A Psychologist Among Ethnographers: an Interview with Beatriz Arantes of Steelcase

Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf) is a psychologist and senior researcher based in Paris for Steelcase’s global research and foresight group WorkSpace Futures, providing expertise on human emotion, cognition and behavior to inform organizational practices and workplace design.

Talk to any ethnographer outside of academia, and you will surely find a fascinating tale. In this post for the January EPIC theme, I interviewed Beatriz Arantes (@beatriz_wsf) where she spins a rivitetting account spanning multiple continents. She recounts to us how she started out as a clinical psychologist and then ended up researching work spaces in Paris at Steelcase. One of the reasons we started Ethnography Matters is because we wanted to make the work that ethnographers do inside companies more public, so we are very happy to have feature Beatriz’s research.

Beatriz is currently a senior researcher for Steelcase, a leading provider of workplace settings and solutions for companies all over the world.  She is in the WorkSpace Futures group where she researches workplace behaviors and needs from multi-stakeholder perspectives to inform marketing, design and innovation, and examines how technology is changing these behaviors and needs. She has recently devolved into the necessary conditions for worker wellbeing, which you can read about here.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.


Steelcase's 360 Magazine; Issue 67 on Wellbeing

Steelcase’s 360 Magazine; Issue 67 on Wellbeing

Beatriz, so you work with other ethnographers at Steelcase. So what do you gain by going to EPIC, a conference with more ethnographers?
EPIC was the first conference I ever went to that focused on my specific line of work, which was incredible. Yet within that focus, there was amazing breadth. The world is so big that we can’t each master it all. At Steelcase, we do take a broad look at the human condition and user experience in order to eventually narrow the application down to work situations, but there are definitely topics that are outside our scope. At EPIC, I could just delight in the variety of cultures, approaches, themes and theories. It’s a way to renew my own approach, to find inspiration, and make unprecedented connections. All of this enriches my own work. Besides, at such a conference, there is room to play, as well as to discuss the serious issues that we don’t usually take time for in our day to day.

Anything in particular that stood out for you?
I was also particularly enthralled with the quality of the keynote talks, each bringing profound wisdom on issues that had been gnawing on my mind and just provided the insight I needed. To have that put on a platter in an entertaining format, surrounded by peers… it’s a priceless experience.

Oh like what?
Like on the cultural origins of our visceral reactions to technology and artificial intelligence by Genevieve Bell, and like David Howe’s phenomenal critique of marketing’s dash for the privatization of the senses. What these talks all did was apply anthropological lenses to study our own culture’s assumptions – very dominant assumptions that often get the indisputable “science” stamp of approval, that end up clouding our judgment on the possibility of alternative realities.  This is important work, that challenges the dominating worldview that we take for granted and remains deeply entrenched, which is powerful because it allows us to really see our assumptions and opens new paths for exploration.  That’s why I liked your talk so much.

Why, thank you!
I loved your dissection of the very messy and emotional debate that went into establishing scientific measurement of electricity. Shedding light on the human-ness of measurement is extremely important in this moment in history, where we have never been so widely preoccupied as a society with measuring things as a way to reveal the truth about reality, through algorithms and big data. As if these measures existed in some pure form, waiting to be discovered. Your talk challenged our assumptions with an example of a measurement that we all take for granted. What you reminded us is that measurement is a human cultural production and we cannot put it above as unchallenged law. Scientific findings are constantly being revised, because they are our useful —  but crude and fallible —  approximations of reality. We can keep raising this caution until we turn blue in the face, but you shared a very elegant demonstration in your talk. This kind of argument provides substance to the debate we really should be having as a society to challenge the supremacy of algorithmic truth.

I’m so happy to know that all the points connected – I was hopping between several centuries of history :) So I’m super curious about your career path. What did you study during your graduate work in psychology?
I’d been drawn to the notion of psychology since I was a teenager, without much substance to really justify that interest. When I finally got the chance to study it in college, I was very disappointed in the underlying vision of humans, culture, and what is knowable. I was skeptical that the psychology of all humanity could be deduced from laboratory controlled studies of American college students. I wondered about this apolitical stance, this discipline that seemed completely divorced from greater societal problems and even disdainful of cross-cultural studies. I couldn’t reconcile my interest in human psychology and my concern for the state of the world. So I searched for wisdom in other disciplines until graduation, and then set off back to my native Brazil to become a licensed psychologist.

Brazil? Wow. So what did you do there?
I entered the program at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, which trains students to be generalists, capable of specializing later on in clinical, educational or organizational psychology. At UFSC, I encountered a radically different philosophy than I had found in the US. While the American psychology tradition is positivist, due to a kind of physics-envy, the school of psychology I encountered at this Brazilian university was mostly subjective, phenomenological, existential. And there, I lost my bearings. I found my way to a lab focused on work psychology and ergonomics, where measurement was used along with the softer approaches.

What kind of stuff did you do in the lab?
I conducted research on things like scales that measure stress at work; or reaction times; or my favorite project, which was in analyzing the cognitive workload of local helicopter pilots. This psychology was applied, and could not be contained in a laboratory.

And then what happened after your work in Brazil?
Finally, for personal reasons, I ended up in France. I discovered a master’s program at the Université René Descartes that hit that sweet spot: Environmental Psychology. It’s a set of concepts, theories and methodologies that were developed in order to understand human beings in situ: in the environments in which they work, live and play.

So does that connect to your current work at Steelcase?
Absolutely. Given my previous research and interest in work psychology, I did my graduate work at an architecture practice that wanted to identify the most relevant factors for work performance in office environments. It may sound like a rather narrow field, but it’s a universe unto itself. I have continued that line of research at Steelcase, and there is a never ending list of phenomena to understand, but you do have to specialize to some point. It’s actually frustrating not to be able to tackle all the issues.

As a trained psychologist, how do you utilize ethnography?
This is an interesting question because I see there being a gradient going from quantitative psychology through qualitative psychology to ethnographic methods. In quantitative psychology, we learn to use observation as a method, but in a very coded way. You’re trying to understand a given phenomenon, so you operationalize it and design a study in order to test a hypothesis by observing chosen variables. Before going in the field (or in the lab, most often), you must determine in advance what are the manifestations of the phenomenon that you will keep track of. It’s a way to compare and measure human behavior, and it allows psychologists to apply statistics to something that can be incredibly subjective.

So what are the advantages and drawbacks of hypothesis-driven research?
The advantage is that you are able to replicate and verify findings, which is the basis of the scientific method. The drawback is that it’s not optimized for discovery.

I can already see where you’re going…so then you found the magical space of ethnography!
Yes, ethnography is a much more user-centered approach, because you’re specifically avoiding bringing in your assumptions and hypotheses. You’re trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes, and understand invisible social mechanisms.

And of course people are always asking whether hypothesis-driven and ethnographic approaches are compatible.
I would say that the two approaches can be dynamite together. Using the more qualitative ethnographic approach allows you absorb unexpected learnings from a new context, while a quantitative approach allows you test the insights you have come to believe. In between the quantitative approach and the ethnographic one, you have more qualitative approaches in psychology that allow for more free-form data, but that is still collected in a pre-determined format and coded in specific ways. Each approach has its merits. I don’t like dogma. I specifically try to choose the approach that makes the most sense for a given problem. But given my line of work, the diversity of topics, and the speed with which we have to complete studies, we tend to go qualitative.

Perfect segue-way! Let’s talk about your work. So you provide theoretical and scientific grounding to the research of human behavior. That sounds super fun and sexy! So what does a typical week look like for you?
I don’t have typical weeks at all. It feels more like categories of tasks or objectives, and I have to balance them from month to month or quarter to quarter. I try to spend substantial amounts of time reading theory on the problem we want to study, and throughout that time, I keep rehashing and rotating the problem in my mind, to see if there is a more relevant way to reformulate it. I love this part of the work because I tap into incredible authors to make the study smarter. New worlds open up. This flows into our field work, helping us define our sites, the people we want to talk to, what we want to ask, what we are looking for. And then of course the field blows your assumptions up, and that’s always a lot of fun, that moment when you experience a mind shift and you see that you were looking at things upside down or from just a little crack in the fence.

And how do you integrate all this creative stuff that happens on a more individual level with your teams at Steelcase?
Throughout all this time, and to the end, there are the continuous collaborative work sessions with my teammates – over Skype or telepresence or the telephone, with collaborative software. We invest a lot of time figuring out the best tools, because most of our work teams are distributed. I have teammates in different parts of the US, in China, and we interact with participants in other geographies. My teamwork these days is almost never with someone in the same room. So my year is also punctuated with travel in order to hash out the tricky parts in person. I also tend to travel to work with the other members of R&D in order transform what we have learned into new solutions and experiences.

In the Steelcase 360 Magazine publication, you said that cognitive overload is a problem in the workplace. How did this insight come out of your research?

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 11.45.35 AM
There are several data points that lead to this conclusion. Technology is a huge piece of the work puzzle for us, and we can all see how the presence of technology has increased in all our lives, particularly in our personal moments. We can consume information from the time we get up to the time we go to bed with mobile technologies. And we tend to do so, given that we work in a knowledge and creative economy. We feel constant pressure to keep up to date, to be in the know – within our fields and beyond. Plus, there is a lot more push with the proliferation of email and social media. Information is being produced exponentially, and our poor little minds have been the same for millennia. We live in a context where technology enables our addiction to and imperative for consuming more and more information. And this is leading to people being overwhelmed in the workplace, where there is the sense that we just can’t keep track of it all. We learn this from following trends in technology, attending conferences and interviewing experts, observing how workplaces are equipped and the challenges that people claim to face in their work and day to day lives.

How is Steelcase applying this insight?
Our concern is in improving the worker experience at work, so that they are more productive and engaged. And we do this in creating spaces that foster certain behaviors and inhibit others. We use a framework we call SSI – social, spatial and informational. We think about each of those elements in a given environment, and how each of them contribute to the problem we are trying to solve.

So let’s take the problem of cognitive overload – tell me how you can solve for that.
For the issue related to cognitive overload, we know that interactions with others and elements in the space can contribute to sense of a never-ending flow of information, so we suggest that people work in environments where they have choice in where to go. If someone is feeling overwhelmed, it’s best if they can pick up and go to a quieter place. Whereas for someone feeling disconnected, they can choose to sit in the busier and more social areas of the space to plug back in.

Any other examples?
Understanding cognitive overload has also led to the design of work settings that integrate screens, but in human proportions. The media:scape line is a series of meeting settings that provide screens in a way that everyone can see and manipulate the projected information, but that can also be put aside when the focus switches to the conversation. These are all ways to give people more control of what occupies their minds.

Balancing presence of people and presence of information.

Balancing presence of people and presence of information with Steelcase’s Media:Scape settings.

I thought it was interesting that one of the insights in the 360 article is to support more eye-to-eye communication. With workforces spread globally, how do you conduct digital and physical ethnographic research to better understand worker needs, such as the need for more eye-to-eye communication?

To understand a global workforce working with technology, we have to travel, and we need to observe and interview people in work situations employing different virtual collaboration tools. We also conduct research on what specific tools might enable for teams, and what the limitations are. And we are a living case of it ourselves as a company and we experiment a lot and practice self-reflection. But the eye-to-eye issue demonstrates how important it is to connect field research with secondary research. Eye cues are a significant component of human communication, helping us gauge trustworthiness and motivation and meaning. Different cultures have different unspoken protocols about how we are supposed to look at each other’s eyes, but as a species, humans have evolved to draw social cues from facial expressions, and the eyes being particularly revealing.  Virtual meeting technologies have not yet enabled people to make natural eye contact.  It’s something that degrades the quality of the interaction and diminishes our capacity for communication and building alignment.

I really love Metropolis’s special in-depth issue on Steelcase. In particular, it contains an excellent article that digs into Steelcase’s commitment to original research. In particular, the article highlights that Steelcase is not a product driven company. Sara Armbruster describes Steelcase research: “We get to a physical object eventually, but we never start there.” That’s amazing to hear – what a dream for a researcher! I think a lot of ethnographers work inside product or service driven companies. So what does it look like to work inside a company that is more theme or trend driven?
That’s hard to say, because I don’t know otherwise. It means that everyone is well-versed in and committed to the user perspective, which is great, because when we work with R&D to get to the solutions, we are on the same wavelength. And I have to say that it’s just magical to see an insight about human beings transformed into a more intuitive, useful, concrete piece of reality. I’m always surprised by the ingenuity. But it’s also a really tough puzzle and can be a nerve-wracking process. How do you know that your research and insights is going to lead somewhere new and useful? Once again, magically, it always does. Understanding people is just a winning place to start, if your company is dedicated to the process of answering to their needs.

What thoughts go through your brain when you walk into a typical office that has not yet experienced the Steelcase touch?
I feel very grateful to work where I do! Seriously. We all bring up sometimes how spoiled we are, to have a practical and beautiful place to work. You really do get used to having the freedom to work in whatever space and setting you like. I really appreciate that flexibility. People don’t realize that space is a work tool as much as a computer is. Once you’re used to having those tools, it’s hard to switch to working somewhere that doesn’t.

Steelcase conducted a cross cultural study of work and workplaces and you were on the team! Can you tell me about this project?
Oh, it was daunting! You realize in such a project just how incredibly little attention researchers have given to physical space. The Culture Code project was set up to figure out what were the different needs, customs and uses of space in various countries. We began by looking at and comparing six European countries (UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands), and then added five from other regions (the US, Morocco, China, Russia, and India).

Can you tell us about some of the insights from the project?
It was fascinating to see that there are clusters of countries (not geographically or culturally close) that have similar patterns in use of office space, despite having quite different cultures and traditional uses of space in their towns and homes. It seems that few countries have tried to create their own workplace culture, and have mostly reproduced the ideas that came out of American or Western European offices. The challenge for us that has come out of this project is to help companies design workplaces that truly reflect the cultures of their employees. Many companies have tried to be sensitive to location when opening an office abroad, but it tends to be on rather superficial elements of the office – the names of meeting rooms, for example. And this just doesn’t get to the heart of what matters in the use of space – like how people interact with one another or the symbolism of spatial arrangements and dispositions. We got quite a bit of press for this project because it’s a very poorly understood subject, despite the fact that we don’t live in a vacuum. We can only exist in space.

What is one of your favorite moments from the field?
That’s hard to say without revealing propriety information because my favorite moments are the ahas… I actually really loved some of the workshops we did with the A&D (architecture and design) community in Moscow. We were trying out a new tool to tap into their expertise about how offices are designed in Russia, and so we asked them to draw in comic book style how they would resolve certain features. We didn’t know if they would get into the exercise or not, but the presentations were fantastic. They got into the exercise, sketched out some images, and then explained to everyone the meaning behind the details. It turned out to be a really fun way to understand the meaning of the office and the personal objects inside.

A Russian architect draws a picture of traditional office interiors and mores.

A Russian architect draws a picture of traditional office interiors and mores.

When you and your team are done with research, what does your team do to ensure that the findings get to the right people?
We don’t pass our research on to the right people – we get the people involved even before we define the research problem. It’s an evolving, co-creative process.

In a Steelcase 360 article, you propose that companies that focus on wellbeing increases productivity and create a more balanced work life. I think that’s revolutionary! Because the research you are doing is changing the quality of office workers around the world. Did you ever think that you’d be making social change by improving office/worker culture and design?
I love that you say that. It’s my most profound hope that our research can make a difference in improving people’s lives. And I do think it’s possible. Steelcase has built the research, respect and credibility to help leading organizations across the globe adopt new workplace practices. When better practices are in place, it creates a new norm that other organizations have to live up to. Steelcase’s motto is to unlock human promise. By making the workplace more humane, we put people in the right conditions to do their best work. I hope that this is a conviction that we can make universal.

How have you seen people’s lives transformed after going through the entire Steelcase process?
I think we regularly convert people to the importance of space. That’s why Steelcase is successful – our clients become our champions. We show people that space is not a necessary evil: it’s the soil for their workers to grow. A plant left in a closet is going to wither and die, and people are the same. I used to think that I could never be a salesperson, because I associated sales with pushing things that people don’t need. Working at Steelcase with its mission has radically changed my perspective, because I believe in our approach. It’s about putting the people first when designing a space, rather than price or prestige or whatever. It’s empowering for companies and people alike when they can walk into a space that is theirs, that represents them and fulfills their needs. It creates community, and there is nothing better you can do.


Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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Categories: EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), Guest posts, In the industry, Interviews


I'm a psychologist and senior researcher based in Paris for Steelcase’s global research and foresight group WorkSpace Futures, providing expertise on human emotion, cognition and behavior to inform organizational practices and workplace design. Steelcase is a leading provider of workplace settings and solutions for companies all over the world. I hold a B.A. in psychology from Brown University, a degree in clinical and organizational psychology from the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil, and a Master’s in applied environmental psychology from the Université René Descartes in Paris. Having lived in eight countries and been confronted with a variety of cultures and standards of living, I am passionate about understanding and improving people’s lives.

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