Compassionate Design With Doug Shapiro [Podcast]
So often when we think of thriving cultures, we think of the people, right? It’s all about the people. But those people live and work and interact within a physical space that has a massive influence on them.
Doug Shapiro is the Vice President for research and insights at OFS, a family-owned contract furniture manufacturer with a unique mission to bring people together. Doug specializes in imagining physical spaces that affirm human value, capability and responsibility.
Watch my top three takeaways video, listen to the audio, or read the transcript.
What’s In This Episode
- How Doug got into the business of interior design.
- What’s unique about his company, OFS?
- What types of problems do they solve, and what kind of clients to they serve?
- What are examples of bad design?
- What are some fundamental principles of good design?
- How are design and compassion connected?
- Doug’s children’s book.
- Doug’s podcast, Imagine a Place.
- Doug’s views on return to work and hybrid work.
Compassionate Design Highlights
Listen To The Audio
Read The Transcript
Voiceover: Are you a leader who cares deeply about a positive and trusting work culture but also wants to keep a laser focus on performance? Do you ever feel pulled between the two?
Good news! You don’t have to choose! My podcast is dedicated to the belief that compassion and accountability are meant to work together.
Never before in our history has the need for compassionate accountability been greater. Everything from our personal wellbeing, to our collective survival depends on it. So I share wisdom, stories, and best practices from experts who are in the trenches making compassionate accountability a reality.
I’m Nate Regier, our host for OnCompassion with Dr. Nate. I’m also the founder and CEO of Next Element Consulting and author of four books about compassion at work, including my new book. Compassionate Accountability: How leaders build connection and get results.
I’m a husband, dad, competitive bbq-er, woodworker, and avid outdoors person.
Thank you for joining me, and I hope you’ll implement the tips and tools in this show. If you benefit from my podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review to help us reach more listeners. Also, be sure to visit my website at next-element.com and go to the podcast page to access the notes and links for each show.
Dr. Nate Regier: It’s always such a treat to come across unlikely connections in unlikely places. Isn’t that a key to creativity? My guest today is from an industry you might not naturally associate with compassion, the commercial furniture industry. What in the world does this have to do with Compassionate Accountability® and leadership? Well, we’re about to find out. So often when we think of thriving cultures, we think of the people, right? It’s all about the people. But those people live and work and interact within a physical space that has a massive influence on them. Doug Shapiro is the Vice President for Research and Insights at OFS, a family owned contract furniture manufacturer, with a unique mission to bring people together. Doug specializes in imagining physical spaces that promote connection and wellness. He’s a leader in the architecture and design world. He serves on a variety of boards, including -listen up, my fellow Kansans out there – the advisory board for Kansas State University’s interior architecture and industrial design department.
Doug hosts a highly rated podcast called Imagine A Place that inspires connection and collaboration while exploring the role that place plays in people’s lives. When we met initially and started talking, we totally connected on how important place and space are for helping people build connections and get stuff done. So, the subtitle of my new upcoming book, Compassionate Accountability, is “How Leaders Build Connection and Get Results.” So I’m thinking we could probably title this episode, “How Physical Spaces Build Connection and Get Results.” There’s so much more I could say about Doug’s life and work and passions, but I’d prefer you hear it from him. So let’s get started. Doug, welcome to On Compassion.
Doug Shapiro: Nate, it’s super exciting to be here with you and I did see that score last night of the KSU game. Unfortunate. Unfortunate. But it’s just so interesting the words you choose because you said, we don’t typically associate the industry of offices, office design, office furniture with compassion. And I think there’s a reason for that. I think it’s because if you think about just the history of offices and our perception of them, there was no association with compassion. These were drab, dreary places with harsh lighting and repetitive cubicles, and there just wasn’t a humanness to many of the offices out there of the past. So I’m hoping we’re changing that, but we’ll explore that today.
Dr. Nate Regier: Yeah. Well, so you’re in this industry and you just strike me as a super compassionate person. I’m curious, will you tell us a little bit about your work and your interests and how you got into this?
Doug Shapiro: Thank you, Nate and I’d be happy to share. So it’s been 18 years now I’ve been in the office furniture industry, and I guess my evolution was most of the early part of my career, I was in product design and product development. So I was working with interior designers that were designing furniture products for office spaces. And just like any good designer, what they would do is they would start with context. So they would look at the people that are using it. They would look at the architecture and the goals of the company, and they would say, okay, well, how do I create things that support all of that? So that’s the context. I became way more interested in the context than the actual objects we were designing and developing.
And so that kind of led me down the path of research and insights. And so kind of here I am today with you, and I guess part of what I’m so enthusiastic about is how the context of office, the context of people and their own feelings about work is changing and then therefore the things we need to design and make for those people to be successful and be happy. Those are changing too. So it’s a great time to be in the industry, despite what you might think. You might think, oh, well, who would want to be in the office industry during a time when people seem to be fleeing the office?
Dr. Nate Regier: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Doug Shapiro: But it’s actually the most magical time because we get to rethink and reinvent.
Dr. Nate Regier: I picked up on this previously when we were talking. You used the word context. And I think I might have shared with you, my brother and I, my brother designs museum exhibits, but he really is all about creating contexts for people to come together. He also donated a house that he used to rent out next to his for the local brew club to get together. And it’s unbelievable this context they’ve created where people come together and commune and do amazing things. So I hope he’s listening to this, but context through how physical space is designed. OFS is a pretty amazing company. I was researching them. They’re really unique in the industry. Will you explain a little bit about what makes them so special?
Doug Shapiro: Sure. Thank you for saying that. And I would say OFS, one of the things that makes them different is their ability to customize, and I would say their focus on the person. So the company is privately owned, family owned, and so there isn’t a focus on quarterly results. The ownership is really focused on long-term thinking, and long-term thinking to me right now is super rare. People are not imagining out far enough and they’re not taking care of their resources. And it all started, I mean, this is decades ago, they were investing in forest land, very first generation. So in the thirties and forties, they were buying forest land to preserve it because they knew, okay, we’re building furniture out of wood. If we’re not planting new trees, we’re not thinking sustainably. And so that sort of thinking is permeated into all of our things, whether it’s the products we’re making or our relationships with people, we’re much more interested in preserving than we are just turning quick results.
Dr. Nate Regier: Wow, and yes, that’s not something we think about so much. And whenever construction, construction leads to we have to equip our spaces with furniture. And most construction these days is built for maybe a 10 or a 20 year life, it seems like. They’re just not thinking long-term. So what kinds of problems do you solve and who do you work with?
Doug Shapiro: All right. Well, we work with interior designers, architects, business owners, facility managers that really want to create a space with purpose. And I think one of the big changes that we’ve seen in the last five years is refocusing on the people as the main objective here. For so often, I think, we focused on, there was a lot of price per square foot pressure, especially coming out of the recession. That’s the wrong metric to be thinking about all the time. And there was a lot of, how many people can we fit into a space? There was focus on how do we create spaces that reflect a brand? But now we’ve kind of replaced brand with the word culture. How do we create spaces that support culture? How do we focus on..? And we’re also understanding the role that space has on inclusivity. How do you create a space that’s accessible to people regardless of their ability or the way they may think or work? So that’s definitely changed.
I would say that one of the things we’ve begun to understand, and this has everything to do with compassion, is how a space is that visual cue that you give your people, that shows them how much you care about them. And it’s almost like if you walk into a hospital and you look around and the furniture’s torn up and it’s dirty and you’re getting ready for surgery, I mean, that’s a scary mindset to be in. Because it’s giving you a cue. It’s showing how much they care about their space. And so it’s one of those things that there’s so many opportunities inside space for ownership to communicate to people, we care about your health, we care about your mental health, we care about inclusion. We want you to feel good here. And so there’s a lot of ways that you can craft space. And I don’t know how much detail you want me to get into, but-
Dr. Nate Regier: No, I love this. Maybe an example. Like an example of how you’ve worked with an organization to do this and what it might look like.
Doug Shapiro: Sure. Well, let’s just start with human health. So understanding the impacts of space on human health is probably one of the most fundamental ways to start to immerse yourself in how space impacts people. So some of the coaching we offer there is, let’s just start at a material level. The products you put into that space, they affect the air quality that you’re breathing. And so you know that new car smell? That is not a good thing.
Dr. Nate Regier: Not good for you.
Doug Shapiro: That’s off gassing, right? So when you’re building out a new space and you’re selecting products, materials for that space, it’s really important that you pay attention to material health and understand the level of off-gassing associated with those products and select products that you know are not going to affect the people in that space. So that’s just really fundamental. Other ways, sunlight, access to sunlight. So where you position people inside of a space to where they have access to sunlight. So for instance the idea of putting private office offices all around the perimeter of a space and then dropping everybody else in the middle where there’s no sunlight. That idea is gone. And so now we’re trying to figure out how do we design spaces so that everybody has access to sunlight. Lighting in general is another way. I mean, even things like creating cafes where people have access to filtered water and nourishment throughout the day. Those are all very simple ways that space can support your physical health.
Dr. Nate Regier: Are there some clients that you can mention where you’re particularly excited about or maybe proud of some work you’ve done together?
Doug Shapiro: Oh boy. Yeah. There’s so many of them. One called Ribbon Technologies, and they were doing an office in Dallas, and one of the things that we wanted to do was just bring some joy and energy into the workday. And so their use of color I thought was really creative, and you step in there and it’s not Dilbertville. The other thing they did was they brought a lot of natural tones, like wood tones into the space too. And it really supports the sort of biophilia that’s so important in your day. It reduces your stress, promotes creativity, the more nature you can build around your space.
Dr. Nate Regier: Neat. So I joked when we started this that maybe our conversation should be called “How physical spaces help build connection and get results.” What are some examples of what doesn’t work? What have you seen that it’s like, oh my goodness, this is working against the whole notion of including people, bringing people together and helping them be productive?
Doug Shapiro: Sure, sure. I’ll give two examples. I’m going to write one down here so I don’t forget it. The first one I’ll say is the kind of one size fits all attitude where everybody gets the same everything. And I know that’s difficult. You can’t necessarily ask every person what they need and offer it, right? But there is an understanding that everyone’s mind works differently. So if I ask you to describe the average or a normal person, how would you even start? There’s no way to start. So there are people who are maybe hypersensitive and they need areas of seclusion and quiet time, and there’s those hyposensitive people that need spaces in traffic and with excitement and more color and light and things like that. So understanding that there’s different types of people in the way they work. And one of the ways we get to that is we create personas.
So if you’re designing a space for multiple people, understanding the different types of people that are in those spaces, the different types of needs they have, and then creating a more eclectic collection of spaces rather than just everybody gets an eight by eight cube, and that’s it. So this gives people the option to move around. I would say another thing people often get wrong is the office is becoming or has been a little too precious in the past. And what I mean by that is, it’s like that formal dining room that you can’t go in and touch. And so if you think about where you are your most creative? Like for me, and I’ve thought about this a lot, I would tell my kids stories at night, and when I’m sitting at the foot of their bed, I am telling the most crazy stories, and I’m thinking to myself, why can’t I get this creative when I’m in an office? And part of it is judgment. You’re in a kid’s room, it’s a judgment free zone. Nothing about the space communicates that, but….
Dr. Nate Regier: Everything you say is the best thing they’ve ever heard.
Doug Shapiro: Yes, yes, totally. And so how many boardrooms are out there that are just so precious that there’s almost this sense of judgment? You can’t move anything around. You’re not empowered to shift the space and make it your own. So I think that creating spaces that are less precious, empowering people to move things around, make the space their own, I think gives people a sense of security, a sense of ownership. They’re going to share more, they’ll be more creative. And that’s a movement that we’re seeing, and that’s some things that sometimes people get wrong in the office.
Dr. Nate Regier: I’m reminded of a story. So we do a lot of work with personality diversity, and we found that personality differences seem to line up pretty closely with these work personas, almost a one-to-one collection. You introduced me to Kay Sargent, and I’m so excited to have her on my podcast later, but we’re going to talk about that and how those things overlap. But we brought on a member of our firm and a new owner, and she’s from Brazil, fiery personality, a very hyposensitive, I mean, really needs stimulation. And we basically said, “Here’s space. Do whatever you want with it.” It ended up having a huge whiteboard, a big leather couch, and a metal palm tree with Christmas tree lights on it. And we laughed. It’s like, “All right, you made it your space.” But funny thing was, is that’s where we always ended up. And some of our best ideas happened right there in that place.
Doug Shapiro: That’s awesome.
Dr. Nate Regier: But yeah, I can think of situations where a person has been put, like someone who’s very, maybe hypersensitive, put in a place where they have to deal with the public and are expected to do that, and they just are trying to get away all the time and terribly drained. So I’m sure my listeners can relate and probably have their own examples of where that’s happened.
Doug Shapiro: Yeah, I mean, Kay’s led so much research in that space, and I’m excited for her. She’ll get into details and belonging and inclusion and how space supports that in a really special way. Some of the ways I’ll ask clients to consider the importance of this is to say, think of your favorite place, your favorite place to be. Now, imagine if that space was too crowded or too noisy, and then you’re like, well, for many people, that’s what the workplace is every day, right? It’s like it’s a little too of something. So just providing an environment that gives people choice, I think, is huge.
Dr. Nate Regier: So it’s not just about are we going to return to work or not. It’s about what kind of a place are we going to return to. So you’ve shared in between the lines some basic principles like access to light and off gases and some things like that. There’s these fundamental design principles. My brother told me, there is a formula for a step, the rise and the height and the width of a step. There’s an actual number, and if you vary from it, it messes everything up, so you got to stick with it. Are there any kind of fundamental principles of design that you could share that kind of inspire the work that you do?
Doug Shapiro: Ooh. I would say that it’s the process. The fundamental principles that I most connect with are the ones that are in the process, which are really based around empathy and listening. And I almost feel like design and compassion are very closely connected, because that word compassion, I had somebody describe this to me, and I’d love to hear your take on this. This is another designer I was talking to. She said we all talk about empathy in our industry, in the design industry, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But compassion is when you actually do something about it, you take action on that empathy. And I feel like design is really just compassion that has been manifested. It’s like design starts with listening and understanding. And so a lot of times if design is happening in a vacuum, if design is happening without including the voices of the people around, then that’s a fundamental principle that is being betrayed. tThat is something you have to do. And then when it’s actually done, when you actually perform, that’s compassion.
Dr. Nate Regier: Oh, I love that. And what a great segue because I was going to ask you kind of how you view compassion. And so I’ll share our definition of compassion. We define compassion as the practice of demonstrating that people are valuable, capable, and responsible in every interaction. And what that means to us is the practice of demonstrating, which is what you said, it has to take action through our behaviors with each other. We have to demonstrate it. We can’t just talk about it. What are we demonstrating?
Well, people are valuable. Everyone is uniquely, inherently valuable because of who they are. But they’re also capable, which means they’re involved and involving and included, they’re part of it. And responsible meaning that we are all a hundred percent responsible for our behaviors, our thoughts, our feelings. So we also are accountable to each other for why we come here and what we have to do. And I think a lot of times, compassion maybe is the first thing, everyone’s valuable, but then we don’t go and say, well, they’re also capable, so they got to be part of the solution, and they’re responsible, meaning that nobody gets a free ride here. And I’m curious, how would physical space support that we are valuable, we are also capable, and we are also responsible?
Doug Shapiro: Okay. I love that. I want to answer that question. I kind of want to go on a tangent with you though.
Dr. Nate Regier: Tangent off.
Doug Shapiro: All right. Valuable, capable, and responsible. There’s a book by Daniel Pink called Drive. I’m super interested in this book right now, because I think it holds some of the keys to the us versus them feelings around hybrid work and remote versus return to office and all that. So Daniel describes, I think I’m going to get these three words right. He describes your internal drive, your internal motor is generated from three things. Autonomy, so can I be self-directed? Purpose, which is why am I doing the things I’m doing? And mastery. And then that mastery is like, am I getting better at the things I’m doing? And I almost feel like autonomy, purpose, and mastery line up pretty closely to this definition of compassion. And it’s like maybe compassionate leadership is helping people find their drive too. And I’m interested in that, those similarities there and how they might speak to each other.
Dr. Nate Regier: Pink is amazing. I love that book. I love that book Drive. It’s been a huge inspiration for us. And it’s so interesting how some of the best things come in threes, because yeah, there are threes there. And there’s also this whole idea of efficacy and agency that our efficacy as humans has three factors, the affective heart, the cognitive the head, and the behavioral. So everything comes in threes. And I think they’re kind of interestingly all related. I love that tangent. Love Dan Pink, and he does great stuff.
Doug Shapiro: So I love that, the heart, the head and behavior.
Dr. Nate Regier: And the hands.
Doug Shapiro: That’s a really interesting way even to think about the impact that space has on you, because we all walk into spaces and we feel something, right? There’s spaces we walk into and we love it. We feel like we belong or we say it feels warm in here, or it feels inviting, or maybe it depresses us. Like we’re in a space that depresses us. So there’s a heart, there’s an emotion there. And then behavior, space has a tremendous impact on our behavior. The fact that – there’s a designer I work with that says, all designers should have a degree in psychology because they have no idea how much of an impact they’re having on the way we think and act. So all of that is super interesting.
Dr. Nate Regier: Well, in the cognitive component space also sends messages about what’s important and what’s not, and it guides us on how to think about who we are and why we’re here and what we’re doing. We could go all day on that. That’s awesome. So I know you have kids, you tell them stories, and you’ve published a children’s book.
Doug Shapiro: I have and actually there’s another one that I just co-authored that launches on Monday, or I’m sorry, on Tuesday, February 7th. And I want to share a little bit about that because I want to… And even though the message is for children to discover design, the message is bigger because… I’ll just walk you through just a brief take on this. So there’s a young girl named Serena, and she has no control over her life. And many kids feel powerless. They don’t feel like they get to pick their clothes or who they sit next to or what they eat for dinner. They’re just cruising along and they just feel like they don’t have a pathway to improve their life.
And her teacher challenges her, she said, “Well, why don’t you find out what you can control?” She can’t think of anything. And then she always is inspired by her grandmother who loves taking care of her home, and she realizes, “Hey, I can control my space. I can make my room better, I can clean it, I can design it.” And so she discovers design as a life tool, not just as a career. So the idea of the book is to in inspire people to view interior design as a valuable career and to inspire young kids to be involved.
But it also, I mean, even through this conversation, if you haven’t taken the time to curate the space around you, because a lot of us got sent home and we just went to work, right? But we didn’t really take the time to think, am I working in a healthy way? Is my space around me making me feel good when I walk into it? And we can all do that. And if you take even an entire day of your work to just make your space better, it will pay off tenfold in how you feel and your health and the work you’re doing.
Dr. Nate Regier: Yeah. Yeah. Love that. Oh, that’s great. And we’ll put a link in the show notes to that book. So last thing I want to ask you is what is Imagine a Place?
Doug Shapiro: Okay, sure. Thanks, Nate. So Imagine a Place is a podcast and it’s much like what it sounds. It’s all about place. And I talk to neuroscientists, I talk to just experts on behavioral health, and I’ll talk to designers, architects, anybody that’s even adjacent to place in the role of place. And it’s become a fun exploration because there’s so many nooks and crannies in that subject that I’ve explored that I didn’t know we’re there until I began having these conversations. And so it’s been fun.
Dr. Nate Regier: Yeah. Oh, that’s great. That’s great. I recommend it. It’s neat. I’ll put a link there also.
Doug Shapiro: Thank you, Nate.
Dr. Nate Regier: From your website and some other things you share so much, there’s so many resources out there that are free, are ways for people to learn if they’re curious about creating places that foster compassion, cultures of compassion through design. Are there any resources you might direct people to right away if they want to learn more or get ahold of you?
Doug Shapiro: Absolutely. So one of them is called You Plus, and it’s on the OFS website. So if you go to ofs.com and you type in, you search for You Plus or you’ll see links there for You Plus that kind of are front and center, that’s really our collection of insights around place. And when you get into that, you’ll get, example floor plans, you’ll get concepts, you’ll get ways to think differently about your space. And there’s so much in there. There’s webinars and videos. And it’s fun once you start to get into that. And I will say too, design is really a profession that is sometimes misunderstood. It’s sometimes undervalued because it’s like, oh, well I can do that. But designers that are really trained have a deep understanding of how the space can really change culture and really improve health and wellbeing and mental health. And I think if you’re considering space, whether it’s your personal space or an office space, engaging a designer is one of the best places to start.
Dr. Nate Regier: Doug, thank you for your time, for your expertise, for being who you are in this space. I can really tell how genuinely and authentically you live this and care about it. Is there any last thing you’d want us to know or maybe something that is on the horizon for you, or something you are particularly excited about right now that you want to leave us with?
Doug Shapiro: Sure, sure. So how about just a little noodling on hybrid work in the workforce, because that’s a pretty popular subject. There’s a fun little conclusion I landed on recently as I was spitballing this with a friend of mine, Lydia Moya. We were trying to capture why we have certain feelings about the workplace, about the office, and so we compared it to a side of broccoli, and as a kid…
Dr. Nate Regier: A side of broccoli, all right, I got this.
Doug Shapiro: Yes. As a kid you grow up and you’re forced to eat your broccoli. Your parents make you eat it, and so you end up hating it. But the reality is, broccoli’s tasty, it’s good, it’s good for you, but when you don’t get to choose, you feel differently about it. And I wonder… If the office was something that was always a choice, it wasn’t a place you had to go, but it was always a choice, would we feel differently about it? Would it be as tasty as broccoli really is? And you grow up, once you choose to eat broccoli, you enjoy it a lot more. You make it differently.
And I think it’s a little symbolic of the office and it feels like we’re just growing out of that phase where our parents made us, or our bosses made us go there. And so there’s a little rebellion, but I do believe if broccoli, just like the office, is prepared right and it’s a choice and it’s something that we can do on our own, we’ll enjoy it differently and we’ll use it differently and it will be a more important tool in our life. And so that’s the idea that I’m noodling on. So Nate, thanks for allowing me to do that out loud.
Dr. Nate Regier: Children’s books, compassion, broccoli, sunlight, off gasses. We could make a whole glossary from this conversation. Fabulous.
Doug Shapiro: We can.
Dr. Nate Regier: Doug, thank you so much. Appreciate you and the difference you’re making in the world to create spaces that treat people as valuable, capable, and responsible.
Doug Shapiro: Nate, thank you. It was a pleasure chatting with you.
Dr. Nate Regier: Here are my top three takeaways from such a fun and synergistic conversation with Doug Shapiro.
First, space is a visual cue about how much you care about your people. If you walk into a hospital waiting room and it’s dark and dingy and the furniture is ratty, how are you going to feel about going into surgery? Space has a huge impact on how people connect and work. So the care we put into our workspaces conveys how much we care about our people and our customers.
Second, great design is compassion manifested in the physical space. Doug drew several comparisons between compassion and design. First, it’s all about the process, and it starts with empathy to truly understand what people are feeling and what they need. Then it takes action on that insight and creates spaces that affirm human value, capability, and responsibility. The goal of great space is to inspire people’s hearts, their heads, and their hands.
Finally, workspace is like a side of broccoli. The debate is raging on whether or not to require people to return to work or even if they should. Doug believes now is a magical time because we get to rethink and reinvent the office to which people are returning. He offered a metaphor. Work is like a side of broccoli. As a kid we’re forced to eat it, so naturally we hate it, but in reality it’s tasty and healthy. But when we don’t get to choose, we feel differently. When we’re older though, we get to choose when and how we want to eat broccoli, and it’s so much better. What if the office was always a choice, not a place you had to go? Would we feel differently about it? Doug suggests we change the conversation about return to work. Instead of asking whether people should return to work, maybe we should be asking what kind of a space do we want to create for people when they’re here?
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