results. Pictures are effective in connecting our audience with the research when we present the data.

The videos all had to be viewed, scrubbed of snippets that had audio or video trouble and then categorized with a process similar to that for the pictures. The videos provided us a powerful way to tell the participants’ stories. A video montage was pulled together from these clips as an introduction to the research. This montage showed all the company sites we visited and helped provide a bit of context when reviewing the research results.

The interaction logs and online surveys were combed through to provide a glimpse at how people interacted within the different space types. The descriptive statistics of the interactions essentially provided an anatomy of the interactions we saw. Higher-level statistics were completed to see if there were differences between different types of space and the geographies.

The focus group recordings, as well as all the notes we took, needed to be sorted through to extract the key learnings. We first analyzed the information based on the moderator’s discussion guide. Then we flagged interesting items that were outside of that guide and compiled those into a separate list. The focus groups were essential in helping us understand why people do things the way they do.

The utilization study provided plenty of useful information as well. Each floor plan was studied to determine where the hotspots of interaction were. These fed into the focus groups, where we could probe why one area might see increased interactions over another. We were also curious about travel patterns within the space.

Results were rich

With the wide variety of methods utilized in this study, the results were very rich. My research team was able to feel well-connected to the way people interacted across these companies. The following is a look into some of the findings.

As one might expect, the building, its interior layout and its furnishings play a huge role in how people interact in the work environment. Many of the company sites had elements of these which heavily influenced how people interacted within the space. Real-estate professionals cannot overlook the importance of holistic planning. These influences on space help to create the company’s culture and shape interaction.

The utilization study yielded one of the more interesting statistical nuggets. We observed and charted that 70 percent of the interactions took place around the individual offices. On one hand this makes sense, it is after all where the people work. On the other hand, this reinforces the notion that people don’t need formal conference rooms to interact with their colleagues.

Since the researchers determined that many interactions were happening around the individual offices, we wondered what drove people away from the desk space and into meeting spaces. Through the focus groups, we found that people go through an almost-unconscious checklist to determine if they should find a meeting space or stay in their individual space. When someone walks up to an individual’s desk, that individual considers the following:

  • How long is this going to take?
  • Do we need to have anyone else join us for the discussion?
  • Are there any tools (e.g., whiteboard, tack board, projector, teleconference phone, etc.) that we need for a successful outcome?
  • Is the topic we are discussing appropriate for those around us?

When people are driven to a meeting space, they avoid areas that don’t meet their needs. People know what works for them and what doesn’t. The primary drivers that determine where people go when an interaction needs to become more formal are:

  • Proximity – People typically won’t bypass areas that work in favor of a “cooler” space further away.
  • Availability – Is the place available for collaboration?
  • Technology – Does it have the right technology tools for the task at hand?
  • Lighting – Does the place have access to natural light? Is there adequate lighting?
  • Tools (e.g., whiteboard, tack board, etc.) – Does the collaboration space have the tools that will make the meeting productive?

People often forget the number of interactions they have during the course of the day. They underestimate the amount of time they spend interacting with people who have stopped by their desk for quick discussions. An anecdote from the research supporting this fact comes from the interaction logs. Many participants would tell us, “I am not a good candidate for these.” We’d ask them to participate anyway. These same people would end up completing 15-to-18 logs. The participants didn’t realize how often they interact with others during the course of a day.

Bring the research to life

The study offered a very rich, broad look at how people interact. We created a Flash-based presentation filled with images and video clips to help bring the research to life by allowing our audience to visually connect with the participants. Having a presentation that captured the human element was paramount.

In conversations with study participants, it became very clear that place was very important to them. The long-held view that the corporate environment is going away is in stark contrast to the value placed on the office by the participants. These people used words like increased efficiency, clarity of communication and better personal connection to describe what they value about the office. Even in the age of technology and telecommuting, face-to-face interactions are still held in high regard.