On this edition of The Bottom Line podcast, host Rick Wartzman chats with Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker. Wartzman describes the episode below.
But Brian Walker, the CEO of furniture company Herman Miller, is convinced that the traditional office—with executives stuck behind closed doors and most everyone else assigned to a fixed workstation—is gone for good.
“I think this falls into the broader trends we see,” Walker tells me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “You and I probably believed we had to have a car when we turned 16 years old . . . Well, my children are graduating from college and say they’re going to move to Chicago, that they don’t want a car. They’re very comfortable using Uber or using Zipcar or public transportation. In fact, they like it better.”
“In some ways, attitudinally, the digital natives are more used to moving through things that way,” Walker adds. “Ownership isn’t about a thing. It’s about what I get from it.”
Beyond generational values, he notes, something else is fueling this shift to more dynamic and flexible workspaces: technology.
Herman Miller, for example, recently introduced cloud-connected smart office furniture that, before long, will function like this: As you walk toward an open desk and chair, the system will hook into your cellphone and recognize that it’s you. It will then know, based on your digital calendar, what tasks you’re about to take on.
Ready to settle in for a few hours to finish up that report? The furniture will automatically adjust, based on your height and weight, for the optimal ergonomic experience. Just stopping by quickly? The desk will anticipate that, too, rising to a standing position, so you can check your email before you dash off to your next meeting.
A bit later, as you head over to a more collaborative area to brainstorm with some colleagues, the system can tell whom you’re gathering with. And although that kind of tracking is sure to incite fears of Big Brother in some organizations, such information can be invaluable for a manager if handled right.
“I’d love to know . . . when I’m in the product-development cycle how much are my marketing folks actually sitting with the R&D team, or are my finance folks ever really involved,” Walker says. The data could reveal “how the organization is mixing.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Walker here, as well as Marty Goldensohn reporting on how employers are trying to tackle the “privacy crisis” in open offices, and Natalie Foster exploring why it’s time for a big, bold expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor.
LinkedIn Wants to Find You a Job — All 3.5 Billion of You
On this episode of The Bottom Line, Allen Blue lays out how he and his team are trying to build the mother of all job-matching platforms.
We all know that technology is poised to wipe out lots and lots of jobs. Driverless trucks threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. Robots can now flip hamburgers. Artificial intelligence is creeping into all sorts of professions—law, accounting, and, dare I say it, journalism.
But technology is also assisting folks in landing jobs, including through online platforms that match their abilities with employer needs—while helping to fill in any knowledge or skills that they might lack.
“We’re able to look . . . and say here are the skills that are required for that set of jobs” that a company has open, Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “And then we can look in the surrounding area and say, ‘Are there any schools out there which are teaching these skills?’ And similarly, we can say, ‘The people who are available to take those jobs—do they have those skills?’”
In this way, Blue adds, “LinkedIn brings a really unique perspective into measuring supply and demand and skill gaps, trying to understand where, in a given location, education, employment, and people who can take jobs . . . actually all come together.”
LinkedIn’s vision is nothing if not grand. Through the project that Blue is spearheading, known as the Economic Graph, the company eventually hopes to digitally map all of the world’s 3.5 billion workers, the hundreds of millions of businesses large and small that span the globe, and every educational institution that has an offering of interest to employer and employee.
“We have been growing faster and faster over time and . . . that growth has come to incorporate more and more people from throughout the economy,” says Blue, who serves as vice president of product management at LinkedIn, which is now part of Microsoft. “I hope that we’ll be able to provide meaningful value to large groups of them in the next three or four years.”
In the meantime, the company is experimenting with various aspects of the Economic Graph in places near (including Colorado, New York, and Arizona) and far (India and South Africa). “We are very much in a learning phase right now,” Blue notes.
Among the biggest takeaways so far: Don’t try to get too prescriptive about what kinds of jobs people should be aiming for or what training they’re going to need. Instead, let the data do the talking in real time.
“The thing which is inevitably true about the future is that it’s going to change quickly,” Blue says. “So the most important thing for us is not actually to try to create a specific solution to a specific foreseen problem, but rather to create a system which is resilient . . . and reacts.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Blue here, as well as Megan Kamerick reporting on a national network called TechHire that is forging pathways for overlooked Americans to gain skills and access to technical jobs, and Dorian Warren providing his take on how Donald Trump is betraying the working-class communities that he vowed to fight for.
Why the Founder of Beyond Meat Won’t Demonize the Consumption of Beef
On this episode of The Bottom Line, Ethan Brown explains why working with the meat industry is essential to transcending it.
The first time that venture capitalist Ray Lane ate something produced by Beyond Meat, one thing stuck with him—literally.
Back then, six or seven years ago, the company was focused on creating a chicken-like strip from plants. “I put it in my mouth, and it’s still there 15 minutes later,” recalls Lane, a partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which in 2011 became the first outside investor in Beyond Meat. “I’m trying to pick it out of my teeth.”
Since then, Beyond Meat has added to its offerings plant-based burger patties and crumbles good for tacos and Bolognese—all of it with the same aim: to replicate the flavor, texture, and full sensory experience of eating animals but to deliver high levels of protein (mostly via peas) in a way that is far better for both human health and the environment.
“My mother always questions my strategy on this and says, ‘Why are you always trying to make it taste like meat? Why not just make it taste good and leave the rest alone?’” Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat’s founder and CEO, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line, where he was joined by Lane.
But Brown believes that the only way to crack the mass market is to acknowledge that people have a strong attachment to meat and to take that on directly—a decision that has catapulted his company’s products into the meat case (and not the health-food aisle) at Whole Foods, Safeway, Kroger, and other chains.
“Meat is central to who we are as a species and as a culture, and so the notion that people are going to stop eating meat, I think, is a false one,” Brown says. “But the idea that people will start eating plant-based meat is a very promising one.”
Brown’s determination has led to another crucial piece of his strategy, as well: not shying away from collaborating with traditional players in the meat industry. “There’s a lot to learn from them both on the production side and on the development side,” Brown explains.
And so, while Beyond Meat counts the Humane Society of the United States as an investor, Tyson Foods owns 5% of the company. Meanwhile, former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, another investor in Beyond Meat, is the one who came up with the name of the company’s signature product: the Beyond Burger.
“It would be a mistake to demonize the consumption of meat,” says Brown, who himself is a vegan. Climate change, which is driven in large measure by livestock production, “is a global problem we have to solve together. There’s not time for ideological differences. . . . Protein is protein.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Brown and Lane here, as well as Ernest Savage reporting on efforts by a startup called Milk and Eggs to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to food deserts, and Natalie Foster exploring why the Independent Drivers Guild in New York represents an important new form of collective worker power.
LISTEN: Why Hello Alfred Is Focused More On Its Workers And Less On Algorithms
On this episode of The Bottom Line, CEO Marcela Sapone lays out her vision for turning service jobs into good jobs.
When Hello Alfred launched a few years ago, many naturally assumed that the service was exploitive, with the company’s “home managers” tackling household chores and running errands for folks while earning meager pay and no benefits. This, after all, is how most of the “gig economy” functions.
One early customer, for example, wondered whether she was “contributing to unfair labor practices” by using Alfred Club, as it was then called, noting in Fast Company that she couldn’t “stop feeling guilty about it.” Slate characterized the startup as “Uber for servants.”
Yet, in fact, Hello Alfred has always been the anti-Uber—at least when it comes to taking care of its workers.
“People need to have jobs, and they need to feel like they are connected to the mission of the company that they’re working for, that they’re being paid well and treated well,” Marcela Sapone, Hello Alfred’s CEO and co-founder, told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “That’s how you actually affect change at a large scale.”
In tangible terms, this means that Hello Alfred has only W-2 employees, not independent contractors. They make about $25 an hour on average, according to Sapone, and “we’re hoping that over time we can pay even more.” Those at Hello Alfred also have health, vision, and dental coverage. And the company is intent on adding a retirement plan “once we’re a little more established,” Sapone vows. Front-line workers are offered skills training on a regular basis, as well.
This deep investment in employees is smart business, Sapone maintains, because, “at the end of the day, they really are our product”—even though Hello Alfred is powered by software to help maximize efficiency and considers itself a tech firm.
The model seems to be paying off. Sapone says that Hello Alfred, which serves primarily residents of large apartment buildings in New York, Boston, and San Francisco, is “operationally profitable.” It has plans to expand next year into Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles.
But Sapone’s vision extends beyond Hello Alfred. She hopes that the company can help to set a new standard for service jobs across the country.
“There is a general distaste . . . in technology companies,” she says, “to really focus on the people element. A lot more of it is focused on how you build these algorithms, what’s the machine learning component, what’s the AI component.”
Many of who’ve been able to disrupt existing industries have achieved “rock star status,” she adds. But “you also have kind of a duty to build things . . . and not just for one class of people but for all the people in that value chain.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Sapone here, as well as Ernest Savage reporting on efforts by the National Domestic Workers Alliance to create good jobs in sectors that haven’t traditionally had them, and Dorian Warren weighing in on the mad rush by one city after another to attract Amazon’s new headquarters.
A New Episode of The Bottom Line Podcast
This week on The Bottom Line podcast, Rick Wartzman interviews Albert Wenger, partner at Union Square Ventures, on the unique economic challenges humanity faces as we enter the “knowledge age.”
This week on The Bottom Line podcast, Rick Wartzman interviews Albert Wenger, partner at Union Square Ventures, on the unique economic challenges humanity faces as we enter the “knowledge age.” Plus, Robin Urevich reports on what many see as a model for a universal basic income —Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend. And Natalie Foster examines how the Affordable Care Act has been a boon for entrepreneurship.
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