Tag Archives: workplace

What will the workplace look like in an automated world?

How will automation impact upon the design of our workplaces?  Is it really likely that our workplaces will cease to exist?

2016 became the year that automation of the workforce went mainstream, with the question “Will a Robot take my job?” becoming common across a wide swath of media and the internet, no longer the subject of only futurism and innovation blogs.  In fact, the changing nature of work, automation and the possible significant job losses associated with it are now considered one of the biggest challenges facing us globally in the next 10 years.  So how will this impact on the workplace and interior design?

For a seriously dystopian view, this video from the Guardian, paints a very different picture from the world we inhabit now – somewhat 1984 meets the Jetson’s – and like both of these, it’s probably a bit too far fetched to be real.  Whilst its true that many jobs or parts of jobs could be automated, the reality is that automation is likely to be slower to take over than we imagine, and that a world without work (and the workplace) isn’t likely to be coming any time soon.  There are a number of reasons for this, reasons that are less about technology than they are social, political and psychological.  We just don’t trust machines.  Our societies are not set up to function in a world of no work – we need to get paid to live.  Its likely that ‘busy work’ will continue for some time after many jobs could have been automated.  Already we see this in architecture, interior design and engineering.  We have students, but not the latest software.  Possibly no-one in the office even knows what the latest software can do, or maybe no-one has had time to learn it yet. Perhaps managers insist that it needs to be done the way it always was, the other way won’t work (or they are scared it will and that they will become irrelevant).  So still the students do the manual repetitive tasks that could already be done by software.  I imagine its the same to some extent in all industries – although construction is one of the worst (see my posts on disruptive innovation and the future of architecture).   Linked to the Guardian video is a great article about how we need to change society before we can get rid of work.  My belief then, is that the workplace will continue to exist for some time to come.

Perhaps it is more likely we will see more co-working spaces to provide both individual and corporate tenants flexibility to cater for the changing nature of work. We are already seeing the idea of the freelance ‘gig economy’ (although in Australia at least casual employment has apparently remained at a steady percentage since the nineties). The accompanying growth in co-working spaces caters for both these freelancers and smaller startups.  However it’s unlikely we will all become freelance entrepreneurs. But that’s not to say there won’t be more of us using co-working spaces.

While some predictions suggest that automation could take 30-50% of jobs, more likely scenario is that automation takes parts of jobs – many jobs are a mix of repetitive and non-repetitive cognitive tasks. My job as an interior designer still exists, but certain tasks won’t.  The choices will be to either have less staff or retain a similar numbers of staff but everyone becomes part time (and we all supplement our incomes selling stuff on Etsy…)  Possibly different organisations may make different choices – but with more and more staff sick of working long hours and wanting better work life balance (or perhaps time to make money online) the chances of a larger part time workforce would seem to be high.  Perhaps we won’t just work in one job or place but in several.  Either way we would see workplaces either shrinking or more people working out of co-working spaces part or all of the time.  To some extent, this would mean that current trends of activity based working with its more flexible approach to space per person and co-working will continue.

The very development of co-working spaces highlights the reason why the workplace will continue to exist. It’s social. From my own experience I’ve always found one of the biggest barriers to a remotely distributed team is the random connections and conversations, often referred to these days as the ‘bump’ factor (although they happen just as much sitting at a desk as at a corridor). Neil Usher sums it up really well in this blog “Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.”

Neil also talks about the change in the design of what we consider to be a workplace and the influence of other spheres of design. Our offices are already starting to merge into spaces less dominated by cubicles and computers, with more in common with residential or hospitality spaces. The co-working and activity based working models also bring to this the concept of office-as-a-service, with ideas of hotel style concierges, retail style IT genius bars and perhaps food and beverage options. I agree with Neil, that this trend will continue (although maybe the Genius Bar will be staffed by robots?), and this presents another challenge to those designing (and even more so paying) for the workplace – design trends in hospitality and retail change a lot faster than a traditional ten year commercial lease!

To me though, one of the most exciting trends in workplace design will be the ability to create simulations during the design stages and post occupancy evaluations in real time. The ability to test our designs and how people interact with them creates an opportunity for architects and designers never seen before. Particularly as the workplace becomes a consumer choice (as we can work from anywhere), the ability to create evidence based designs that we can prove are attracting people to use the workplace gives workplace designers so much more relevance than being seen as someone who pretties up the space. Not only that, we can start to generate evidence as to how workplace design contributes to productivity, teamwork, collaboration and wellbeing. I wrote an article on this use of simulations and data several years ago, and now the idea is starting to go mainstream – co-working space WeWork are starting to actually do it, and software giant Autodesk are predicting it to be one of the big industry changing trends.

None of this means that the workplace will look so different after all – except maybe a robot will deliver your coffee. Trends in design and furniture will continue to come and go. Wellbeing, biophilla and plants might still be important design criteria – maybe you might kneel instead of standing or sitting – but probably you will still go to work in an office that has some kind of work surface (I’m hoping for the giant tablet bringing a return to the drawing board), coffee (maybe your coffee robot is not just bringing it, but also the barista) and at least some co-workers.  Maybe some of you would rather Alice’s world…

Ceilidh Higgins

Ps. In my own future of work, next week I am looking forwards to joining the team at Futurespace!

Can we have a workplace of the future without a boss of the future?

No more boss ... by Bousure, on Flickr
For some years now, but with increasing pace – books, blogs and videos are all predicting a new (and often idyllically portrayed) world of work where workers are empowered to choose where and when they work, teams are built on a project basis to find the best workers, and personal and family life are interwoven around the way we work (this example is from Microsoft). The idea of the physical workplace itself, as a service or as a consumer item forms part of this world, along with technology that is now becoming very real – on demand video conferencing (often with holograms).

 I first remember encountering theses concepts some years ago reading Thomas W Malone’s “The Future of Work” which predicted decentralisation of organisations and more freedom for employees to determine when, where and what to do.  At the time I read the book, the technology wasn’t quite real for me yet, but was already starting to change the way we work. In the 5 or 6 years since then, I know that my iPad and iPhone have drastically changed how I can work, in particular while I am traveling.

This new world of work is sometimes given a timeframe as in this study – Workplace 2040. But what’s stopping this from being Workplace 2020? I don’t think it’s technology, I think it’s the people. One of the key things these scenarios all rely on is the independence of the workers and the ability of these people to work together regardless of physical locations. For the majority of workplaces today, these are already no longer technology issues, any difficulties come down to human nature.

Very few jobs are yet structured around only around doing a set amount of work. Most are still structured around an expectation of set working hours, although perhaps these hours are more flexible now than a generation ago. It is still much more usual to see people staying back because the work is not finished, than for them to go home early when all the work is done. One issue in many workplaces, after of years of economic downturn – is that its pretty rare the work is ever all done, and if it is we worry that to leave early would make us a target for redundancy. But most of the time there are simply insufficient numbers of staff for the work to ever actually be finished. The other issue is that there is still a very common view that we are employed just as much to “be” at the place of work, as we are to “do” work. People are afraid if they finish their work and leave early (or even on time) they will be judged both by their managers and their peers as being lazy, slacking off, not contributing or not being team players – when in actual fact they might be more efficient and better at their jobs. To many employees, flexible has come to mean flexible for employers (I know of one firm where when employees raised the issue of flexibility the employer genuinely believed this meant flexibility in how the work was done – in the office, with no idea staff were wanting flexibility in how and when they worked!)

Even in organisations which already have activity based working or other forms of agile working, these same kinds of problems are occurring. I heard a story about one large ABW workplace which has a working from home policy, but the main workplace is often too full. Is it full because the environment itself is so successful and staff can’t stay away, or is it because there is a least one manager who wanders about every morning ticking off a role of staff and then contacting anyone who hasn’t been in the office for 2 days?

In an ABW environment, the distrust managers have of workers whom they can’t see can manifest even when staff are working within the office but beyond the managers view. It’s the same emotional motivations that lead to workplaces with beautiful but empty breakout spaces – staff are afraid of being seen as slacking off.Perhaps it’s also this fear behind why some middle managers are also so reluctant to give up their offices, it’s not so much about the work they do, or even the status, but their belief that they have earned  their right to not be watched over by the boss.

Another working model enabled by technology and affected by the same issue is distributed working, where company employees are based in different geographic locations.  I have worked in this model and it does present interesting challenges as a team leader.  Whilst staff may have a manger in their physical location, as a team leader you only know your staff are working on your project by the work they produce. You do have to manage differently for performance based outcomes – if you have your team sitting in front of you they are more likely to communicate with you more directly both with questions about the work, if someone else asks them to do something or when the work allocated is completed. Managing a distributed team does take more work – but not only does it allow more flexibility in team structures, where we can work and deliver projects – but it actually teaches managers and team leaders to be better at their jobs, better organised and better communicators.

Managements fear of the invisible employee is not a problem of architecture or design – it doesn’t matter what sort of office you have or how amazing your design team are. If your managers don’t trust their staff and are not trained to manage remote staff (from on another floor to in another country), then ‘new ways of working’ won’t work for your organisation. Very few organisations actually train people to manage teams, we don’t learn it at university either. Historically managers usually start out on the management path because they are good at the technical thing that they do – not because they are good at managing other people. If they make money for the organisation, they are likely to be promoted further regardless of their people management skills. Maybe at some point their organisation will decide they need some extra ‘soft skills’ but is likely they have developed their style and habits by then, and it’s now long past when they really would have benefited from them. Maybe as part of a new office fitout someone will have realized that a change management program is required. But in a large organisation, is it thorough enough to go right down through all levels of management and is the whole of the organisation seriously aligned to the goal (even when their own bosses are not looking)?

Perhaps a self managed team structure is the answer? Some organisations are now starting to abolish middle management in favour of this idea. I wonder how it will work, will natural managers and leaders start to emerge? Or does it only work if the whole team is highly organised and motivated (in effect naturally good at managing themselves at least)?

Is it possible the fear of flexibility and remote working is generational difference, and one that will simply disappear between now and 2040? I don’t think so. Whilst I see many more younger managers who are comfortable with remote management and who have more trust in their teams, than older ones. But I don’t think its necessarily a distinction of age, but one of culture and of an acceptance that the way we work has already changed. I am frequently shocked that anyone could suggest that we might work the same way now as back in the eighties or even nineties. In the 15 years since I graduated architecture the way we work has changed fundamentally. Not only has technology and software changed, but these changes – in particular the mobility and automation they have enabled means that new ways of working are not something of the future – they are already here, it’s just that some people don’t seem to have noticed it yet.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image Credits: “No more Boss”
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Bousure 

Does your workplace offer yoga, meditation or perhaps colouring in?

Meditation by Moyan_Brenn, on FlickrWhilst many are touting workplace wellness as the next big thing in workplace design and strategy, there are others such as Kelly Robinson, workplace manager and yoga teacher, who spoke at last month’s Worktech Melbourne, who are suggesting more specifically that mindfulness practices will soon be coming to your workplace – if they haven’t already. The signs are certainly out there that mindfulness has suddenly become a topic of interest with many blogs and articles on workplace design and human resources sites as well as at least 2 books on the subject. Since I saw Kelly speak last month, I have seen a number of articles on mindfulness practices and spaces within the workplace, and this article which I shared recently on Linkedin seemed to have a high response rate, suggesting that people are certainly interested in the topic.

For those of you who already practice yoga, meditation or just spend to much time around psychologists, you certainly would have heard of mindfulness. If you haven’t perhaps you are wondering what is it – and how does it relate to the workspace – and probably all of you are wondering what on earth does colouring in have to do with it? According to Google mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”. It has become a commonly used treatment technique by psychologists, and essentially involves beingaware you in the present moment and of your surroundings and calming the breathing and the mind. Whilst meditation is a common path to mindfulness, sitting cross legged on the floor and doing nothing is not the only way to achieve a state of mindfulness. There are many different kinds of meditation.  Yoga can be one way of calming the mind, as can breathing techniques, sitting or walking in nature and apparently colouring in! (or other focused but slightly repetitive activities where you think about what you are doing) This week I came across this article on how big corporates are issuing adult colouring books to staff as a means of mindfulness training.

Whilst practices such as yoga and meditation have been growing in popularity in recent years, why are corporate workplaces offering these programs? Whilst its certainly true that many corporations like to promote how much they care for the health and wellbeing of employees, science is showing there are of lot of potential benefits for employers as well as their staff in mindfulness training. Numerous studies have shown that within weeks of commencing a meditation program, changes in the structure of the brain can be seen on an ECG. According to Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app that promotes itself as ‘a gym for the mind’, mindfulness promotes creativity, increases focus and reduces stress and anxiety. In the workplace, all of this could mean both increased productivity and happier staff. With this research now becoming common and mainstream, a spate of recent reports on Forbes, the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal all discuss the science and benefits of mindfulness in the workplace. Whilst many of these recent articles relate specifically to mindfulness in the workplace and David Gelles’s new book “Mindful Work”, there is a long and growing body of studies related to meditation (see for examples recent article on Forbes and Wikipedia) and mindfulness showing similar benefits.  And of course with any new trend, the articles against mindfulness are also starting to appear.  There was one I read, which suggested forcing people to meditate in a group setting would be more harmful than helpful to your workplace culture – I must say I hadn’t even thought of the idea that anyone would try to force people to meditate!

I have been practicing yoga and mediation for almost 4 years, and would personally agree with many of the benefits – and I note I would have hated to be forced to meditate in a workplace setting. I believe yoga and mediation have helped me to become more resilient and deal better with a number of signficnt workplace issues in a previous workplace from bullying to chronic pain and then a redundancy, to now being better able to managing my stress , prioritise better and focus more on what is important both in life and at work. I think my practice has also helped me to become a better team leader and a better designer, through increased awareness of how I communicate with others as well as creating a calmer mind which I can see affecting my creativity and ability to think differently. Frequently I find after a yoga class I will have new solutions or ideas related to current projects – the basis of this whole blog in fact started in my mind during a week long yoga intensive.

I have also seen how introducing these practices to the workplace, opens up yoga or meditation to people who might not otherwise venture into a yoga studio or a buddist meditation class. I used to sit in a workstation pod with 4 male structural engineers of varying ages – our workplace introduced a weekly yoga class, and over time all of them become participants, regular discussions were held in our work area about the benefits of yoga and there was a push for the classes to be increased to twice weekly. They also frequently commented on how it was obvious I was in a better mood on days when I attended yoga classes before work.

How does mindfulness affect workplace design though? If its just about quieting our minds, can the design of our workplaces contribute? They certainly can, and it doesn’t have to be all about cushions or incense. The recent article by Leigh Stringer for Office Insight  suggests a number of ways mediation spaces can be created – from dedicated rooms, to quiet spaces away from the busier parts of the workplace, to outdoor spaces and labyrinths for walking meditations. Space for yoga and other physical practices is frequently accommodated within flexible meeting or training spaces. In many ways, good workplace design supports mindfulness – a variety of different spaces for different uses, access to nature or views of nature and provision of quiet soothing spaces for individual use all support work, just as much as they support the practice of mindfulness training in the workplace. Good design itself also helps focus us in the here and now rather than wishing ourselves elsewhere.

What other ways could design promote mindfulness? Does your workplace offer yoga, meditation or colouring in? If it did, would you participate?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

Is a Well building different to a Green building?

Sick by Leonid Mamchenkov, on FlickrRecently I attended Worktech  Melbourne, where many of the speakers focused on wellness (or  health and wellbeing) which seems to have become the next big thing in workplace design. Australia is about to have its first certified “well” building, the new Macquarie Bank building at 50 Martin Place.

When Tony Armstrong from CBRE mentioned this concept of a certified “well” building, and that it had been around since 2013 (with CBRE’S global headquarters actually having being first certified WELL workplace) I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this building assessment tool before. I keep pretty up to date with what is happening in both the world of workspace and of green buildings, and this concept of a well building certification seemed like something that would have grabbed my attention before. Someone suggested maybe it was the Living Building challenge rebranded (it’s not). Whilst the WELL building standard may have been around for a little while, it’s been a pilot (version 1 was just released in February 2015) and there are so far only a small number of WELL certified spaces (coincidentally I have been to one of the restraunts registered for certification in Chicago).

So what is a WELL building? According to the website of the International Well Building Institute, who developed the WELL Building Standard “Buildings should be developed with humans at the centre of design.”  Interestingly this sounds almost the same as TILT Studio’s concept for codesign, who also spoke at Worktech (and is fresh in my mind because I have just been reading their book Codesign).

A WELL building is more than just human centred design – a WELL building sounds pretty amazing actually. The Well Building Institute claims not only will a WELL space improve our health, nutrition and fitness, but also our mood and our sleep patterns. And of course our improve our performance. There have long been claims that a well (as in good!) designed building, in particular workplace increases productivity, which one assumes equates to increased performance. From my own experience as a designer,it’s clear to me how buildings can help or hinder the activities within. Buildings improving mood also makes send to me – stimulating design, natual light and sufficient ventilation all play a part in enhancing our mood. But how can our buildings help improve sleep? Or nutrition? Clearly I need to learn more about what a WELL building might be.

So this week I set out to undertake some research on the WELL Building standard to see what it entails and how it differs from and compliments a green building (I should mention that the WELL Building certification is administered by the GBCI who certify LEED).  When I started reading the WELL concepts (or categories) it sounds a lot like GreenStar (Australia’s equivalent to LEED) – air, water, comfort… nourishment and fitness are a bit different. WELL has 7 categories (called concepts) are air, water, light, nourishment, fitness, comfort and mind. Like GreenStar these categories are then broken down into features (a total of 102). Some features are baseline essentials for certification and some are optional for extra points and a higher level certification. Also like GreenStar some features relate to the built fabric and some are management, policy or education strategies.

Air – this category is all about indoor air quality so is very similar to what you would expect for a green building.

Water – green buildings tend to focus on water use, WELL is all about water quality.

Nourishment – I am going to quote this one because I am not even quite sure what it might mean yet. “Implement design, technology and knowledge building strategies to encourage healthy eating habits. Provides occupants with design features, behavioral cues, healthy options and knowledge to enable healthier food choices”!!!! How will my building do all that? More research required on this element for sure!

Light – this seems a little more straight forward. It’s all about appropriate light and enough natural light. I can see how lighting can impact health, so many people complain about headaches and muscle tension related to poor lighting. Daylight also regulates our mood and sleep patterns so maybe his is how well buildings help improve our mode and sleep?

Fitness – is about introducing opportunities for occupants to excercise. So I expect this category will include features such as gyms but also design strageties that encourage using stairs over the lifts.

Comfort – again this is someone similar to some similar GreenStar credits. Acoustics and thermal confort a key to providing a “soothing, distraction free environment”.

Mind – this is another category I want to research further. Here we are looking to support mental and emotional health, relaxation spaces are important but so is “providing feedback and knowledge about their personal and occupational environment”. What does that mean?

Obviously to understand the tool and what it means for the design of buildings I need to do a bit more reading (all the above was gleaned from the overview sections of the website). Next step download the standard.

One difference I notice immeadiately on reviewing the executive summary is that “the space must undergo a process that includes an onsite assessment and performance testing by a third- party” – this sounds interesting someone must actually visit the building – and is not required for a GreenStar certification. The assessor will spend up to 3 days onsite undertaking tests and verifying features applied for. This is pretty stringent and I imagine comes at a cost (Certification is charged by the square foot, prices are on the website).

The program allows for certification only of completed occupied spaces. Buildings yet to be tenanted cannot be certified, only designed as WELLL compliant. Like GreenStar or LEED there are levels ranging from silver to platinum. WELL is being designed for many building types, although at this point is mainly aimed at office and institutional projects. Other project types (retail, residential, healthcare and more) are encouraged to register and help develop the pilot programs.

Like GreenStar has recently introduced, certification has a validity period of 3 years after which time, it must be re-verified and certified again.

If you are familiar with LEED, the standard has a comparison table identifying how the WELL features relate and cross over with LEED.

At this point I decided to read up on the nutrition and mind sections of the standard as these are the areas that I feel I have the least understanding of how design could affect space occupants in these areas. So I am by no means an expert on the standard yet!

Unsurprisingly a large part of the nourishment section relates to food and drinks provided or sold by or under contract with the project owner. So if I wanted to have a WELL certified shopping mall and my food outlets would have to meet pretty specific items around fruit, vegetables, fat and sugar as well as serving sizes and labeling. I’d say it would be simpler for a workplace which would tend to provide less food to employees. Hand washing is a feature where design plays a part – provision of disposable paper towels and soap at all sinks as well as minimum sink sizes are required for this feature. Under another feature, food preparation area require separate sinks to prevent cross contamination. (I wonder if a workplace breakout counts as there wouldn’t usually be raw meat there?) There are some specific requirements for refrigerators which might be selected by a designer. The main areas where nourishment features are impacted by design would be the provision of gardening space and spaces for mindful eating, both of which are optional features. Mindful eating is the provision of breakout areas as unsurprisingly getting away from out desks is good for reducing stress, and apparently eating with others encourages healthier eating. The eating space must have fridges, microwaves, sinks etc and contain tables and chairs to accommodate at least 25% of total employees at a given time as well as be located within 60 m [200 ft] of at least 90% of occupants. The new GreenStar interiors tool also requires breakout space, with an area based calculation per occupant and less definition of what the space contains – the GreenStar credit is about providing staff for employee enjoyment as opposed to specially a space for eating (it can be part of an activity based work area)

The mind concept is much more diverse. Covering biophilia, workplace policies in travel and flexible working, charity, beauty, the design process and post occupancy evaluations. Some features would be perhaps difficult to demonstrate objectively – how do we measure if the project contains features intended for human delight and celebration of the spirit? (This feature is apparently derived for the Living Buildings Challenge). The feature related to adaptable spaces and requirements for both diverse spaces for collaboration and private spaces for concentration could start to provide a good guide to the amounts and types of private spaces required within workplaces when clients start pushing design teams to cram in more workstations. Not sure the sleep pods and meditation cushions will take off just yet though! Inclusion of plants has already seen a big increase in Australia due to GreenStar, and forms part of the biophilia features along with patterning from nature, water features and roof top gardens. Other design oriented elements include minimum ceiling heights and the inclusion of artworks.  This mind section would be worthwhile for designers to take into account even when not designing specifically to meet the standard.

Having reviewed in more detail two of the seven concepts, only around one third are design related. Clearly certification under the WELL building standard requires a high level of commitment from management and will have far reaching effects on the organisation and it’s employees and building occupants. The question is who will drive adoption of this standard – whilst design teams can educate their clients as to its existence, I think ultimately it will have to be driven from within an organisation’s leadership team for there to be any chance of sucess. Perhaps also we will soon be finding a new consultant on our team, a wellness consultant who might have a background in HR or psychology rather than in buildings. Personally I believe, this could only be a good outcome for workplace design. What do you think? Can design contribute more to health and wellbeing? Will your own or your client organisations be interested and committed to this process? Would you like to have a wellness consultant on your team?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits:

Big data at the intersection of building analytics and people analytics

buildings with peopleImagine if you could simulate your building or workplace environment before you built it – not just simulating energy usage or daylighting – but creating a simulation of how the people would behave and work inside your space. And not just a generic sample population, but your actual workforce in a simulation that knows and understands their actual behaviours. Before investing in bricks and mortar (or tables and chairs) – you could test numerous design scenarios and their impact upon not only how the building itself operates, but also how the occupants respond, their use of space, their interactions with one another and more. How would this change the way we design, the way we build and possibly the way we all work?

Many people would think this sounds pretty far fetched, futuristic and certainly a little bit big brother. The reality is that we actually have both the information and the technology available to do this – right now in 2014. Today I’m going to talk about why we would want to look at simulating human behaviour in the built environment and what this could mean for design, as well as discuss the types of data analysis and technologies from different fields that I believe could be brought together to make this kind of simulation of the built environment possible.

My background is in workplace and educational design. A large workplace is probably one of the most complex environments in which to try to predict and understand human behaviour. Unlike a restaurant, a shopping centre or a train station, it is designed to have a large number of diverse activities taking place. Whilst at the same time – and I know this sounds a little strange – there is actually less of a clearly defined purpose in being in a workplace than in many other kinds of enivonrment. Different individuals have different purposes in being there, because they enjoy their work, to socialise or to earn money are just a few. An opposite example of a much more simplified purpose of space would be in a cinema – where almost everyone is in the space for one purpose, which is to see a movie (although they may have different motivations for seeing the movie). In the workplace, because there are so many different activities and behaviours, finding patterns to predict how people work – and even understanding what improves their work is more complex.

The holy grail of workplace design is to be able to prove that certain design elements increase productivity. Most researchers agree that it has historically been almost impossible to measure productivity in knowledge or service oriented workplaces, which today make up the bulk of first world workplaces. We can however measure a lot of approximations of productivity – or things that we expect to have a close correlation with productivity – things such as staff retention, absenteeism or self reported satisfaction and comfort levels. This kind of data is readily available.

Another key issue in workplace design centres around the actual useage of space. Real estate is a significant business cost (though much less significant than the people cost) During the design phase of any project there is great debate over wdifferent kinds of spaces and how and if they will get used. Do we allocate individual offices to sit empty, will staff actually use that large breakout space, will that training room sit empty for half the year? From the workplace designer through to the facilities manager and the CEO, the ability to simulate occupant behaviour in the workplace has a huge potential to impact upon what and how we design our workplaces. To me this could be the next significant game changer in workplace design and productivity.

It’s being made possible by big data. In the past, we have not had access to enough information about either building systems or occupant behaviours to be able to simulate these kinds of complex environments. There is software that can simulate human behaviour – and it has been around for more than 20 years. Commonly used software that simulates vehicular and pedestrian behaviour or fire engineering modelling is all simulation software which is based upon predicting human behaviour. However, the difference between these previous software models, and predicting behaviour of occupants of a workplace or other complex building type is the complexity of the human interactions. Human behaviour in a fire situation or within a train station environment is much simpler than in a workplace. There are less possibilities because of the limited scenario, and also we are essentially only tracking one variable – movement. Workplace design has made very limited to use of this kind of simulation, for example Google campus at Mountainview has been designed to ensure that all staff are within 2 and a half minutes walk of each other. Movement within the workplace, or other building types, is a pretty simple and limiting factor to use to test and simulate our designs. Big data, and in particular, combining information from the fields known as Building Analytics and People Analytics, could give us the opportunity to feed a huge range of different kinds of building and human behaviour data into a simulated building model.

Building Analytics is currently seen as the next big thing in building and asset management as well as an important factor for environmentally sustainable buildings. Probably most people in this room have at least some familiarity with this field. In the past, data gathered from buidling tuning or the BMS was more limited and unlikely to be in real time. However this has been changing. Building managers can now have real time access to a range of data – from factors such as which lights or appliances are in use, to the temperature, CO2 and VOC levels, heat or movement maps of actual occupation coming through motion or heat sensors, lifts that track occupant destinations or individuals movement through security systems via access cards or CCTV. Many of these systems are already commonly available in any new large commercial development. Facilities managers and building owners are using them to understand and predict occupant behaviours in relation to building systems. Historical data from the same systems can then be combined with real time data to predict or simulate things like building energy usage in a given period or what the impact of certain weather conditions might be on occupant comfort.

This type of building analytics does take into occupant behaviours, but only at a very simple level, things like is the space occupied or not occupied – because this is key information for the running of building services such as lighting and air conditioning. Whilst this data is firstly being used to control the systems and secondly to predict building performance it also provides us with real time reliable data on occupied versus unoccupied space. The ability to use web based booking systems for rooms or desks was the first step that created some kind of data around anticipated space usage, but it wasn’t real usage data, only a prediction of usage. Today BMS data can be combined with this kind of booking system, and it is possible to not only track advance bookings but real time actual usage – if someone doesn’t turn up to use the booked space it can be reallocated to somebody else. Whilst this kind of information can help manage a building it doesn’t predict behaviours or improve occupant performance.

This is where People Analytics can start to work with building analytics to create a fuller picture of how space is actually being used, and what this means for the occupants.

So what is people analytics? People analytics looks at data generated by people and companies rather than data generated by building systems. It is a growing field of social science with implications in particular for human resources and recruitment – and in my view for designers. People anayltics starts to look at and analyse any available kind of data in order to find patterns and understand human behaviours – its anthropology using computer generated information. Today, data generated by people can include anything from emails, to social media usage, to bluetooth and movement tracking, voice recordings, computer data logs, organisational plans, charts and documents or google searches. If you think about your electronic footprint, even without anyone planning on tracking what you do, there is a lot out there. The more we use the web or cloud based services, the more data exists about our habits, our performance or our personalities. In the past the quantities of data have been so much smaller, that there was not sufficient amounts of data to generate patterns or the computing power to crunch it. Today there is.

By analysing huge amounts of historical data it is possible to identify patterns or characteristics of certain groups of people, or how to predict or promote certain behaviours. Once the historic data set has been created, it is then possible to analyse data of new people to identify who fits the patterns. We still don’t always know what the data can mean on its own though. One of my personal favourite odd ball data correlations is that super guru computer programmers apparently have a tendency to like a certain Japanese manga website! You can see the applications to recruitment and HR immediately.

Another fun example of the use of large samples of aggregate data is the Twitter happiness index. This website analyses the use of certain words on Twitter every day since 2008. Words are assigned values from 1 to 9 to signify sad to happy. The overall happiness score for each day is then calculated and graphed. There are also Twitter election indexes, oscar indexes and many more aimed at trying to predict outcomes based upon twitter traffic. Elections polling has been a high profile example demonstrating people analytics to the public. In the 2012 US presidential election, big data was used by a number of forecasters to accurately predict the results in all 51 states. These are all examples of different uses of people analytics.

But how does all of this relate to buildings, and workplaces in particular?

Lets start with a really simply example of using other kinds of data in combination with building systems data which was undertaken by Immersive, a big data company based in Melbourne, Australia. By taking the historic heat sensor data from a workplace BMS and analysing it against the organisation’s project planning data for the same time period, it was possible to determine what the actual space usage and occupancy loads had been over the period compared to the predicted project staffing levels. Using the same forward project planning data, it was then possible to predict the organisations actual future space needs. Whilst this takes into account some level of occupant behaviour – space occupancy – again its a single variable, where we are still looking at physical space more than actual occupant behaviours.

But what if we could take multiple kinds of data – data that is more specifically tracking behaviours in the specific context of the workplace? And not just data about electronic interactions – what if we can gather the same types and quantities of data about our face to face interactions as our electronic interactions? In analyising workplace productivity, this tracking of real time physical interactions is important – because in most companies, much of the informal collaboration still happens face to face. The theory is that in organisations where knowledge work is undertaken, social networks define how information is transferred informally across the organisation, and that this informal sharing is creating a transfer of knowledge. This new knowledge then has a significant influence on how the work gets done and therefore on productivity – kind of like how you learn just as much by going for drinks at RTC as you do in the presentations – people are sharing what they already know.

If organisations can find ways to firstly understand these social collaborative networks and then secondly promote them, social scientists believe that the organisations productivity can be enhanced. The office space itself then becomes one means of modifying social behaviours in order to promote certain kinds of interactions. But how to collect information on face to face interactions – we are not all going to suddenly start skyping the person sitting next to us.

Enter the sociometric badge. Developed by a team at MIT, this device contains a number of sensors. An IR transreciver allows the devices to sense one another, bluetooth records their physical location in space, an accelerometer can figure out if you are sitting or standing and a microphone detects audio. Right now this device is approximately the size of your building access card although slightly thicker and can be worn around your neck. In the future your smart phone will probably be able to track all of this anyway – its actually already got almost all of the same sensors. The sociometric badges have been used to track and record the behaviour of building occupants in a number of studies investigating the way we work. The outcomes have been published in a great book called “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work” by Ben Waber.

One of the interesting things is that the microphone doesn’t even record what you actually say. It records things like tone, change in volume and speaking speed – which are considered social signals, and which are in fact more important in our face to face interactions than the words we actually speak. Early tests in laboratory environments included speed dating and salary negotiation simulations. Computers were able to predict outcomes with over 85% accuracy based upon 5 minutes or less of these recorded social signals.

These devices have since been utilised in a variety of actual real workplace studies. So far sociometric badging has found that call centre productivity is enhanced when team members take breaks together and that the amount of time spent interacting and the amount of physical movement are god predictors of creative days.

These studies, and most in the book, are based around understanding and modifying behaviours rather than modifying environments, but as any architect or designer knows, if you modify the environment, you have the opportunity to modify the behaviours. One of the studies of most interest to us, looking at how changing physical space impacts on occupant behaviours, was a study which investigated the size of lunch tables in a workplaces cafe spaces. Using data from the sociometric badges within an online travel company, it was found that staff that sat at larger lunch tables were more productive. Within the existing office environment there were 2 different spaces staff could choose to eat lunch – one had small tables for 4 people, and the other larger tables seating up to 12 (or they could chose to eat by themselves at their desk). The data quickly showed that the people who ate lunch together would then tend to communicate further that day. The staff that sat at the larger tables were more likely to speak with others outside of the group they had arranged to lunch with, and formed larger conversational groups at the lunch tables. These wider lunch time conversations led to links and collaborations in the organisation that were not otherwise being formed. These links were part of the knowledge sharing that led to greater productivity.

In another MIT project, the cubicles themselves were equipped with sensors so both the office environment and the people within it were being analysed. The cubicles were fitted with blinds instead of typical workstation cubicle screens, in order to provide privacy or allow collaboration. Based upon the collaborations that the data had identified as being most beneficial, the automated blinds would open or close overnight. In this way the building itself can even automatically respond to data analysis.

Often, the data coming out of these studies is not surprising the social scientists or the building designers. What is is doing though, is proving things we know instinctively, the things we have seen work before.

When you think about this information about your day, what you do, where you go and who you talk to is then combined with your electronic footprint, the information about your colleagues and then possibly also the building data – its a pretty full story of what happens inside a given workplace or building in a day. The possibilities for analysis and experimentation will be endless. Why is this so important to design and construction though? So far this is all about modifying existing environments. Being able to test and prove what works is the next step.

In an example that initially does not seem to be related to physical space, but to health, the sociometric badge data is combined with data about how disease spreads. The impact of sickness on the work environment, the interactions and the productivity can then be simulated across a range of scenarios with different people being the disease originator and different simulated responses such as stay home versus solider on being tested. One suggested solution to minimise spread of disease was to change the regular seating layout, which has the effect of reducing the level of interactions between people who already knew each other.

Moving into the not so distant future – there is no reason why the possibilities of physical environments could not be tested inside a BIM, with the algorithms behind the behaviours of the sims being developed from these kinds of behavioral data sets. We have the technology available to us already.

While this isn’t about BIM as we know it today, the link between the the building model and the simulations is obvious. But will architectural practices embrace these technologies or will this lead to another new kind of consultant in our team?

Imagine the value of the design and simulation team who can prove to the client organisation that workplace productivity could be enhanced simply by working with them? Translate that to all kinds of building typologies – and the whole definition if what architecture is or could be may change. Perhaps big data is going to have an even more significant impact on change in our industry than BIM, in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.

Ceilidh Higgins

This blog is the text from my presentation at RTC North America last month, as part of the session BIMx: Big ideas around big data.  I had a great time over there and attended some excellent classes.  If you are in Europe, RTC will be in Dublin later in the year.

Image Credits: Via Flickr Creative Commons
Big Buildings https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilarmstrong2/5480543083/
The New York Times on the New Art of Flikr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/2442371176/

The death of Activity Based Working?

The Valley of the Fallen

At last week’s Property Council breakfast on Activity Based Working – the panel moderator – Michael Cook, seemed determined to announce the death of Activity Based Working (ABW to the initiated, AWB to many others).  Asking the panel “What’s next after ABW?”  To me whilst it seems that many are hesitating to use the term Activity Based Working to describe their workplace, the way they are working seems very much like ABW.

Does it really matter if you call it ABW, agile or flexible working? Is there that much difference between the 3 (or any other terms out there).  Whilst there may be slight shifts in the focus of each of these ‘types’ of working, they all mean working in a space that suits what you right now. Maybe that at a desk, or maybe it’s in a huddle room, or at home, or even a ball pit. A ball pit?!? How can that be work? Well – maybe what you need to do right now is take a break,move around and have a colleague throw a ball at your head (or imagine throwing one at your bosses head). The question then becomes not only what spaces do I need to do my work but what activities does or should my workplace support and provide? Activities – oh that sounds a lot like we are actually back at activity based working then aren’t we?

The company that coined the term Activity Based Working, Veldhoen, certainly believe that ABW is not dead. In fact they think the opposite – that it is only just being born in Australia. For Veldhoen, ABW is still the future of work and they believe it is for everyone. They are not searching for the next big trend but seeking to make sure ABW is implemented properly. This was the comment from  an audience member from Veldhoen  (I think it may have been Gijs Nooteboom, apologies if I am wrong).  His comments left the panel in a moment of oddly stunned silence and I thought it was a shame that he hadn’t been part of the panel selection.

The morning began (way too early for networking – who wants to speak to people they don’t know at 7am before their first coffee?) with a presentation from Leigh Warner from JLL on the Property Council’s recent survey of ABW and further analysis of the likely uptake of ABW and its impact upon office space demand in Sydney over the next few decades. (You can download it here).  Regardless of what you think of ABW – and unsurprisingly views are polarised – the findings indicate that ABW will not have a significant impact upon real estate demand in Sydney over the coming years. This is due to a mix of factors including the likely uptake of ABW, the mix of tenant types and sizes in Sydney as well as the types of buildings suited to ABW and the rate of lease expiries each year.

Professor Richard De Dear from the University of Sydney then presented the University of Sydney research that made headlines last year, in its findings that ‘open offices are bad for you’. (My personal favourite headliner, Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell). In a very quick summary, the study covered 42,000 occupants in just over 300 buildings in the USA, Canada, Finland and Australia. Occupants were in a mix of enclosed offices and open plan cubicles with high, low or no partitions. The majority of the occupants were in enclosed offices or open plan cubicles with high partitions (and were in the USA). The findings were that across a range of measures from comfort, to furniture, to lighting and acoustics even through to interactions with colleagues, the people in enclosed offices were more satisfied. I”d seen this research online last year, and it is frequently accompanied by the suggestion that its quite likely the data is skewed by the fact that people in enclosed offices are more likely to be more senior and have more autonomy as well as higher overall engagement and satisfaction, as well as being fairly irrelevant to actual Australian office conditions of today, which differ substantially from US cubicle farms. Richard also presented some preliminary findings of Australian research which included the workspace type of flexi office.  He commented that the enclosed office was still rated higher by the occupant – but the graphs indicated that the flexi office did actually outperform the enclosed office on at least half the measures.

Putting these 2 presentations alongside one another, unsurprisingly, the densification or reduction of leased office space and its impact on employee satisfaction was a key topic for the panel discussion. The panel included Natalie Slessor from Lend Lease and Emily Dean from Telstra in addition to the speakers. Whilst there were no designers on the panel, there were certainly many in the room. You could almost hear the collective gasp across the room when Michael Cook suggested that designers were responsible for this densification – and thereby implying also, the low level of satisfaction of many office spaces. It has certainly been my experience that the densification of the office is driven by my clients, and not by designers. We work from what is possible and desirable through a range of options to get to the required number of staff. There are very few clients that engage designers before they agree to their leases. By the time we get involved, typically they have signed up for their 3,000m2 and they know they have their 250-300 staff – it is our job to fit them all in – the best we can and by educating our clients as to the options as to how to achieve this. Almost always there is compromise somewhere, a breakout room is shrunk, the number of meeting rooms reduced, or those desks put right in the circulation path to the toilets because at the end of the day they need to fit a certain number of people into their space.

Whoever may be responsible for this densification, the panel all agreed that companies that are reducing spaces and only looking for cost cutting are making a mistake in the longer term. It doesn’t matter what style of working we call a workplace, we need workplaces that match the business purposes and ways of working. A workplace in which staff enjoy coming to work and can do their best work meets these needs. Both Natalie and Emily agreed that the workplace projects that achieve these outcomes usually have a great leadership strategy. As Natalie Slessor put it nicely in response to Michael Cook’s question “should be talking to the corporate real estate team or the staff?” – “We should be talking to the CEO about what business question they want their workspace to answer”.

But getting back to the death of ABW. I think in some ways Veldhoen are right – ABW is certainly not dead. And perhaps nor is it quite the fad that many people want to call it. Do we call the open plan office a fad? If you think about it, we called a space full of high walled cubicles an open office, we called a space full of bench workstations an open office – and most ABW offices – well they are an open office too. Any office where the majority of staff are not sitting in cellular enclosed rooms is by definition an open office – even if we call it something different. This perhaps is the direction ABW is heading in, that it can have many shapes and appearances, but it is about spaces for activities.  Perhaps ABW is in fact a rewording of a design philosophy even older than the open office – form follows function!

Are you designing Activity Based Workplaces? Or are you calling them something else? And what about where you work – is an Activity Based Workplace suited to architecture, interior design or engineering? I find it intriguing the number of architects and designers who say no! Personally, I’m all for it.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: This is one of my own, taken at the Valley of the Fallen on a recent trip to Spain.  Its a beautiful but strange place with an amazing tunnel like church which seems to have been dug into the hill, it was constructed by Franco as his own burial place and monument.

PS.  Its coming up to that time of year again to get your Revit fix!  I am presenting at RTC in Melbourne 29-31 May and Chicago 19-21 June.  Hope to see you there.

Worktech Melbourne: Let the User Decide

847622286_b1a0789077_oIf you think about all the images you have ever seen of a Google office, you will realise that very few of them picture any desks – ball pits, slippery sides, cars turned into meeting rooms, sleep pods, gardens, game rooms, footsal tables, and of course kitchens full of free food – but not very many desks.  So it may come of some surprise to learn that at Google, each Googler (they really do seem to call themselves googlers) has their own desk. When Hayden Perkin spoke about the design process for Googles New York City offices,  at last months Worktech Melbourne most of the attendees at the event hadn’t been expecting to hear that Google still has allocated desking.

Hayden’s presentation focussed on the importance of the philosophy of “Let the User Decide” particularly in the design of the actual workpoints.  Let the Users Decide is part of the Google workplace design guidelines – which can be described more as a Google vibe than a strict set of standards with limited options.  As part of the Google NYC office project consultation the googlers were asked about what style of workpoints they wanted – and around half were in favour of enclosed offices! This certainly surprised an Australian audience, as even in our most conservative client offices (outside of legal) cubicles are almost considered outdated and the idea of 50 percent of staff having an office would be unheard of for quite a while.

Enclosed and assigned office space is only really suited to very static work environments with very little change in organisation size and structure, teams and small movement of people. The way that Google works needs this flexibility. Typically googlers work in teams at workpoints that are assigned for the duration of projects. Movement and reconfiguration of people and space are frequent – on average people move 4 times per year. So, while we can let the users have input, in this case not all the users got what they wanted – exactly. Given that the other half wanted open plan work environments, Google made  the decision that the open plan environment would suit their operational needs better.  But Google wasn’t quite done with the user input to design.

Taking the user involvement further than your typical consultation sessions, Google determined to allow the users to custom design their open plan environments. So while you couldn’t necessarily have an enclosed office, you could make choices such as how high the screens are or what type of desk layout or accessories you have at your workpoint. Google worked with Haworth to design a workstation system that allowed the users maximum control over their own micro environment, and that looks something like a desk sized meccano set. The system is based upon a post and beam system, with worktops, screens and accessories to attach. The attachments are made via coloured connectors (google colours of course). Hayden described the system as “controlled chaos”.

Within a certain set of rules (for example different carpet colours delineate fire egress paths that must be kept open) each team got together to plan their own defined workzone. The groups have come up with many different solutions and have used the components to build not only workstations, but semi enclosed office areas, park benches, canopies and toys. Some people were not interested in building their own desks and Google now offers a selection of standard models for these individuals or groups.

The result is certainly not at all a designed aesthetic, this is saved for the cafes, libraries and nap areas – those images of a Google office with which we are all familiar, still exist as part of the NYC office, but were not the theme of Hayden’s presentation. As an interior designer, I’m still not sure how I feel about this level of user design and customisation. The flexibility and choice it gives to the user groups is fantastic and I’m sure this allows Google to make more googlers happy with their own work environments. It certianly also works in an environment where teams are constantly moving and reforming.  As a designer, I would also certainly love to never have a discussion about workstation screen heights ever again.

Visually however its not the sort of environment that I like to work in. That said, I also know that within days or weeks of the client moving in, any office environment can quickly turn into the same level of controlled chaos. I’ve never quite figured out if its just rules or also culture, but even the most uncluttered aesthetically designed office environment can quickly descend into something else entirely. Archive boxes build up around desks, collections of trolls pop up on top of partitions or other paraphernalia starts to take over the office (I had one previous boss that insisted upon keeping dusty models of some of Sydney’s most hideous buildings) and then the controlled chaos is not really much different to that of the create your own work point office.

I guess this point brings me back to one of the biggest issues of workplace design and user consultation – it doesn’t matter if your workplace is fixed seating or an agile workplace. Choice, customisation, control and personalisation are big issues for the workplace occupants. They are issues that don’t easily mesh with the visual control of interior design or the flexibility of standardised corporate space allocations. So the question which applies equally to interior designers and those within client organisations responsible for procuring workplace design (whether facilities or project management, human resources or finance), how much do you let your users decide?

PS. Come Out to (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney (or will be on Friday 11 April), I have decided to organise an opportunity for followers of this blog to meet and network.  If you are interested in having a drink, meeting new people and talking with fellow The Midnight Lunch followers about workplace, interior design, architecture, BIM or collaboration in our industry – come to Chicane Bar at 10-20 Bond St in the city from 5.30pm on 11 April.  (Note: This is not a sponsered event, so you will have to buy your own drinks and food!)

Image Credits
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  TitaniumDreads 

Worktech Melbourne: Jellybean Working

Yummy Jelly Beans by Ruth L, on FlickrLast week I headed down to Melbourne for Worktech 2014 . It is the first time I have attended a Worktech event , going based upon a few great recommendations – I had been told it was the best workplace event in Australia. I wasn’t disappointed. As well as getting a peak inside of NAB’s new 700 Bourke St at Docklands (which was the event venue) the presentations were generally of a very high standard – great presenters with relevant and focussed material. I also found it interesting to note that most of the presenters were not designers – but representing the client organsiations such as NAB, Bupa, Google, MLC and RMIT to mention a few – which sets the apart from many other workplace seminars. The day was jam packed – there were approximately 15 sessions, as well as the presentations these included a site tour and an interactive session moderated by Rosemary Kirkby. I thought rather than give you a sentence or 2 about all of them I’m going to share my thoughts on the 2 sessions I found most interesting , over this post and the next. If you see other sessions in the program and wonder what they were about – feel free to comment, tweet or email me and I am happy to share further thoughts.

Philip Ross is a workplace futurologist at Ungroup, and so not surprisingly, he was talking about the future of the work in a presentation which he described as being about Jellybean Working. At first I wondered what the reference to jellybeans might mean, surely not the fad for jellybean shaped desks, but as I got interested in his talk the reference to jellybeans faded into the background. Although he did explain towards the end, and so will I. The main focus of Philip’s presentation was the impact that technology would have on the workplace of the future – and not a far range future, but within the next few years, technology that already exists. Whilst we are all now familiar with the idea that we work using technology tools – and that they change and update all the time, I would say less of the audience were aware of the technologies that makes up what Philip described as the next break through in the workplace – big data and real time activity tracking.

Philip spoke about a range of technologies and methods for tracking activity both in the workplace and elsewhere including sociometric badging, social media and short range wireless as well as other technologies such as driverless cars which would change the way we work.

Sociometric badging is an area I have been interested in since I first came across it about 12 months ago. MIT have invented a device, which they call the sociometric badge which allows you to record data about the movement and behaviour of the person wearing the badge as they move around the workspace during the day. The device is about the size of security swipe card (and can have this function embedded into it I recollect) and it contains a whole bunch of bluetooth and/or wireless sensors, motion detectors and recording devices. So not only will it track where you walk, but if you are standing or sitting and if you are talking to someone and how loudly for how long. Put very simply and crudely, through a whole lot of measures, the data then indicates who you talk to a lot, who you say hello to in passing and where and how you spend your day. The data can then be used to create social maps of an organsiation, which are now being considered important signifiers of innovation and collaboration. I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic…If you are interested in reading more, I highly recommend “People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work” by Ben Waber.

As Philip pointed out, all of this leads to the question of privacy. However studies are showing that privacy is very much a generational idea, and that generally younger generations have less concerns with sharing information than older generations. Many people seem to no longer care about privacy at all – Philip referred to a website ijustmadelove (which I am not linking to my blog – I don’t want to think about how much spam it might set off!) where people are choosing to share very private information. Whilst some information we are sharing by choice, other information is shared without most of us realising it. We are already sharing significant amounts of information with search engines and retailers, and not just online but a link between instore and online.

Using short range wifi to allow checking into a locations via a social media application means that the next time you enter that space the retailer will know every time you are inside their store. They will also have your purchase history and your browsing history while in store. This will lead to live time direct advertising. Apple are also already using a low energy bluetooth system called iBeacon which doesn’t even require you to check in. I already have something like this happening on my phone which I think is operating via gps tracking – every time I pass the local burrito place after using an evoucher there – at this point it doesn’t offer me any deals but it does pop up to tell me I am near the restaurant.

All of this eventually leads us eventually back to the jellybean. Philip uses the term jellybean to refer to the social media dot or blob that indicates if you are online or offline. He suggests this will become more important in the workplace, signaling to others where you are and what you are working on. I know in an office I worked in with an instant message network people did stop calling the phones if your greet dot wasn’t on. However in the fairly near future, not only will this social media icon just signify that you are online, the technology to concurrently edit documents with other users, will also allow it to signify who is working on a document, whilst tracking technology will identify where in space they are physically located. Philip defines “Jellybean working” as the intersection of technology, people and physical space.

All of this freaks people out a little sometimes, but if you think about it, Apple and Google probably know everything about you already. Which is a nice segway into my next weeks blog post, which will be on Hayden Perkins presentation about NYC Google and Let the User Decide.

Would you sign up for a sociometric badge in your workplace? What new technologies or social media platforms do you think will transform the way we work? Do you use social media in your workplace?

P.S. I’m excited to announce that I’ll be presenting at RTC NA in Chicago in June in a session on a similar topic to this one – entitled BIMx:Big Ideas around Big Data. Registration for the conference hasn’t opened yet, but the RTC AUS conference registration has, it will be on in May in Melbourne and I am also presenting there – a session called Get your Groupon. Check out the RTC Events Site.

Image Credits:

Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Ruth L 

The social life of workspaces

IMG_4930 Recently I read this post on Office Insight and it reminded me to watch again one of my favourite architectural documentaries – The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. So I thought I’d also share it with you. You don’t have to be an architect to enjoy the film at all – anyone interested in human behaviour and cities as well as architecture, urban design, landscape architecture or interior design would find it interesting. In actual fact, I first came across it on recommendation of a friend who is a banker.

There are a couple of reasons why I love this film. The first is that it is really entertaining. William H Whyte has a deadpan sense of humor, with some memorable quotes describing the characters and of happenings in these urban spaces (personally I love the bit about the groups of men classed as “girl watchers”) and also the way he sometimes uses humor to state the obvious – like one of the “surprising” findings of the study – that people sit where there are places to sit.

The second reason why I love this film is that its all about people, and why people use certain spaces more than others. For me, its always been this interaction between people and space that has been the most interesting part of architecture, and one of the reasons why I gravitated towards interior design, as one area of architecture that is particularly people focussed and human in scale.

One of the things about this film is that it proves that essentially people don’t change that much, and, that what they want in an urban setting is very similar to what they want in an office space. The film dates from 1979, well before current popular terms in workplace design, such as sustainability and activity based working had been coined (or the concepts much discussed) – but interestingly enough, many of the key tenants of Whyte’s findings for small urban spaces are now routinely applied to office design. Choice of seating spaces, access to daylight, plants, food, art or entertainment and connections with circulation routes have become hallmarks of the best work environments 30 or so years later.

The first time I watched the film I remember thinking of some of these similarities. This time, one of the aspects that really struck me was that of choice. By providing different kinds of spaces, different levels of sun/shade, different heights/types of seating or different levels of noise – more people are likely to use the park or plaza. Of course with the park or plaza – people are making the choice in the first place to be there, whereas historically, for the office this was not always a choice. This is changing. The office becomes more and more one place amongst many which we might choose to work. In the same way the pocket park or plaza becomes a place where we might also choose to work. In this way, offices now compete with urban spaces, coffee shops and our homes as a place we might choose to be. While this shift is occurring, it is still the case for many people that the office is still the place they are expected to be most of the time they are working. By giving people choice of a variety of environments, we are likely to be improving their working day. Choice of where and how to work not only gives people a feeling of empowerment leading to positive emotional outcomes, but its also better for us physically as we move around and adopt different postures as opposed to sitting statically all day in one place.

One of the aspects Whyte mentions that hasn’t become a common feature of workplace design is water. Now there are a lot of reasons for this – its obviously complex, messy and expensive to introduce water inside your office building. However maybe we do need to look at one of the benefits that water brings – white noise. A common complaint in many an open plan office is the noise levels and the disruption that overhearing others can cause. Perhaps a waterfall might help reduce that feeling of overhearing your workstation neighbour? Being serious though, white noise is something that is quite underutilised in workplace design.

There is one of the big differences between urban space and work space – in the work place we do need to get work done. Perhaps one key is to recognize that Whyte is looking at the social life of urban space – and while the workplace needs spaces for a social life, it also needs spaces for isolation too. (I looked up what word I might use here to define the opposite of social, and I was actually surprised that most words were really negative!) Whyte noted that the main activity going on in these small urban spaces is “people watching other people”. Obviously if this was to be the main activity in the workplace we’d have a pretty dysfunctional workplace. Generally in the workplace most people don’t want to feel like their being watched (particularly if its by the boss!). There is obviously a need for more quiet secluded corners in a work place than in an urban space, a fact that is often compromised in the design of many kinds of open plan offices – activity based working or assigned seating. Although I think that the main desirable features – and in particular, the element of choice and variety is again what is important in creating these more concentrated (I don’t like to say anti-social) spaces.

Anyway, I encourage you to set aside an hour (or even just part of an hour to get an idea), sit back and enjoy the film and let me know what you think about urban spaces and workplaces.

Image Credits: This is actually one of my own, taken last year in NYC.  It is late in the day, so its not so surprising that the space is empty. I also went to a few of the main spaces featured in the documentary Paley Park and the Seagram, but didn’t have any good shots.  The same refreshment booth is still there in Paley Park, but I don’t recommend the coffee!

Are you sitting in a half empty office? What would you do with all that vacant space?

vacant 2 by devlon duthie, on Flickr

Two weeks ago I attended the Retrofit and Refurb conference in Sydney at Australian Technology Park. This is the first time I’ve attended this conference, and it’s a very diverse conference in terms of both the speakers and the attendees. The speakers were a mix of architects, engineers, sustainability consultants and suppliers, with the topics as diverse as the speakers and including energy upgrades, environmental upgrade agreements, GreenStar, workplace design issues, hotel refits and project case studies. I would say the target audience was building owners, however there really was something for anyone involved in refurbishing existing buildings – maybe not 2 full days though. The other feature of the conference program was that the sessions were not grouped in any logical fashion but different topics were spread across the two full days. So, for example you couldn’t choose to attend just a half day session to hear the topics about workplace design and GreenStar interiors. I assume this was deliberate in order to encourage attendees to spend the full two days at conference mingling and networking and visiting the supplier expo booths. For me it did mean a couple of sessions on my iPad catching up on emails and replying to comments on my blog – I’m not quite so interested in the detailed operations of air conditioning system upgrades! However, I certainly did find many of the presentations interesting though and have gathered new ideas for this blog as well as meeting some new people and catching up with others.

It was the first presentation of the conference which has inspired me this week. Simon Wild from Cundall’s presentation on multisite integration was one of the most interesting presentations of the conference covering a very diverse range of issues around building refurbishments and sustainability, with a focus on how integrating systems across multiple sites can offer environmental benefits (he has a great blog too). The case study presented was the Sydney Central Westfield, where by combining services systems across retail and office towers greater efficiency was achieved due to different functional uses and different peak loadings. Simon then spoke about how his could be taken further if larger numbers of buildings could share services, which is now becoming possible even remotely for electricity, due to remote transmission infrastucture where electricity is shared over data networks rather than physical transmission (I have heard a bit about this lately…but don’t ask me to explain any more than this about how it works!).

This discussion about multiple uses better utilising services got me thinking during the presentation about utilisation of office space – and how underutilized it is especially at night and on weekends…And then later in the presentation, Simon raised this very issue.

First some facts from Simon’s presentation:
A 1000 person activity based working (ABW) fitout with only 800 desks is equivalent to 15 years of the office operating carbon neutral.
Approx 50% of space in the CBD is vacant at any one time (and I think this is during work hours!)
City wide ABW in Sydney would save as much energy as making all the buildings in Sydney 6 star Nabers rated.

This week, this vacancy rate certainly made sense in my office, with a large number of staff away due partially to the exodus that seems to occur in most offices every school holidays or the week of long weekends. ABW starts to reduce this underutilized space belonging to a single organisation, but creates more empty space as organisations downsize their tenancies. We therefore have 2 kinds of space to consider – the space left vacant by tenants downsizing their tenancies and the temporarily vacant space by people in not being in the workplace.

So, how do we manage all this vacant space, what do we do with it? One suggestion at the conference was to convert commercial buildings into residential. But I’d like to contemplate how this could impact upon the way a traditional office or commercial building is designed and programmed, and how perhaps it could accommodate tenants working in an ABW a model, but other tenants as well, because ABW won’t be the answer for every workplace. Also how could such a building could accommodate other aspects of the changing workplace, such as the ageing population, more flexible working arrangements, options for working parents, and a closer integration of work and life. The commercial office tower as we know it really dates from the early to mid 20th century when western life was base around a separation of work and life with male workers with a stay at home mum and a couple of kids out in suburbia. The fact that these buildings stand at 50% empty consuming resources isn’t so surprising given how different our lives are today.

Mixed use commercial buildings are pretty common these days – the building that doesn’t have a coffee shop in the lobby is a rarity (certainly in Australia anyway), and it’s becoming quite common to have a couple of levels of retail and a food court beneath an office tower too. This is all great, but what else could we insert into our office buildings? In particular are there functions which would operate after hours or support the lifestyle choices of workers? Maybe all these extra functions shouldn’t all be at the bottom of the tower either? In Japan it’s not uncommon for common for restaurants and bars to be located within office tower buildings. Personally, I’m a big fan of a bar in the lobby – so much easier to convince your colleagues they do have time for a drink when they don’t have to go anywhere and maybe you will be able to pull in few more as they pass by.

At the other end of the healthy lifestyle scale, perhaps our office buildings can support some healthy choices too – some buildings already have commercial gyms, how about yoga, massage or acupuncture as well? Some of these kinds of spaces could even become flexible use spaces – meeting rooms during the day and yoga studio after work.

Currently, these kinds of facilities are either provided commercially or by single tenants for the use of their own staff, within their tenancies. Is there the opportunity for these spaces to be provided in a different model – either by the landlord, or perhaps by one large tenant but benefitting all tenants? This could enable better use if space throughout a building and enable landlords to fill up otherwise vacant space and entice new tenants. Maybe a landlord could provide a series of well being rooms suitable for massage, physio, doctors or acupuncture. Individual practitioners could rent the rooms perhaps on differing short or longer term arrangements. Maybe some operate commercially selling their services to individuals but maybe others are paid for by the corporate tenants as a benefit for their staff.

Landlord provided spaces and services, or commercial tenancies are quite straightforward in terms of who pays, the security of the space and shared access. Management of the spaces becomes the issue, with a landlord having more diverse functions and infrastructure to manage and operate. But how about tenants sharing out their tenancy space? What are the issues? And could the landlords actually help with this too?

Whilst the landlord could manage a major meeting and training facility for the use of all tenants, maybe this is better off managed by one of the tenant organizations. Perhaps they have a very high level of in-house meeting needs, specific expectations of service, or they are a training provider. Firstly, if this is to be a shared service, then the costs of the space and servicing it have to be considered – in my view it’s the landlord who is best placed to manage this, through rent discounts for tenants providing services such as this, and maybe a higher rent to other tenants. I’m not convinced these models should be a direct user pays system based on booking, but maybe that could work too – Although I think as soon as something like this becomes user pays, corporates just start to build their own.

The meeting facility is usually a discrete space though – what about letting people in to use all those vacant desks, informal breakout areas or casual meeting places? Or perhaps even breaking down the idea of one organisation, one tenancy? Traditionally the tenancy is required as a secure container for stuff (refer to my blog post on Natalie Slessor’s talk on the future workplace for more on this). More recently, this stuff was also electronic – data servers and computers. We had to protect our equipment, our papers, our computers and our data from being accessed by outsiders. What we could never really separate from outsiders was our people – today, it’s our people that are the most valuable asset. These days although we still want to protect our data, we don’t keep it on servers in our offices (creating yet more vacant space), we keep it on the cloud or in data centers. So why do we need that company network anymore? What if IT was provided by he landlord, as a utility, like electricity? Then there is no technical reason why I can’t come and work in your office for the day if it suits us both (oh, I didn’t mention, we have gotten rid of all those fixed computers and phones we need to keep secure too). The only reason left is confidentiality, which I think is mostly only a concern held by those who are up to something dodgy in the first place – or if it is a genuine issue – needs genuinely confidential space, not open plan offices anyway.

Does this help fill up the vacant space though? If I have just moved from my office to yours because you have better coffee and a bar and a massage room, we still might have some vacant space? Though it really does encourage choice, and highlight which offices are popular and place of choice to work then doesn’t it?

Maybe we can fill up some space with some more diverse functions, that encourage other things and parts of our lives too. Just a few more random thoughts – a commercial kitchen could be used by office caterers during the day and charities at night (I know there is one in Sydney OzHarvest that cooks for homeless), a model making workshop for the architectural practices could also replace our individual home garages and workshops, childcare shortages are a big issue in Australia and it would certainly help more women return to work if more centers are provided within workplaces…I’m sure you can think of more ideas? With the growth of the sharing economy and of co-working perhaps we will start to see a whole range of different ideas.

Is your workplace half empty right now? How would you share your office space? What kinds of facilities and services would you like to see in your workplace? Who would pay? Who should operate them?

Image credits
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  devlon duthie