Illustration by Nicolas Rapp

Not all open offices are collaborative.

By Clay Dillow and Andrew Nusca
June 10, 2016

Who better to tell us how we’ll work than the company that invented the cubicle? Ryan Anderson, director of product and portfolio strategy at Herman Miller mlhr , weighs in.

Fortune: Which factors in how we work today most affect the way you think we’ll work tomorrow?

Anderson: For a long time, probably 40 years, the office space became something that was increasingly generic. Part of that had to do with fixed technologies—PCs, fax machines, phones. It created this tremendous sense of predictability.

It’s really only been in the last five to seven years that Wi-Fi has become so ubiquitous that the office has had to compete with the entire urban landscape, with the condo patio, with the coffee shop. If someone is going to sink millions into a new office space, it better be able to compete with those places.

So we’re asking the question, In a world where you can work pretty much anywhere you want, what is the office best at?

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What is the office best at?

Why do you need a space at all? It has to support social activities. There will be a lot more choice and a lot more variety for almost anybody that will come into the space. The idea that you’ll do all your work in one little corner is something that probably needs to fade away.

If we stepped into an office or workspace not too far into the future, I think that we will find a rich variety of spaces within those environments that are very different from what we see today. What’s the conference room good for? Well, it’s not really good for anything specific. It’s just there for people to meet in.

So you’re going to see spaces become more specialized for specific types of behaviors or activities that people like to do when they’re together. It has to be about group co-creation, because people can do individual activities anywhere.

What stops companies from building the right office space for their employees?

Overly simplistic views of collaboration. More and more of our customers say, “Help us be more collaborative.” But it’s obvious they don’t know exactly what that means. Collaboration has a lot of asynchronous components to it. A project does not mean eight people in a conference room for three days straight.

There’s still this belief that “open office” equals “collaborative office.” That’s a crude understanding. Having a space to quietly use your laptop for two hours is part of the collaborative process. We have to get past these old stereotypes.

How else should a 21st-century corporation operate?
See how here.

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A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “In Focus: A Workspace for the 21st Century.”


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