Insights with Jack Wang of the concept behind Collaborating Naturally

Reflecting Herman Miller’s belief in better spaces creating happier, more productive workplaces, Sabha Collaborative Seating provides a place for teams to come together and collaborate. We speak to Jack Wang to find out more on the design concept for Sabha.

In Hindi, Sabha means ‘gathering’. Aptly chosen, the term reflects the driving force behind the eponymous new collaborative soft seating , which uses a flexible modular system to bring teams together. The chic soft seating system responds sensitively to today’s workplaces, which are more collaborative, creative, and flexible than ever before and are constantly in flux.

When designing Sabha, Head of Design and Development at Herman Miller Asia, Jack Wang, took a nuanced approach to today’s connectivity-driven workplaces. Instead of merely facilitating connectivity and agile work behaviours, Jack took a closer look at why these behaviours came about and how they can be improved on. His approach led him to identify a hunger in the workplace for more traditional forms of interaction as counterpoints to all the screen time at the core of contemporary offices. “Ironically,” says Jack, “When I read other research, the more advanced technology is, people seem to claw more back to the original core – why humans are here, what the core ideas are.” In response, Sabha seeks to peel the way we communicate in the workplace back to its basics and turn us away from our screens and toward one another – even if it is for only part of the working day.

With its clean, contemporary design lines and streamlined form, Sabha is a subtle and timeless addition to any office. A lightweight, four-legged timber frame forms a stable under structure for soft seating components, which can be configured as a bench, single seater, or lounge with a high or low back. Cleverly concealed clamps hold the components together, and can be easily tightened or loosened to accommodate change. Standing and seated spaces transition smoothly into one another, and simply rearranging the modules and add-ons can transform a team workspace into an intimate space for one-on-one conversations.

Whatever the configuration, Sabha is complemented by highly functional add-on components including ottomans, coffee tables, and stools. Ideal for the plugged-in workplace, power sockets and storage solutions can be integrated into the body of the lounge, as can sensor-enabled touch and floor lamps. Designers can choose from a range of finishes for the wood case body, and add-on components can be specified in many wood veneer and laminates or metal finishes. Upholstery is also available in a dazzling wheel of colours and textiles, allowing designers to easily incorporate branding elements and company colours.

Truly adaptable, Sabha is well positioned to accommodate not only the needs of today, but also those of tomorrow. Sabha’s modular components are lightweight and can be endlessly reconfigured, giving designers full flexibility to realise their creative vision. Its low profile and open platform provide a space not just for collaboration but also for retuning social skills and so-called ‘soft skills’: the sinuous form of a string of curved Sabha modules or the cluster of a group of straight ones is designed to repark a desire to communicate with peers on a face-to-face basis.

Curiously, in tandem with this closer than ever relationship with technology comes a renaissance in face-to-face communication. Today’s workforce is not only younger and more digitally-oriented than its predecessors, but it’s also more likely to prioritise team work and collaboration: according to a 2014 study by PwC, team collaboration and greater flexibility are amongst the chief values of a millennial workforce.

Against this backdrop, designers must work toward creating workplaces that facilitate both technology use and in-person collaboration. Achieving this fine balance is something with which Jack Wang has grappled for many years. Following the Singapore, Beijing, Hong Kong and Delhi launches of Sabha, we sat down with Jack to hear his thoughts on evolving workplace culture and the growing role of design in the commercial space.

What difficulties do people typically face in terms of collaborating at work?

I feel it’s largely to do with people’s characteristics. It’s an obligation for an organisation – if they want to be prosperous in the long run, collaboration is inevitable. In general, there need to be leadership and teambuilding programs to engage people emotionally. What we provide is hardware in the space, physically engaging people in different ways. We don’t think it’s a single answer. Not one party can make a change: it relies on all parties.

Many people don’t understand why collaboration is important. The physical environment has changed, and technology has changed – we need to encourage people to meet and talk.

We feel that the technology here affects the behaviour. We don’t even know the conclusion yet… but we see that things are changing. We think it’s the right moment to address that.

What are the different stages of workplace design that you’ve observed in different countries around APAC?

Most of the A&D firms we work with really encourage their clients to embrace these kinds of settings. But we have to face the truth. Some clients are very traditional: they’re still using very enclosed panel-based systems. So we’re trying to understand how we plug in some elements to soften it. It’s really a collaboration, because A&D are trying to understand what our customers need. They don’t know their needs, but we’re trying to direct them in the right direction.

Herman Miller’s White Paper ‘What it Takes to Collaborate’ identifies ten concepts for collaborative spaces: haven, hive, jump space, cove, clubhouse, workshop, landing, forum, and plaza. How does Sabha cater to these various needs?

It will be very popular for plazas, forums, or landings. Plazas and forums remain very circular settings. So you have a little bit [of] sitting, a little bit [of] standing. They’re not formal desking furniture – they’re mostly collaborative pieces or multi-function pieces. Some side chairs, some surfaces people can write on (but not big work surfaces), and a lot of soft elements as well. But most importantly, technology is key: [we’ve incorporated a] TV stand and projector to make work more efficient, especially when it comes to teamwork and group projects.

Very interestingly, when we visited Sky News in UK, the way they work is very team-based. When you enter the office it’s an open landscape and there are a lot of small team groups. Those teams change through the weeks. They need flexibility, and the furniture needs to facilitate team meetings easily.

Imagine if you work in a noisy office. How do you gather people together? Those settings are easy.

Then the ‘landing’ will mostly be in the reception area. It could be a traditional reception sofa, but you could also create a fresher area with a coffee stand… people usually treat the landing as a breakout area to catch up with someone. When they come into the office they don’t go to their desk immediately. They catch up for coffee, chat a bit. It’s the same during their lunch break. It’s a moment when you can meet someone personally, and probably sort out things more easily in a generally relaxed way.

‘Haven’ means concentrated work. Which Sabha can easily do once we add on the screens or the shelters. And then ‘hive’ is just normal benching solutions.

‘Jump space’, ‘cove’, ‘clubhouse’, ‘workshop’ – they are kind of similar to those settings, but probably require different tools and technologies.

Sabha should be able to exist everywhere. It depends on how the A&D team or even the clients see the space proposal. We want to make sure the product gives them the flexibility to do it. A lot of soft seating designs are often pre-kitted together. They’re great on their own, but you can’t really break them down into different things.

Indeed, it’s great that it’s a system that can be altered easily without tools.

Yes, this is the start of a new chapter where we engage dealers to do lots of experiments with A&D firms. The interesting thing today is that when our product manager is doing the training, he says, “I even notice there are another 100 combinations that you didn’t cover earlier.” You don’t know how people will use it. Structure-wise, we try to cover as much as possible. We also know the product will evolve once we sell it. In two or three years, then we will know how we can further improve it. It’s a journey. You can’t get there in one stop. It also involves a lot of conversations with people to know if it will fit their needs or not, because sometimes people don’t know what they need at the beginning, So they’re given a medium to test it out.

How does technology continue to influence the ways we collaborate in new ways? Are you predicting new effects from technology on how we collaborate?

I am not trying to capture the negative side of technology. What I was trying to say is that there are a lot of positive things about technology, but it also creates side effects whether good or bad. It changes people’s behaviour. It’s important that we start to talk about it and try to understand it.

The very reason you use Sabha is also due to technology. You can work there because everything is connected to WiFi and you can plug in. Wireless charging will probably come in very soon – it’s inseparable from technology. At the same time, people’s behaviour is also important. Ironically, when I read other research, the more advanced the technology is, people seem to claw more back to the original core – why humans are here, what are the core ideas.

As a furniture designer and supplier, how do we read this and create solutions that try to motivate and improve?

Some furniture companies are embedding sensors and using furniture as a tool for data collection. Do you experiment with that?

Yes, We do. Do you know Passport? It will connect with your phone. It really helped us understand the living office concept. So all of these settings – they’re not just simply settings. Passport can also help you log in and download data: how [frequently people use it], how many [users] there are – you can track how these things change over a year’s time. So we can report back to a client on how they can optimise their place using that data. We believe it’s a win-win tool, because we can tell the story of what they need, and they can also tell us through this what they think is missing. That part also needs to continue being innovated and improved. At the moment, we try to create a framework for how everything fits in so we can evolve as well.

Do different cultures collaborate in different ways?

Definitely, what I see so far is: we are in an era with four different work forces right now. We have baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and a generation before baby boomers – the ageing population is increasing in Japan and many other places. Gen Y was born in a very different era – together with technology’s development. So they may read and understand it very differently. In that sense, how do they collaborate? Even in the same organisation, how do they collaborate? Do they have a communication gap, or a culture gap, even? Therefore, we think that giving certain tools will at least be a starting point to engage certain conversations. If everyone stays still within a cubicle, they’ll deteriorate. For the older generation, they’re trying to catch up and understand new technology. But the young people – what I’m also trying to call for – they need to understand why things evolved in this way: what things were before. It’s not to say things before were bad; they’ve just changed. There are a lot of good qualities too. A mutual focus will help improve collaboration.

It’s interesting that you answered based on age groups rather than different cultures.

Culture plays a big factor in it, but as I said, we have moved from the era of industry to information to ideas. Now I think the line of country is getting very blurred. For example, Herman Miller is a company with multiple nationalities. It is true, even from people skills-wise that we are taking a lot of leadership or culture lessons on how we adapt and communicate with one another – how we develop people, trying to make sure they get information in the right way. Communication comes up against all kinds of barriers, and we need to be able to read and align.

I don’t think that I’m an expert in saying this, but what I see besides culture, besides the development of our people, is also an ageing group. There’s an ultimate ageing gap that’s happening right now that’s complicating things even further. So how do we perceive that? Young people like light, sleek, simple stuff. But we are always very human-centric. ‘Comfort’ doesn’t always mean ‘simple’. It’s a paradox. We can’t cater for only one style of product; we need to be open to many different things. This is reflected in our products, where we should never restrict ourselves. The core spirit of Herman Miller’s design philosophy is always there. But the solutions can be differentiated from one another.

How was Sabha designed for sensitivity to the many cultures / countries where it will be used? Tell me about the materials and details of Sabha. Was it designed to encourage short bursts of use, for example? Are the components designed for mobility? If so, how?

Material-wise, [Sabha is] fairly simple. The soft pad above it. It’s a wood-carcass structured soft element. The backrest is the same [for all modules]. The wood case is mainly made from MDF veneered or chipboard. So we use different functions as well as price options.

The seating can create a simple look with an affordable price, but you can also make it pop out and do a more premium look as well. It depends on where you put the settings. Sometimes organisations may need both in the same setting. Under-structure wise, it uses the common material we use to manufacture most of our other furniture. And we do also see there’s a benefit for us. Over time when we develop new products, technology breakthrough and technology exploration is important, but at the same time we need to consider the material we use. If we already use [massive amounts] on certain things, we’d rather continuously use it to make it more universal. Ultimately, we need to be responsible to our world as well.

The material we use is biodegradable. But still, if we are not really managing the whole recycling process, how much will users be restrained by that? Some countries are very strict in terms of recycling. Other countries are not so much. We want to start from the beginning – what material we can use to make it as universal and economic as possible, and trying to utilise whatever the factory is experienced in working with. And at the same time, certain soft items above it, which can probably be the changeable items. We also need to make those items easy to customise. Because ‘special’ is always a topic in the furniture industry. People always want different things, not following a handbook. So how do we give that option based on the same structure that we have? This is why we’re always coming back to talking about modularisation and all sorts. Ultimately, if you’re looking from a higher level, it does benefit. The more ‘special’ objects we create, the more junk material we create out there. And it may not be necessary all the time.

We also question sometimes – we were talking to some of the A&D team and project management, and they’re always saying property price and renting price is so important in a city like Hong Kong or Singapore. So an organisation will always value costs. For example, for them to move from point A to point B, if the rent can be halved, do they reinstate the office or only take certain furniture? That’s also important to us. Commercial-wise, we’re hoping the same clients spend more and buy new furniture. But at the same time, it may not always be necessary. If the product itself can last longer, for a longer lifetime, then they should really reuse it.

I think the mindset of that will shift very fast. This is why we start with the Living Office concept. We want to review the problem from a slightly different angle, and also to engage the end user more, rather than just talking about commodity.

In today’s fast-paced, dynamic workplaces, flexibility is fast emerging as a key quality that everything – from workers to furniture and the workspace itself – needs to have. An ability to adapt to the changing needs of today and the as yet unknown needs of tomorrow is invaluable, as is a forward-facing outlook and willingness to respond to old questions with new responses. Sabha Collaborative SeatingTM is available exclusively through Herman Miller authorised distributions in Asia Pacific and have launched in the various key cities starting from Singapore, Beijing, Hong Kong, Delhi, Tokyo and etc. Find out more about Sabha here