By Rob Kirkbride
The future of how people will work in the post-pandemic world remains one of the hottest topics, and not only for the industry. Workplace design, office occupancy, productivity, and space utilization are issues being debated in the board room and on Main Street. For the first time, how, where and when we work are being broadly discussed.
And Tangram Interiors, one of the world’s largest and most respected office furniture dealers, is on the front line of all these changes. The office furniture dealer is where design and manufacturing converge; where the designer’s vision is literally laid out on the floor of an office building to meet the objectives of the client.
officeinsight sat down with Joe Lozowski, president and chief executive officer of Tangram Interiors, to get beyond the hyperbole and get at what is really driving office design as the world argues over how much time should be spent in the office and how the space should best be used. Lozowski has a unique perspective. His company creates offices in two of the most dynamic markets in the country — Los Angeles and Dallas — and he is also an employer facing the same struggles and asking the same questions as his customers. Tangram Interiors is a Steelcase-aligned dealer, though it works with more than 1,000 manufacturing partners. It has more than 400 full-time employees and sales of more than $250 million. It has five offices in Southern California and a new office in Dallas.
OI: “I’m intrigued by your thoughts on return to work. There’s been so much discussion about this topic and I wanted to get your feelings on where we are at with this discussion and what you’re really seeing out there. It seems like different studies come out every day about whether hybrid is better or working from the office is better. What are you seeing?
Lozowski: “Well, first of all, it varies by region, it varies by company, it varies by leadership. I’ve struggled with our own company. We operate in Southern California and in Dallas. In southern California, it’s been much more of a struggle to get people to come back to the office. As you might imagine, we have great offices. It’s our business. And so it’s not like we don’t have an attractive office to come back to. I also think we have a very strong culture, but when you’re [struggling over], ‘Do I want to commute, pay 5 bucks for a gallon of gas and not have to put on clothes instead of my pajamas, there’s still some draw for people to work from home.
“Just talking about Tangram for the time being, I was very concerned about fracturing the company’s culture. Because what makes a company strong? I know it’s cliche. People write about culture all the time, but I actually believe it to be true. And I was really worried that people were going to lose all the culture that we had generated in goodwill and relationships and all those sorts of things that we’ve worked for years to generate.
“After Covid was deemed over, I basically said, ‘I would like you to come back to the office.’ And then I said, ‘I’d like you to come back to the office three days a week.’ And then we just recently had a policy change where we expect you in the office three days a week. So it is been a progression.”
OI: “How did you actually do it?”
Lozowski: In Texas, many more people are working back in the office, so we didn’t have that issue at all. We never really closed the office the same way we would have in California, and people want to be back in the office. As a matter of fact, we were working out of a temporary space while we were building a new showroom. And if you didn’t get there by 8 a.m. in the morning, you couldn’t find a desk, which is good.
“There are a couple of answers I have for people when they ask about (return to the workplace) but the one that’s usually never spoken about is that you have to give people an office that they want to come back to, and that’s physical and cultural. What’s ironic about the whole situation is that every time we would have an event or I’d say, ‘I want everybody in the office today,’ everybody shows up. And then at the end of the day they go, ‘Wow, this was great. I’m so glad I was here.’ And so that’s my point: There is going to be a little bit of push and a little bit of pull. You have to do both as a leader, because I don’t think by just making it 100% voluntary (return to the office) you’re going to get the sort of cooperation that people are looking for. That’s my opinion.”
OI: “I recently visited a new office that has space for about 120. The day I visited this beautiful new space, there were about six people in the entire office. The company has a policy where going into the office is 100% voluntary — there is no expectation for anyone to come in. I can’t imagine that is a sustainable real estate solution. When you are talking to customers, what kind of questions are they asking about return to the office? Have they sorted all this out or are they still in limbo? Or does it depend on where they are physically located in the country?”
Lozowski: “It’s a mixture of all of the above. I think it’s a leadership issue more than anything. It’s an expectation more than anything. I’ve been doing this a long time and for the first time, CEOs are actually engaged in how the office is going to look and how it’s going to function. The one thing that I think almost everybody has in common is that the CEOs want their people back in the office. The vast majority of people are figuring out that if they are going to innovate, they need to be together. If you can’t innovate without iterating, and in order to iterate, you need to be together and you need to have a relationship, and you need to have trust and a bond with the people that you’re sitting next to.”
“So they care about those conversations, and for the first time ever, we’ve had more and more conversations with CEOs about this, and I tell them the same thing I just said to you, ‘You’re going to have to do a little bit of pushing back.’ Sometimes if I’m being candid, I was worried about it too. I didn’t want my own people to think I was just being a bully. It’s not my style. But when I realized this is not good for the company, I realized I had to do this because I had to get people back into the office. And now people are coming in, they want to be here and they see it’s better. The old adage of ‘Earn the Commute’ has to start with, ‘Okay, well I’m going to push you to the commute first and then I’ll earn it after the fact.’ So that’s what I’m seeing.”
OI: “Are you at all surprised at how the industry is responding to this? It seems to me like the last 15 years, the industry has been telling its customers that the best place to be is in the office. Collaboration is key. All these buzzwords about getting people together in the office. And it seems like at least some manufacturers seem to be like, ‘Do what you want. Hybrid is good. Work from home’s good. Whatever you want is good. Are you surprised at that reaction from many in the industry to embrace this different style of work after telling them for years that the best place they can be is a place that we design?”
Lozowski: “Well, the office right before Covid was extremely dense. I can remember we would talk about how many people could fit into this space. And the height adjustable desks got smaller and smaller and smaller and stacked and stacked and the lack of privacy [got bad] and you could smell somebody’s breath they were sitting so close to you. I think that was rejected by a lot of people. And so when Covid came, everyone went to the exact opposite, more privacy and more alone time so you can concentrate. But I think that reality went too far in the other direction. And if you go into any updated office since Covid, it’s a little more spread out. There’s a little more collaboration space. There are more phone booths and smaller conference rooms. So the balance is between what it was pre-Covid and what you had in your home living room, which was complete isolation.”
OI: “How do you balance meeting accessibility between those in the office and those working remotely?”
Lozowski: “The vast majority of meetings you have today in an office are still going to have people on Zoom. It might be three people in a room, but there’s going to be person four and five on some sort of digital meeting place. What I’m trying to tell people is that it has to be a mix of privacy, collaboration and concentration spaces and hybrid spaces and the intermix of digital and physical space.”
OI: “Where do you see the future of the office headed? Do you feel like we’ve reached a place that’s stable or is it still in flux?”
Lozowski: “I think it’s moving more and more back to the office. I think everybody’s going through a natural progression of letting people do what they want to do and avoiding the dictate of being 100% back in the office. You’re hearing two days a week, three days a week. Some are four days a week. Very few people are at five days a week as a mandate. But I honestly think it’s going to be a three, four workday week permanently for everybody. That’s my opinion at this point. It looks that way to me.”
OI: “Do you feel like you have the right products for your customers that will help them achieve their workplace goals — whether it be work from home, hybrid or full-time in the office? Does the industry have the right tools to help them solve for changes in the workplace?”
Lozowski: “No, I don’t. And I think the biggest hole that’s missing is equity for the digital participant. If you have three people in a room and then two people on the screen, how do you sit elbow to elbow and make notes or use a whiteboard and do those sort of things? You can’t have those sort of meetings and have them be as productive as having five people in a room. There’s collaboration going on there that you can’t get by digital. I do think it’s improving. I think about when we do our own offices, we used to have maybe a couple of conference rooms and now it’s like six or seven smaller conference rooms, a couple of phone booths and open collaboration areas. So I think the more people get attuned to those sort of spaces, the better it is. I think the planning is getting better, but the company that can figure out how to make the digital person who’s not in the room feel as equitable as the rest of the people in the meeting, that’s going to be the winner. Microsoft and the rest of them haven’t figured that out yet.”
OI: “What should designers understand about workplace design going forward?”
Lozowski: “I think there are a lot of success stories out there, and I do think it’s trending in the right direction; moving back to the office is trending in that direction. If your readers were to look at the companies that have done it well and model after them, I think there’s a good opportunity. We’re getting a lot more traffic in our showrooms, and I try to tell our clients that we’ll show you what the model hybrid workplace will look like, but you’ve got to invest the time to come see it. If you are getting people to come back to the office only by mandating it, but you send them back to the old office, it is not going to be as attractive. [The office] should embody all the things that you had at home, plus give you all the technology and all the collaboration areas that you didn’t have before you left for COVID.”