Post-Pandemic Offices for a Fluid Workforce

Jeff DeGraff sees more spaces for creativity on the horizon

More than a decade ago, University of Michigan professor, author, and innovation expert Dr. Jeff DeGraff partnered with Haworth to build one of the country’s first innovation labs. Similar to WeWork, which provides shared workspaces for startups, the lab was designed so people could collaborate and create in a way they couldn’t back in their offices.

Sometimes an institution, through no fault of its own, can't get the kind of work it needs done. In order to do the creative work the company can't, employees may take their work off-site, coming together in a meeting “across the street,” DeGraff explained during Haworth Connect, a series that engages inspiring speakers on a range of topics.

“This is how Pixar was started, when it started coming up with all the great movies at that crappy restaurant, right? So, the notion is, sometimes you have to forgive the company, because it's never going to give you the green light,” he said. “Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands.”

DeGraff calls this "exhibiting self-authorizing behavior” and says the resulting innovation can be very energizing. Key to this approach is leaving room for the stuff you don't know now.

“This is the big thing about the transition we're going through. I'm getting so many calls these days. ‘What's going to happen next?’ The answer is, I don't know and neither do you,” DeGraff said, adding, “You have to be able to deal with the ambiguity that's part of a creative mindset.”

He predicts a much more fluid workforce and creativity clusters showing up in buildings, similar to the “aha” moments that WeWork was hosting. While innovative, WeWork was overvalued, he said, describing it as a commercial real estate company disguising itself as a workplace company.

DeGraff believes that the coronavirus pandemic, and people being essentially forced to work from home for weeks, will have an impact on commercial real estate. Organizations are starting to figure out that they don't need to have all of their employees in the same spot. But that doesn’t mean people are eager to work from home all of the time, either.

“You remember after Hurricane Hugo, we had record numbers in Florida of both divorces and children being born. Most of us are going to want to go to a place where we're energized by other people, and I think that's the future of commercial real estate,” DeGraff said. “You're going to start seeing places where people can drop in, and it's not just about ‘I'm not working at home,’ it’s more about ‘I'm actually getting some help from other people.’"

For more from Dr. DeGraff, including his thoughts on the way we’re working now, visit Haworth Connect to watch the video.

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“What's going to happen next? The answer is I don't know and neither do you. Could you imagine asking all your Facebook friends how to do a root canal? You don't know any more about virology than you know about a root canal. The notion is no one knows. Leave room for things that could happen. You have to be able to deal with the ambiguity that's part of a creative mindset.”

Dr. Jeff DeGraff
Ross School of Business Professor, University of Michigan

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