Home offices come in many different shapes and sizes. How do you equip them comfortably, cost-effectively, and quickly? Enter Autonomous.ai, an “everything store” designed for the hybrid workforce. Nhat Nguyen, Head of Global Project, talks to Frank Cottle about the trends they’re seeing as the world adjusts to hybrid work, and why giving more autonomy to employees can create a happier, healthier work culture.
Nhat Nguyen [00:00:00] People feel more energized, people are more productive when they use a standing desk, we have seen that so much at autonomous. We have seen a significant increase in demand in both electrical adjustable standing desks. Also, the ergonomic chairs. Our revenue has increased significantly. It’s not just us — there are so many other brands out there also selling standing desks and chairs that also have this explosion off it, because there’s a significant demand.
Frank Cottle [00:00:45] Welcome to today’s Future of Work podcast. I’m Frank Cottle with the Allwork.Space team, and today we have the pleasure of having Nhat Nguyen, the Head of Global Work Projects at Autonomous.ai, a California-based technology company and a global leader in integrated and collaborative software and software infused hardware, designed specifically for the hybrid workforce. Nhat recently graduated with dual masters from Harvard’s Kennedy School and the MIT Sloan School of Management, where she has also worked with multiple tech startups. Nhat is the co-leader of Autonomous’s New Employee Purchase Program, which is an interesting initiative that tackles how the work from home issue can be managed more effectively. Nhat, welcome to the Future of Work podcast.
Nhat Nguyen [00:01:45] Thank you so much, Frank. Thank you so much for having me.
Frank Cottle [00:01:48] Can you tell us a little bit about the employee purchase program and how it’s addressing work from home issues? Just a summary to get things started before we roll into some, some more detailed questions.
Nhat Nguyen [00:02:02] Yes. So, the employee purchase program is basically an everything store for people to equip their work from home. So basically we have a function where people can just buy anything, send it to their employers and they approve, and pay. So, it’s super easy, convenient for employees with the choices they want, and for employers to streamline their procurement process.
Frank Cottle [00:02:28] Well, you know, as we look more closely at the hybrid work model, which is a big hot discussion today, how does this program really work and how does it make it easier for primarily employers to make their staff efficient? How does it give the staff what they need so they can work from home or work more effectively and in a hybrid marketplace?
Nhat Nguyen [00:02:56] Yeah, it’s a great question, Frank. There are so many companies that struggle; before they would just buy things in the office. But now everyone is all over the world and in different places. And so, in our platform employees can go into the portal and buy anything. So, for example, a company would give a specific budget for like, a thousand or two thousand dollars to their employees. They can go to the portal and pick anything, like a standing desk, ergonomic chairs, or other things that help them work from home. And then they click on ‘pay for me’, and that will send the email to the employer, who would approve and put in the payment. So that way the employer doesn’t have to worry about where the employees live and what they want. That is the employee’s choice.
Frank Cottle [00:03:47] The big struggle generally is at the corporate level, trying to decide how to create budgets and how to support work from home because every employee has different needs. And I understand that your system has a pick and choose capability, that’s obvious, any good system would have that. And you make the execution easy. But how do you guide the corporation before that, so that they can set up the right structure and support that structure? Do you have business rules that you put in place? Do you have a consulting group that advises the employer on how to organize their team? And what size companies are you working with? Small startups or large corporations? Government? What’s the bandwidth of your experience here?
Nhat Nguyen [00:04:49] Yeah. So, the companies, we have over 100,000 business customers. So, they range from the small startups to the Fortune 500. Our top, the top companies that purchase from us, or more like the employees that purchase from us, are from Google, Amazon, and the top tech, and then the smaller ones with like five or 10 employees. And so, to go back to your question, that we provide guidance, specific guidance in terms of what and how they plan the budget. So, we write blog posts and different materials and send it out to help the employers. And this podcast is one of the things that we discuss as well. So, like we see several companies, so for example…
Frank Cottle [00:05:54] Let’s stick with Google as an example because everybody knows Google. I happen to know Google very well. And how does Google set up their work from home structure to support employees with furniture that meets ergonomic needs? That creates a proper work from home environment. Because we know Google, sets things up to work from home, also to work near home. There’s a big, big difference. They don’t want people just stuck in their home, particularly employees that don’t have a good home environment from which to work. You might have a new engineer that just moved here from somewhere and only has a small apartment, or maybe has a small apartment with a roommate. The roommate has a dog and all these things that are real life. And Google is trying to sort this out. How do you bridge from home to near home and then back to the corporate office? Because that’s the entire hybrid model, not just the from home part.
Nhat Nguyen [00:07:02] Oh yeah, totally. So, to be clear, I don’t know specifically how they’re doing in terms of helping the employees work near home. But I have seen so many companies that are thinking of having satellite offices or getting coworking space subscription for their employees. And so those coworking space networks already have an existing system platform, everything, for these companies to have an option for employees to work remotely near home instead of having to go half an hour or an hour to the office. And so that is one option. And then another option is going back to the idea of supporting their employees who work from home. Then like thinking about how much would it cost them in the market? How much would it cost to get it going, to make a standing desk? There’s a basic thing for people to keep being productive, energized and lead a healthy life. And so those are just options. But I think another thing, one of the most important things is the culture of the company. And so, the planning budget, you give them options out there. But then how do you stand behind it and support it by thinking about incentives? So, a lot of people have problems working, working near home or remotely. But then the employers, the manager, may evaluate the performance differently if they are not in the office. And so that comes back to the key point: providing options, but also how to stand behind that option to support the employees with those options so that they can work productively. And so, not measuring employees in terms of how many hours that are face time, but on the output that they have provided. And then changing the way that they measure things as well. So, like, take a step back and say, what are we measuring and are the employees happy? And especially in this time where people restart, thinking, what am I doing? Am I loving what I do or not? And so, are the companies I’m looking for… is the company supporting my growth in many ways, supporting the employees, caring for employees. So, those are the questions; I think the backbone of the organization’s culture has to support it.
Frank Cottle [00:09:36] Well, you know, that’s an important issue. And I think as people move around and as we go through changes in our whole work processes that have been started probably in 2016 and 2017, but the pandemic accelerated everything or became a forced issue for many of us. How are companies and what tools are companies using, in your view, and how are they measuring that productivity with tools to get the data to really understand not just the productivity, but the mood, if you will, of the employees? Because people have been jerked around a little bit on this. Oh, go home. No, come back. Oh, don’t come back now, come back later. Oh, here’s what we want you to do. There’s been a lot of, not just change, but a little bit of chaos. And how are you measuring or how are you seeing companies use your tools or other tools that you see out there to measure the level of both productivity as well as, we’ll call it, positive employee engagement?
Nhat Nguyen [00:10:49] Yeah. So, in terms of employees, measuring productivity and employees’ engagement, there are a number of negative examples out there where people get it wrong. So, for example, I’ve heard of a friend working for a technology company and they would talk about how the organization would use, like Jira is one example, and different levels of employees in the organization, would be measured differently. So, for example, the manager was the focus and not how many tasks I have done, how many tickets I have fired off. But then for the people who are executing it, it becomes a painful point for them, and it’s just wasted time instead. And so, I think that means that, different levels of employees should be measured differently. For Autonomous, we talk about measurement in terms of… each team has different measurements. So, for example, we talk about revenue growth or how is the customer satisfied with our service? We, for example, we use net promoter score. So, each team would have a different task that is measured back into the key objective result that the company wants, rather than how many tickets they fired off or how many items, but like, how does that at the end help the result of what the company wants to achieve? And so that’s how we measure it. Not like specific systems that are out there and measuring. I feel like there are so many companies that, are grappling on measuring their employees, like presence, how many times they’re online, how many emails they send out, like that.
Frank Cottle [00:12:44] That’s really when you’re measuring those sorts of metrics, that’s really a form of presenteeism, where you’re basically saying, what time did you show up and what time did you leave, etc. And we know from experience now that that’s not an effective management tool. I think from what you said, the thing that meant the most to me at least, is measuring customer satisfaction. Happy teams create and support happy customers.
Nhat Nguyen [00:13:26] Totally agree.
Frank Cottle [00:13:27] Unhappy teams, literally piss the customers off.
Nhat Nguyen [00:13:31] Yes.
Frank Cottle [00:13:32] So, so really employee satisfaction and the interaction between the teams and, excuse me, customer satisfaction and the interaction between the employees and the customer, to me seems like one of the hallmarks for measurement. You know, cultures change around the world too, and from Autonomous’s perspective, do you see these changes and what we’re going through right now as primarily a North American or a U.S. phenomenon? Or how do you see this in other parts of the world? Who’s ahead, who’s behind? You know, culturally, things are quite different, and business is quite different. What’s your view on the global trend versus the U.S. trend?
Nhat Nguyen [00:14:27] I think the global trend is also changing the way that the U.S. trend is right now, because the pandemic impacts globally, not just the U.S., and so, everyone we have teams in California, in Vietnam and in every location, everyone works from home. And so, the change and impact is quite similar in different teams, in different locations. And so, I think that the idea of saying that the U.S. has been ahead because it was hit in March last year and then some other counties a little bit later. So, it really depends on how the pandemic impacts and how people react to it. The cultural change happened similarly, but not all the countries are impacted, and so I wouldn’t say that one country is ahead or another. And, with this time of technology, the lesson learned from one country is being transferred to another country and how they applied the mistakes or the lessons learned, that country has then gone ahead to the new situation. So, the catch up is quick. It’s not as lacking as before. I think this also goes back to technology and social media and all the information that’s been transferred.
Frank Cottle [00:15:54] Well, you know, it’s funny. I agree that technology knowledge transfers around, but I’ll disagree a little bit in that, and I’ll give an example, I was chatting with a friend who’s a business colleague down in Australia, and here’s a country very much linked to the U.S. — common language, common technologies, etc. We all like surfing. You know, at least here on the West Coast. So, we’re very linked together. And yet each of our governments has reacted in radically different ways. In Melbourne, as an example, there are no cases of COVID, and yet they are completely locked down. They can’t even go outside of the city or outside of their state to cross into another part of Australia. Completely locked up. Same in Sydney and same in other parts of Australia. So, our governments have reacted so much differently that in that marketplace, people are forced, absolutely positively, they must, work only from home. In our marketplace here, and I know you’re in New York and I’m in California, again different rules between the states, but we’re in a more of that hybrid model. In certain markets that I see in Europe now, the UK is a good example, work is pretty much back to normal however people want to do it, but companies have made the choice. People like the hybrid. When we were having a hard time keeping good employees, we want to offer flexible work. Different models working around, even though the technology transfers. The other issue is place. If you’re a young person starting a business and you happen to live in Paris, your entire apartment is smaller than my office.
Nhat Nguyen [00:18:05] Yes.
Frank Cottle [00:18:06] Tiny, tiny.
Nhat Nguyen [00:18:07] Same thing for New York!
Nhat Nguyen [00:18:09] Same in New York, and Tokyo, and Hong Kong, and such. So. So there are certain marketplaces where it’s not suitable to work from home. You don’t have a physical workplace. And I’m curious how autonomous as a company and from the research that you’ve done into those types of markets, how you see people reacting to the proverbial lockdown, or the migration. Are those people working not just from home, but also near home? How are you seeing that?
Nhat Nguyen [00:18:47] Yeah, like it definitely depends on the country, as you mentioned, if a country like Australia had a lockdown, you can’t go outside. So, for the case in New York, then people go to coworking places and things like that. But for the places in Vietnam, there’s a complete lockdown, everyone works from home, no going out at all. So, it really depends on the legal situation in each location. But working from home after several months becomes such a lonely situation. And so, the idea of providing an option outside, if allowed, if allowed by the law, if allowed by whatever authority in that specific town or location — that could help the employee so much more with wellbeing. Seeing other people at the end of the day. And instead of staying home and working in a small apartment, I think that would be extremely helpful. And I don’t think that the whole thing with remote, completely remote, is going to really stick. I think the hybrid model works more because people at the end can meet with their coworkers or they can just be at home on a day that they want to stay at home, or they can just go to a nearby office. I think that is a much more sustainable model and a way to like, help the employees with their productivity and wellbeing rather than forcing one way or another.
Frank Cottle [00:20:34] I think we’d agree. We’ve been saying for several years that there’s no such thing as an office occupier anymore, that everybody is a traveler, and we think in terms of everybody really being a digital nomad. But there are three different layers of being a digital nomad. There’s the layer that says, I have this romantic image of being a digital nomad, and I take my surfboard to Bali, and I get a gig job and I just kind of hang out. Then there’s what we call the digital slomad, which is someone that maybe has a permanent job, but maybe lives in Paris for six months and then moves down to Barcelona or over to New York. But they have a permanent job. They’re really connected and maybe they’re working with the team remotely or for themselves. And then the great majority of us are what we call digital lomads, local nomads, and we might be, like I know you’re at a coworking center today, you know, I’ll throw in a pitch here for Coalition Space. I know you’re at Coalition Space in New York, it’s a very fine coworking group. I’m working from my residence. Later today, I’ll be in a meeting in a conference room at my office, which is down the road. Tonight, I’ll be back in my residence, but on technology connected to people in Asia and Australia.
Frank Cottle [00:22:03] So we’re all very local. We’re staying local, but we’re moving from place to place and technology to technology, as we work on a continuing basis. So, I think fluidity and that nomadism, if you will, on a local basis, is more of a definition of how hybrid work functions than saying two days at the house, two days at the office, one day the coworking center. You know, it’s all much more fluid these days. And so that to me, what we see going on and I’m interested how Autonomous looks at that nature and what you’ve seen from your client companies. Again, let’s stick with Google. Google used to say, hey, you work from home one day a week, and that was it, and that the employee had the whatever laptop or computer they had at home, and they just connected to Google’s system and that was the end of the conversation. Oh, you want to work from home on Fridays. That’s fine. That was 2017, 2018. Now in 2020, Google says, I think you need to work from home permanently. And you already indicated that Google has a budget, a stipend that an employee says I need x y z to do that. Google’s not paying them for the office space that they’re renting, by the way, because Google gets the benefit of their square footage, but they are providing furniture, fixtures, and equipment to make that possible. Have you seen upgrades? Like, we used to sit at the kitchen table in a kitchen chair because it was one day a week or a couple of hours a week or something like that, no one thought about it. But are you seeing people go for higher end ergonomics, high load desks, walking desks, different larger screen formats? What are you seeing in the changes of what people are using to populate their office versus what they used in the past?
Nhat Nguyen [00:24:21] Oh yeah, totally. We have seen that so much at Autonomous. We have seen a significant increase in demand in both electrical adjustable standing desks and the ergonomic chairs. Our revenue has increased significantly. It’s expanded, exponentially.
Frank Cottle [00:24:44] Don’t, don’t be bragging!
Nhat Nguyen[00:24:47] No – not bragging. I’m just saying the truth, so many people want to buy. That’s not just us. There are so many other brands out there also selling standing desks and chairs that also have this explosion off it, because there’s a significant demand. And so that’s why we are trying to make it more accessible and how to help employers, to help employees, to get it. And there are so many benefits of it. Research showing that people feel more energized, people are more productive when they use a standing desk. But for my conversations, talking directly with our clients and they will tell me, oh my God, thank you for the standing desk that, like my back pain, has reduced significantly. And then people started looking for chairs — the chairs you use in the kitchen, it could cause the back pain. And now they will work from home from morning to evening… it goes back to the measure of performance and how you must deliver, and naturally people have been working longer hours since the pandemic.
Frank Cottle [00:25:53] So I think that’s an important thing that people, when they work from home, honestly don’t take as many breaks as when they’re in the office. They don’t take a proper lunch or middle of the day break to get up and get a little exercise and just move around. And they do stay, data has shown that everybody stays glued to their screen because there’s less distraction, which is good for concentration, but it’s also bad for movement.
Nhat Nguyen[00:26:24] Yeah, totally, totally. Like the one thing I want to mention is that not every… the idea of standing desk was like, oh, I don’t want to stand working all the time. It’s not about standing all the time, you stand here and there, not all the time. So that helps with the movement and helps with the wellness situation. And so that’s a significant demand. Also, I’ve seen research showing that people who come to coworking spaces, 76 percent of the survey say that they want ergonomic chairs but they don’t have it. I think they said, like only 30 percent have those options. And so when they work from home, they have that, and then at a nearby location, they should think about that as well.
Frank Cottle [00:27:12] Yeah, I think it’s important, you know, a big part of what we’ve learned through this pandemic process is to look at the office environment, whether it’s at home or in a business or coworking center or at the central office to look at that environment and see what things impact health in general, both physical health and mental well-being. But to really look at those two things and try and refine — that’s one of the good things that’s come out of this — and try and refine what we can, to create a better working environment. Because we spend a third or a half of our lives in that environment. And so that is something that I think really, you’re spotlighting overall, and something that we’ve seen as well as a positive outcome of all of this. Well Nhat, how would people reach you or how would people reach Autonomous if they wanted to learn more and if they wanted to understand some of the data, you guys have lots of data, lots of research, I know, on all of this. How would they access that through you?
Nhat Nguyen[00:28:28] Yes. Just go to Autonomous.ai and that’s going to the platform. You can look for all the blogs that we write. And then to connect with me, you can just look up, my email is [email protected]. And so, I’m happy to connect with anyone who wants to learn more and anything that we can do to help the employees during this time, we’re all hands.
Frank Cottle [00:29:03] I really appreciate that Nhat, and we’ll post all your contact information with this podcast so people can reach out easily should they want to get that additional layer of information, and we’re grateful to you for the time you spent with us today. And I think the attention that Autonomous is spending to make the both the home work environment and the near-home work environment improved for both employer and employee, for everyone, is a huge contribution to the future of work, and we thank you for your time.
Nhat Nguyen [00:29:38] Thank you so much for having me, Frank, and it’s great talking to you.
Frank Cottle is the founder and CEO of ALLIANCE Business Centers Network and a veteran in the serviced office space industry. Frank works with business centers all over the world and his thought leadership, drive for excellence and creativity are respected and admired throughout the industry.