Walter Craven, Founder of Make.Work.Space has conceived, and along with his highly experienced team, designed and launched a micro-office, affectionately known as ‘MO’, for the new way to work today. In this interview, we ask Walter about his life and the ideas and inspirations that lead to the development of MO.
The workplace as we see it today has changed tremendously in particular over the past couple of years. How do you see that it’s changed for employees for example?
Everything has changed. It would be easier to answer questions revolving around what has stayed the same. I think what we’ve found is that there are so many different and new ways of working and we have successfully worked from pretty much anywhere. What we haven’t yet done is figure out a way to accommodate for each person and the intricacies of certain types of working and certain people’s behaviours and what they now need to be successful in their work. As businesses and employers we’ve formally painted with broad brushes for years using a one-size-fits-all approach and now it’s time to start really getting into detail. Some of us, myself included, need a bit more than what was offered before, not only at home but anywhere I chose to work. I need a bit more quiet; I need less distraction. I need the ability to simply just “be”. Where previously we were just throwing people onto an open floor plan, and so even if you didn’t get to know the person that’s sitting across from or beside you, you certainly knew what they were talking about each day. You knew what they were thinking because you overheard every conversation they had. They heard yours. You know the foods they ate, you probably even knew about their family, but you didn’t really know them. It was, at times, nice getting to know people that way, when we all made an equal effort to do so, but you know honestly, I still needed my own space, a private space and that is something many of us couldn’t and still find.
So, are you saying that the open plan office with everybody crowded around long desks is not the way that people wish to work?
Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m saying that that works for the now past corporate culture, and it works for the furniture manufacturers that love to make 500 of the same table that locks together, and you can move furniture around quickly and to support low overheads, that’s all good for the bottom line but it’s not good for most employees. I’m going to say all employees need private time in a private space, whether that be in the workplace, at home or in public.They need a space to checkout of office and group conversations and the more room we give people, and it’s not necessarily a broad physical room it’s a focus and wellbeing room, a space and place to reflect, to concentrate, the better quality of the work will be and the happier the employee. Less stress, less anxiety, less reliance on the NHS to treat mental health issues, less stress on the physical spaces that we currently inhabit at home and at work, less missed work days, etc It’s just a win-win for everyone, not only the employer but the employee. I relish my time alone, my quiet time because as we all know it is a loud fast world we live in and if I can interject a small amount of purposeful time into my busy schedule that is just about me and my needs, to allow me to think, to catch up, I feel more complete, more balanced, I feel on top of my game.
What do you think needs to happen now and why?
I think we need to offer people choices. We’re getting somewhere with some of the products that are out there now, but they don’t quite deliver what I think is ultimately needed, and that’s the personal touch. I may wish to be alone for much more than 15 minutes, not just for a phone call but more than an hour and not just for a group of Zoom or team meetings – there really aren’t enough of those spaces that feel appropriate. I feel like we need a lot more privacy and part of the thinking behind ‘MO’ the nickname we’ve given our micro-office – was giving people this experience to be by themselves in a supportive, ergonomic, protected environment where one can feel safe and where you feel enclosed in a comfortable positive way. You’re still connected visually to the outside world but protected within the enclosure so that is a superior place to perform the work that you need to.
When you’re looking to find your own space what are the things that you consider are important for you personally?
Comfort is definitely important. I like to ease into work. Many years ago, I would just wake up and immediately run out the door, jump in my vehicle and go to work and then just run all day, go to bed, and repeat the same thing. Now it’s a bit more considered. As I get older, I’d like to take a bit more time so what that means for me is that once I enter my office I like to settle in, be focused and in a loud noise environment like in a cafe or on a bus or train or even in a coworking space, I’ve fallen short each time. I’m just completely distracted; I’m unable to concentrate and it just feels rushed. So being in MO allows me to collect myself, to focus in a way that I generally don’t anywhere else. So, it’s a bit selfish but why should it be? I deserve to have the space I need to do the best work I can
Do you feel when you’re sitting in Mo that it’s personal to you?
Well, we’re here so it definitely feels personal enough. I have tools that have meaning to me that I carry with me daily, where I place them and where I use them becomes my personal workspace. Like the old saying, where you lay your hat is your home.
What is the market sector currently doing to address the new way that we work today?
They’re doing everything and anything they can, and what that means is businesses are now allowing employees to be present and working on certain days within the office or at home. They’re granting those who want to work at home for 2-3 days a week a stipend to buy – hopefully – some proper ergonomic furniture, potentially a new laptop or maybe a new computer. So, they’re trying hard and hats off to them. In the office they’re trying to create more pods and more phone booths and more breakout spaces. They’re trying to essentially address what we all know is this new way of working, and the new way of working means it’s neither in the office or at home, it’s actually work being done anywhere and everywhere. But what they’re not providing is the space for a longer journey, a longer thought process, a longer positioning for deeper thought and deeper work, most of what we see now is literally a phone box and some of them wear that offering as a badge of courage, of progress. It certainly is just a phone box, and you can have a phone call and you can stand up and have your Zoom meeting. Some are wonderfully designed and well-produced but they are not an office nor are they in any sense a private space. They’re not a place to do the deeper thinking or more meaningful work most of us need to do. They’re for the quick in and out but they’re not for the long haul. If we were to think about this in terms of athletics, these phone and meeting booths are the sprint and our Micro-Office are the marathon runners; they’re the fast food and we are a sit-down dinner. So, if you’re looking for something where you can have a thoughtful long, deep work session, those aren’t the places for you. If I’m reading this right, we’re still suffering from a growing attention deficit, we are suffering from lack of focus or from all kinds of stress, increased work pressures, performance anxiety. I mean it’s just stacking up. So, what can we do? Let’s offer working people a private space to call their own or at least an opportunity for several hours during the day to occupy space which makes them feel and act that way. Let’s lower the blood pressure, let’s get the performance up by not cracking a whip, but by giving them something special. It’s got to be a bit more bespoke, a bit more special, a bit more tailored to the individual. “MO” is made to be specific to people, not necessarily specific to the space, so it’s thinking about these growing problems from the person – a user’s perspective.
You’ve said that you could see MO moving in public spaces. Can you give us an illustration?
I can see them literally everywhere. I can see them at the train station, upon leaving my office there have been several times where I needed to make a call or send an important email. It is those actions and many more which are enabled in public settings within a MO. Most times I don’t want anybody to overhear what I’m saying. I want to get done working as quickly as possible. I can see these micro-offices in public places, in lobbies of hotels, in libraries, in airports. We certainly all need the use of them. We have started creating an app where you can locate these MO’s and their proximity to your current or future locations. They can tell you if they are in use or if they are available to rent. You will be charged based upon time used. It’s similar to ZipCar, you have a frequent need for something you don’t require use of all the time but is always there when you need it. Say you fly from JFK to Heathrow, and you must make an important phone call or participate in the ever more frequent virtual group meeting or check in with your client, your family or just sit down and reflect for 20 minutes before your train in half an hour arrives, you just find your MO and go.
In corporate work culture starting back in the 40s in the 50s, when you came home to your family and you said “I’ve got my own office” after sharing a working space with twenty people, that was something important. The private office was earned. It was an acknowledgment of the important work you’ve accomplished and it showed your value to the firm. Even more impressive was the “I got a corner office with a view”! You have arrived. What we’re doing is we’re giving you access to the corner office with a view at nowhere near the commitment or cost. We understand you are important and the work your doing deserves recognition. No need to work 10 years on the floor to get the office your need and deserve. You can have it now, You need it now. You’ve got access to the creme de la creme on your mobile phone app. Or your boss buys you one for home because that’s where you prefer to work 2-3 days a week. We’re bringing back the private work space without all the strings attached.
You have said that you want to make a change as someone who cares. Tell us more about that.
I don’t want to fill the world with another useless object or another nutty invention that maybe does one tenth of what it should do. I want to positively contribute not only to a sense of what works for my wellbeing, but my family’s wellbeing, that of my friends, and the wider community and the earth as a whole. I’ve also learned in my life that that we’re stronger by being connected to each other with shared experiences and so if I can help even in the slightest way to foster connections through shared experiences, r but to allow you to better connect to oneself, I think that’s a very good thing to aspire to, and that means the work that I’ve done has meaning, it has purpose and has legacy. It will make people happier; it’ll make work and life better. This may not be a silver bullet, but it’s getting close to being the best that I can do and the best solution that is out there now and this will certainly evolve over time for the betterment of all. It’s a sincere attempt at solving a huge problem.
What drove you initially, how did the idea of MO come up in the first place, what was happening at the time?
We were all locked down and there was just so much noise and distraction at home, not only in my home but in every house around the world; then when lockdown ended we all said – what are we going to do now – how are we going to get people back to work? It was just planning chaos and if it didn’t feel like chaos, it certainly was working its confusion behind the scenes. So, I started breaking it down and started thinking about ‘how do I feel, what could help me? I started thinking all the way back to the beginnings of my interest in spaces. Ever since I was young boy, I treasured small spaces and this love or affinity and recognition and desire for small spaces followed me into adulthood, so I said to myself whilst working at my desk at home, “I’m going to give this a shot, I’m going to create something that feel like my childhood, a precious small enclosure”. I ordered some large card stock online. I started cutting it up and created this prototype based on several dozen sketches I had done, and tons of research on the human need for security and associated feelings of wellbeing, what that means and how space can enhance or support those feelings. I went to work at creating a physical manifestation of everything I’ve studied and read surrounding supportive space and small enclosures.
Walter, you studied architecture initially at the Rhode Island School of Design, how much would you say that architecture has played in creating MO?
I’ll build on that, it’s not only architecture but I also studied sculpture, because the reason I switched out of architecture was because of scale, or at least my idea of what scale was to me at the time. I was intrigued by this idea of the sculptor and the human form, and the viewer of the art being a singular person and being able to easily position themselves around that art and also to see it all in a small space. Architecture was for me just a very different scale. It was also a much longer timeline and I’m fine with long timelines, but architecture just for me at the time felt just a bit too big and impersonal. I know architecture has gone through quite a transformation over the years and it is becoming more personal, more responsive to people’s and environmental needs and I love that. It’s come a long way. If I was a bit younger maybe I would go back and get an architecture degree. The scale of the micro-office as a singular element is small and compact but as an idea for global use and accessibility, its scale is impressive. So yes, architecture influenced MO. I think from a formulaic standpoint, meaning that it had to be an enclosure, needed to be waterproof, needed an abundance of light. But from a design standpoint, it was completely influenced by my love of sculpture.
The footprint of the micro-office is just over 2 metres and it’s about 2 metres high. Because of its big angular tectonic nature, it’s difficult to see where it starts and ends. It offers some surprising views as you walk around it. It’s got a unique faceted exterior skeleton made up of multiple panels which have multiple angles, and it has multiple materials; glass, steel, and wood and metallised panels for the outside. It has an architectural feeling to it absolutely, but it’s not a cold architectural feeling. However, I keep going back to sculpture, the edges are alive, it’s very playful in a way. There’s a sculpture that we really like called Arik Levy, and he creates faceted sculptures like this that are beautiful. I think that his language and our language are very similar. There are a lot of these shapes in nature from honeycombs within beehives to other natural forms such as crystallised snowflakes and we are referencing a lot of that. It’s where a bit of the art and sculpture comes in.
Before you embarked on the journey of creating MO, what were you doing?
I was designing and building high-end furniture and then I built a factory to build that furniture. Then people asked me to design and make furniture for them, and then design office space, so the factory grew. I then formed a company to buy real-estate to satisfy the spatial requirements of all these businesses. I was running a design business; I was running a manufacturing business that was running a real estate development business. On top of that, one of the buildings I bought had more space than I then needed, and it was a beautiful bold sawtooth building, meaning that the roof is shaped like a sawtooth with glass on one side, vertical panels on the other side and a sloping roof on the other. It ran north to south, so it had some amazing continuous light, so I created a premiere space for an artist’s collective in the San Francisco Bay area and that’s been running for about 8 years now. Fantastic people, fantastic artists, so I’m giving a bit back to the community, collaborating in the community, painting with the community. I like to invest in the community and shall continue to do so.
Is that something that’s very important to you and have you always invested in the community or wanted to invest in the community?
I think as a young child my parents instilled upon me this feeling of responsibility not only for family but for neighbours and for others, so I think part of where a lot of this comes from is this commitment and passion to serve and so, yes, a big part of me is recognition and support for family. I’ve offered internships every year to students and neighbourhood kids through each one of my businesses. I was taught as a young child to care for other people, to make a better world. That has stuck with me, is what I teach my children and is an important baseline element within my personality. That will not change. I carry those lessons in my innovations and in my business dealings. I think it’s important to be fair. I think it’s important to be kind. I think it’s important to be friendly. I think it’s important to be helpful to others when they need help and I’m hoping, and I feel strongly, that MO will help people be better people because it certainly has proven to help me be a better person, better in my thinking, better in my work.