IDEO’s CEO, Sandy Speicher, Asks: What Is an Office Even For Now?

IDEO’s CEO, Sandy Speicher, Asks: What Is an Office Even For Now?

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Sandy Speicher is CEO of IDEO, the design-thinking consulting firm that helped revolutionize how the business world thinks about innovation. She discusses how companies can design future workplaces and work processes to thrive amid the disruptions of the past few years. We know that people need each other and that relationships matter, she says. And we know that there are many ways to build relationships,  in physical and virtual spaces. She asks how our spaces can become learning labs so companies can give employees a reason—not just a regulation—to come in.

For Sandy Speicher, CEO of IDEO, the current moment provides a rare opportunity to question the larger structures of how and where we collaborate, and to treat work as a learning lab.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Speicher, who took over the global design firm two years ago, in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • How design thinking can help us learn the most from our current workplace experiments
  • How moments of disequilibrium—where you are forced to question your mental models—can lead to progress
  • What the workspaces of the future might look and feel like (hint: it won’t be one-size-fits-all).

The offices of tomorrow may have more in common with a café or a classroom or a maker space, Speicher says. It’s all about giving people a “reason to come in rather than regulation to come in.”

“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.

ADI IGNATIUS: All right, so let’s let jump right in. I want to talk about design thinking, but maybe you can make sure everyone’s up to speed and give us the quick elevator pitch on what is design thinking?

SANDY SPEICHER: Sure. That’s actually a really great way to start because we’re probably going to use the word design and design thinking a lot in this conversation. A lot of people have a familiarity with design from the things around them in their lives. You can think of an interior designer or a fashion designer, or maybe of graphic designers or interaction designers. There are all different types of design and design crafts, but underneath them all, they have something in common about the way that they orient to the world.

Designers are orienting to create choices that shape our experiences and that actually shape our future. And designers do that with intentionality. So when we say design thinking, it’s a lot about the kind of methods and mindsets, the orientation of a designer. How do we bring the orientation of a designer to the questions that we’re asking? And those questions can be huge. We can apply that mode of thinking, that way of listening, that way of learning about other people and what other people are experiencing, the needs that they have.

Basically be empathic to the needs of other people in order to then imagine the kinds of experiences and environments that might exist around them. And like I say, that can go from a thing in your hand, all the way to the systems that we’re living in.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great introduction. So let’s talk about an environment that’s relevant for this show, and that is the office. I feel like we’ve gone through stages in terms of our thinking about what the physical office should look like in order to help us collaborate, help us innovate, help us build a culture. Forget hybrid for a second, but just in terms of the physical office, where are we in terms of how we ideally design physical workspaces?

SANDY SPEICHER: I think where we are is in a really great moment of design. Basically, there’s a lot of experimentation. There’s a lot of questions. People have remapped their relationship with work and we don’t quite know yet what that’s heading toward. And so right now there’s a lot of experimentation. People are trying out different policies around expectations for when people can be in the office.

I think that there are things that we do know. We do know that people need each other. We do know that relationships really matter. And we know that there are many, many ways to build relationships, and that can happen in physical spaces, that can happen in virtual spaces. Many leaders are starting to really think about how to optimize the office space for what’s most necessary. Everything doesn’t have to happen in the office.

So basically, there’s a lot of experiments going on around, what do we optimize around? Do we optimize around meaningful moments, the times where we feel we really need to be together? Of course that’s different for all different types of companies.

I’ll tell you one of the things that we’re starting to think about is, what can only uniquely be done in the physical spaces that we have? We’re doing a lot of work around food and beverage. One of our offices has a prototyping kitchen. We have machine shops. We have production areas where we’re making things. And those really are a way to optimize the space. So how can our spaces become even more of a learning lab for the areas that we’re focusing on, building classrooms, building, like I say, prototyping kitchens and other types of prototyping and build spaces? So we’re kind of looking at how to turn those into the center of our spaces so that there’s reason to come in rather than regulation to come in.

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ADI IGNATIUS: You’re talking about the office place. I think what you’re saying implicitly is the office isn’t necessarily conducive to working more efficiently. This is my view: that we’ve learned how to do that pretty effectively from home, many of us, white collar workers anyway, knowledge workers. So then the office is where we get together. Maybe the office is where we do culture, almost different from work. Is that what you’re thinking? That the office, it’s maybe not even a place for work as much as it is for interaction?

SANDY SPEICHER: Yeah, I guess what we see now is really about a question of intentionality and every business is different, which means that I think what we’re going to see is a lot more people designing what their agreements are for how they want to work together.

For sure what we’ve all realized is that there is work that we can do from all different types of environments. We can also build relationships in different platforms, whether that’s physical or virtual. I almost made up a word there combining them, but this year one of the things that we’re really looking at is not just what’s the future of work where there’s just one whole new way, but what are the many ways of working in the future? At IDEO we call this FWOW, the Future Ways of Working, because there are many, many different ways that we’ll be working. And so, the office space becomes one of the things that we can design for how we come together.

ADI IGNATIUS: I think you put your finger on what a lot of companies are doing and that is really experimenting. We don’t really know what we’re going to do in the future. I think most companies are saying, “Well, we’re going to try something and then see how it goes.” From your perspective, in terms of thinking about process, how do companies design the best hybrid work model to learn from this experimentation that’s going on?

SANDY SPEICHER: It’s such a good question because we risk right now in the pressure of urgency, coming to new answers quite quickly or thinking that we know what the best solution will be. When meanwhile, times are really changing and people’s needs are changing. So there is a lot of conversation out there about leaders and empathy and how the role of the leader is really to listen and listen deeply right now. Understand the needs of customers and also colleagues and use that information to understand how to design the systems around us, whether that’s the space or whether that’s our policies or whether that’s our agreements for how we collaborate.

And of course, what you just said there around the word experimentation, a good experiment is designed to teach us something. And so how are we setting up those experiments knowing what we’re looking to learn so that we can incorporate that and iterate on that over time? This actually really requires a whole new dynamic relationship across a workplace, and it’s quite exciting.

I think that as we see in the dynamics of the world today, everyone’s really asking for an evolved relationship with work. That kind of frame that you sort of have to be here 9:00 to 5:00, people are really questioning that relationship, understanding that they can still be really effective at their work, but have a lot more flexibility and agency in their days. So really, I think the major principle that should underlie all of the experiments that we’re doing right now is how does this allow people to have increased agency, and how do we create a system to incorporate the flexibility that people need as a result of that agency?

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah, I think agency is the number one issue. But it’s tricky because if you ask your workforce, they may ask for 100% agency, and by that they may mean, “I want to work from home 100% of the time.” What do you do with that data? Who should take charge?

SANDY SPEICHER: I do think that people have many different needs and many different experiences, and some people found a comfort and effectiveness working from home and some people are really missing being back in person together and some people are in between, really wanting flexibility. So as leaders, a lot of our job is to incorporate all of that information and understand how to design a shared system.

And maybe just to talk about that notion of a shared system, I think these last couple of years have really taught us a lot about our relationship with each other, our relationship with the world around us. We’ve been asked to change our ways of living in service of the collective, in service of our individual health and the collective health. And that really has caused quite an awakening where we recognize that we exist in an ecosystem and these relationships haven’t been that healthy.

And so now is a great opportunity for people to reflect on what kind of life they want to be living, and how do they want to spend their days? One of the things that we then have to do is get to new agreements about what it means to live together, to work together. How do we rebalance, for instance, our relationship with work? How do we rebalance our relationship with the planet? How do we rebalance some of the inequities in society? And all of this is coming up for people. And so of course, as we individually start to think about our needs, any system that we’re a part of, the people who are the stewards of that system, the leaders of that system, really need to listen to the aggregate of those individual needs and find solutions that work at the intersection of as much of that as possible.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s inspiring. Before COVID, several years ago you wrote an article that said the secret to creative success is disequilibrium. Can you explain what you mean by that?

SANDY SPEICHER: Oh, thanks for that question. You give me a chance to be a little bit nerdy here. Disequilibrium is one of my favorite terms, but I might go into teacher mode on it.

ADI IGNATIUS: It’s okay, our audience is highly sophisticated.

SANDY SPEICHER: And actually, it’s so relevant for today. Disequilibrium comes out of an educational theory, a constructivist learning theory. The basic idea is that all of your knowledge you have constructed, and what people do is they form mental models about the world around them. Like we were just talking about, “this is what the office is for,” “this is what the workplace is about,” or “this is my role in society.” These mental models we form through the experiences and information that we’re given. Well, a process of learning actually means that when we come to information that questions our mental model, that says, “Gosh, the way I understood the world isn’t quite lining up anymore,” we go into this phase of disequilibrium. We’re out of balance. Our information doesn’t align with the information in the world around us. And that phase of disequilibrium, we then use it to help us. We don’t like to be in disequilibrium.

So we seek to get to resolve. We need to relearn. We need to know again, revise our mental models. And we’re collectively as a society going through that process right now. A lot of the things that we understood to be true are evolving. And now this period of disequilibrium can feel really stressful because the mental models you operate on aren’t really working anymore. But this is where, if we take that discomfort and we stand in it and we get curious about it and we recognize that that discomfort is actually the thing that’s going to help us get to a new level of understanding, well, we can make really great things happen in that process. And so disequilibrium is this beautiful stage that shows you you’re in a mode of learning.

I’d offer to anybody listening to really embrace that stage and recognize how essential it is for learning and growth, and that it is a creative act. We actually have that capability in us to really bring creativity and redesign the way we understand and the way we create the world around us.

ADI IGNATIUS: So is your guess that COVID and our response to it has permanently changed how we collaborate and how we interact, or that we will eventually get back to something we were familiar with?

SANDY SPEICHER: I would say that it’s permanently changed something for us. I don’t think that necessarily means that what we’re doing right now is what we’re going to be doing forever, but I think what has permanently changed is this societal scale consciousness, this recognition of the larger systems that we live and work within. And really, I think that now business leaders and employees and everyone are asking questions about the role that business can play in helping the world be a better place. How do we rebalance a lot of the social injustices that we’ve become quite conscious of? How do we create a new relationship with the planet that’s not extractive, but generative? These are questions that leaders are starting to ask that employees are now demanding that leaders ask, and I think that this has been in us for a long time, the belief that the way we’re working isn’t quite working and these two years have really helped us see a lot of those dimensions and realize that we can change things.

And that’s happening at a pretty big scale. I think that we’re all designing our way toward that now. But I do think that some of our clients, for instance, are asking super interesting questions. We have some work we’re doing with multiple companies right now around, for instance, how do we increase the voice of the frontline worker in the decisions that are made about technology to support their work? Now, it’s really common that there’s a tech team that sits in the background of big companies and makes a lot of decisions for what tools workers should use. And it’s rare, actually, that frontline workers are seen as not just a customer in that, but a potential designer of that. But yet, they’re the ones that know the needs. And so how do we actually build our organizations to be that collaborative, to not have that much distance between the decisions that are being made and the people who have the real direct lived experience?

ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to go to a couple audience questions now, because we’re getting a lot of them and some of them are quite interesting. So this one might be out of your purview, but I’m going to try it anyways. This is from Vance who’s in Chicago who’s asking about the metaverse. We’ve been talking about designing systems, physical systems to improve how we do things and then there’s this parallel, virtual environment called the metaverse. So the question is how do you see the metaverse playing a role in the future of work?

SANDY SPEICHER: Hi, Vance, thanks for your question. And while it’s a very prescient question, I think this is one of the creative pathways we have for the future. I guess when I think about the metaverse, it feels like another environment for us to build a world, right? For us to build how we relate to each other, what rituals we run ourselves by, what agreements we run ourselves by. And actually, that to me is the same set of underpinnings that we need in the real world, right? That we need in our workplaces, that we need in our virtual work environments.

So this idea of world building feels like something for us to all become really aware of, not just to jump into another technology tool or another platform or another environment, but to really be thinking of what world are we building? We can all become very aware of that and very intentional about that and set what kinds of agreements we want to govern our relationships, what kind of work we can do here that we want to do here, how we make sure that we’re deepening relationships, not just transacting.

It feels like great questions will come up as we become more intentional about building worlds, whether that’s with a headset on or whether we drive into the office to create that world.

ADI IGNATIUS: So we’re getting a few questions that are about community, about culture, and I sense in these questions and in my own experience that the flexibility, the agency that we want to give people might clash with building a culture and sustaining a culture that’s truly meaningful. Here’s one from Jerry from Woburn, Massachusetts, asking how much culture do we lose in a remote or even hybrid environment? Mary Jo from Portland, Oregon, is asking how we increase the sense of community in the office?

There are a lot of questions about how we build back this culture. You started to talk about it, but I’d love to hear more because we’re all struggling with this right now and feeling that it’s a trade-off: agency is good, but you might lose culture or you have to reinvent what culture means in this new environment.

SANDY SPEICHER: Yeah. One thing that I don’t feel we’ve really come to yet is, what is culture in a virtual environment? We have a lot of tools that manage the way we interact with each other, but we don’t necessarily design that as culture. So that feels like a great opportunity.

I think these questions about culture are really important for us to hold. And I think that both for leaders and for everyone at work, we should be asking the question about how am I contributing to creating this culture?

I think about some of the things that we’ve done to hold culture alive when in-person became immediately unavailable. One of the things we did when we went into shelter-in-place across many of our IDEO offices is we thought about how do we bring everybody together in the ways we used to, right? So we used to be able to walk through our space and see the work that everyone was doing. So we ended up creating this event we called the Frenzy, which was four-days-long event, basically 24-hours-a-day rolling across multiple time zones, because we’re all around the world, where people were sharing content, where we had times where people came together, times where people could sign up for stuff. So people were sharing, teaching each other things through this content.

So we did a lot to really say, how are we still connected? How do we still maintain our culture even through this distributed format? And of course, as time has gone on, we’re are all a little exhausted by Zoom. We’re all a little bit tired of this environment. It’s actually quite hard to maintain the spirit of that culture.

So there are some things that we did for that. For instance, in our Tokyo office, they did something really beautiful where they recognized that even though we can’t be all in the office together, we could be individually. So they decided to create a group art installation where individuals made different art pieces, went into the office and installed them, and then people could sign up to come through the whole gallery and experience each other in a different type of distributed way.

I give these examples to basically say we have a lot of areas that we can manifest culture. I think the question really becomes how do we want to be together? And that’s something we should all be talking about and designing.

ADI IGNATIUS: My next question may relate to that. And you’d mentioned before we’re not just dealing with Covid, but there are also big societal issues that we’re wrestling with and we’re feeling we need to solve globally, but in the workplace as well. So in your mind, how can design, design thinking, process thinking contribute to progress in diversity and inclusion?

SANDY SPEICHER: Yeah, it’s really important that we build deeper methods here. I think that there are a lot of experts in this space, and I would not call myself an expert in this space, but I would call myself a deep learner about what it means to really deeply listen to and understand people’s experiences in order to create an environment where people feel safe and welcome and celebrated.

And so one of the ways that I do think a design orientation could help is to start with curiosity, understand what’s going on in your workplace. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to ask every person what their experience is individually. It shouldn’t be that individuals carry the weight of solving these problems. However, through our systems, what we could do is we can ask questions. We can understand more deeply.

For instance, one of the things we’ve done is created a culture survey that asks a lot of different elements about what people’s experiences are in our culture. And then we look to the qualitative input, the things that people are saying for those who are self-reporting as feeling most left out or most distant from what may be the central culture of the organization. And really understanding the root cause of some of those dissonances helps us better design the foundational systems that we’re all operating through.

So some of the things that we’ve been doing is really learning about the methods and mindsets of being inclusive and really looking at what foundational systems we need to recreate in order to build more clarity, to build more equal opportunity across our system.

These are kind of design approaches to asking that question, and how do we become a more inclusive environment, how do we bring equity into that environment? And it requires a lot of listening, a lot of curiosity, also a lot of learning, a lot of iterating, and also don’t be shy of bringing in experts who have the experience and view to help guide us through that process. Because these are difficult conversations to have and it really helps to have that facilitated, so that you can get to a deeper root of what people’s experiences are and the ways that we can come together.

ADI IGNATIUS: Another question that all companies have is the million-dollar question: how do you innovate? How do you perpetually create a sort of perpetual innovation machine in your company? And this is a question from James in Sydney who asked about the role of serendipity and randomness in innovation. I know as employers we talk about it being good to be together physically because there are these sparks, but does that really happen?

SANDY SPEICHER: I think it does really help. Serendipity really does help because through some of those interactions, you might learn something that you hadn’t known before, and it might help you connect a dot in your mind on a problem that you’re working on.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that being in the office is the only way to do that. I think the key for that is to be looking for inspiration, to be asking different types of questions, to be seeking outside of what your current experiences and knowledge are in order to help expand your mind with inspiration, which is the thing that helps us get to new ideas.

Recently, someone I work with was talking about this, that in meetings, what we’re often looking for is to find common ground. What’s the pieces that we all agree on so that we can move forward?

But what about seeking uncommon ground, right? That is part of our work as creative people, looking to find leaps, to imagine things to happen in new ways. We actually want to dig for what’s not common, what is uncommon across the group, so that we can find new answers in there and new ways to intersect those different perspectives and different lived experiences.

I’m right there with James around serendipity. I wouldn’t then say that means we should all require being in the office, but I will say, because I’ve been in the office recently and had informal conversations with people,  it’s sparked some pretty new ideas for me.

ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to change gears a little bit. This is a question from Gaurav from Houston: what have been some of your learnings from workplace design ideas that have failed?

SANDY SPEICHER: Workplace design ideas that have failed? Well…

ADI IGNATIUS: Must have been one, surely.

SANDY SPEICHER: There must be one. A lot of ideas that fail have to do with time. They’re a good idea at the time and then they become not. They don’t work as well after you try them for too long. I’m thinking about, for instance, some changes that we’ve had to make to a space that we’re renovating, and renovating during the pandemic. We built all these open environments so that everyone can be bouncing off of each other, and then of course we had to rethink the space to have a bit more room so that we’re not all on top of each other given just the health dynamics. But of course then once we’re in the rooms, we need to think about the technology that gets embedded in it because of all of the interactions.

And then we need to think about sound because we’re all bouncing off each other in these spaces, and especially when we’re using technology, our volume might end up being a bit different. And then there’s a learning that we had from one of our offices where, when we have people in rooms working, a lot of times, well, our doors were opaque, and even if there was a glass that people could see into, it meant that people didn’t feel as comfortable intruding, or it felt like you were intruding if you wanted to walk in or say hi to somebody. So a couple things in there, like how technology integrates, how we think about sound, but actually the solid doors, I think for our environment, didn’t work as well because it created a barrier to some of that informal connection.

ADI IGNATIUS: I’ll put you on the spot again, and this is impossible of course, but what’s your guess: What will the office of the future look like? Even 10 years from now, extrapolating what’s happening now and what we know about where technology is, how technology is developing, what do you imagine the workplace and how we interact will be like?

SANDY SPEICHER: I’m going to hold my pluralism here and say it’s workplaces. I do think we’re going to have many, many different environments that are designed to be fit for purpose and flexible. So that means that the workplace might look like this, what we’re doing right now. The workplace might look like offices that we’ve had before, and the workplace might look like what it looks like for us to move around with our laptop and be connected with each other when we need to be. And I think that those spaces will become platforms of real intention.

I think we’ll see that the shared spaces where we really need to come together will be prominent in the workplace of the future. Café’s, classrooms, the maker spaces like I mentioned. And so I think that we’re going to just see a whole lot of variety, and we’re going to talk a lot more about the rituals that we create in order to bring us together.

ADI IGNATIUS: Before we let you go, I’ve asked a lot of our guests more about innovation, and I guess my question is, tell us something about innovation that we don’t already know.

SANDY SPEICHER: I think innovation often gets synthesized pretty quickly to be this kind of always-playful, happens-really-fast, happens-in-the-spark-of-the-moment, process. And it’s true that there are times in an innovation journey that you come together that way, but you do that in order to really do the rigorous work of understanding the implications of what you’re imagining, of processing what you’ve really been hearing, understanding what that turns into. So I guess the thing I would say that most people aren’t talking about with innovation is that it’s actually a really rigorous process.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s great. So Sandy, I want to thank you for being with us. My producer sent me a note that we’ve probably had more audience questions for this show than we’ve had at any other. So people are really very interested in you and very interested in the topic. So thank you very much for being on The New World of Work.

SANDY SPEICHER: Oh, thank you. Thanks Adi. I really enjoyed chatting with you.

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