Has the pandemic rewired our brain and its relationship to work?

Neuroscience has proven that significant experiences such as parenthood, chronic pain or stress can change the way our brain fires, even our everyday behaviors change our brain.  “Of course, nearly everything changes the brain. Musical training reshapes parts of the brain. Learning the convoluted streets of London swells a mapmaking structure in the brains of cabbies. Even getting a good night’s sleep changes the brain. Every aspect of our environment can influence brain and behaviors.” Has the great remote work experiment achieved the same?

This recent piece in Workplace Insight got me thinking about how this applies now, post pandemic to the world of work and workplace.  In 2022, it is now the case for many office workers that too much has changed to just go back.  It seems very likely that a big part of what has changed is our brains.  It is not just working from home.  It is the homeschooling, the isolation, the anxiety and the difference of our lives before Covid and during Covid, its how all these things and more added up together.  I’m not a neuroscientist but I’m pretty sure it’s not just a changing of priorities or a reassessment, a great rethink or a great resignation.  A more fundamental shift has occurred – inside our heads – perhaps without us even being aware of it. 

Many of us were already changing even before the pandemic.  One of the things having the greatest impact today on our neuro wiring today is the smart phone.  Smart phones and our access to  endless information is changing the brains of adults in ways we don’t really yet understand yet –  from how we use our memory, to our attention span and even to how we perceive direction and understand maps.  Neuroscientists are finding many ways our brain changes as it interacts with technology, from smart phones and social media to virtual reality. 

If the brains of adults are changing, what about kids or even young adults in their twenties who have grown up with all this technology?   Even without having experienced a pandemic, their brains were likely to be very different to those of baby boomers when they started working in an office for the first time.  We can no longer relate office life in 2022 to ‘how things used to be’.  Even before the era of remote working, humans had already started to change.  And the speed of change is faster than ever before in our history.

Potentially the bigger challenge to how we think and relate to work is not about where we work but our relationship to our colleagues and the organisations we work for.  Over recent decades the idea of company loyalty and the value of a permanent role had already disappeared. Over the course of the pandemic the connection to organisations and the social bonds of work further disintegrated.

“Part of the problem is that the collegial, purpose-driven office that senior leaders idealize feels like a myth to many young workers. Since long before Covid-19, most offices weren’t delivering the mentoring, collaboration and social fabric that makes in-person work feel worthwhile. Indeed, many of the offices I visited in recent years were desolate, open plan landscapes dotted with individuals staring at screens, headphones on.” I’m sure many of us can relate to this statement, although in this article quoted, the author is trying to convince young people to go back to the office. 

If neuroscience is changing our relationship to work could a better understanding of neuroscience help us to better understand the way we work together and help solve these new challenges?  This 2017 article says we can.  Based on a decade of research, Paul J Zak (who is a neuroscientist), suggests that building trust is a key aspect of leadership and building teams and there is evidence that this then leads to  business success.   The essence of workplace culture is based upon social norms and the strength of our relationships. (Bruce Daisley has some great blogs, podcasts and videos on workplace culture for lots more depth)

Remote relationships change and challenge the way we build trust.  Some people would question is it even possible to build trust remotely? It’s not impossible but often it is likely to be a lot harder than in person.  Although again, this might be starting to change for those brought up with connecting technologies.

Recent research from Lendlease and Leesman  “found younger generations really pushed back against the notion you can’t make meaningful connections online, or those connections could only happen in person.  For this generation, that’s simply not true,” she said. “That’s not their lived experience. And in fact, they called out the awkward experience of making connections in real life.”

It’s possible that many of those sitting with their headphones on, might still have been interacting with people – they might have been emailing, chatting or using social media, communicating with colleagues inside the organisation or networks and friends outside.  They might not have been feeling any lack of in person interaction while sitting at the desk.  They might not have even needed or wanted that.  But in 2022 they know that this form of interaction can be done from home, a cafe or the beach – there is no social expectation to turn up, to be present anymore (or not everywhere anyway).

The reality is though that most of us don’t want all our work connections to be online and that some time spent together helps build relationships and trust. Neuroscience also posits that the brain reacts differently to someone we have met in real life to someone who we have only seen in a video screen (I first heard of this concept in a presentation from Fiona Kerr, Neurotech Institute). And I’m sure many people agree it’s harder to recognise someone in person that you only met online on zoom that in a real life meeting. If this is the case, then it doesn’t mean remote work isn’t possible some of the time but it adds another layer of information as to why we need to come together sometimes.  While our brains may have changed at one level, there remains much more ancient wiring that connects us together as a social species.

When we don’t all work in the same physical place every day, we need to start to be more intentional about the times when we do interact in person. We need both our processes and our physical workplaces to support this intentional coming together and no longer just be a sea of cubicles or benches for production. Work has changed – and so have we.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: Thanks to David Matos @davidmatos for making this photo available freely on Unsplash

Part time, hybrid or asynchronous – Building a culture of “Sometimes There”

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Over the last 2 years of this new world of work, I’ve noticed that part time work is becoming much more easily accepted – its no longer so strange to ‘not be in the office that day’ or even ‘not working at that time’.  As we have changed our ways of working due to COVID, more and more people are in the position of working this way – its now becoming more of a cultural norm.


In Australia, it has long been the law that if you have school age children or younger an employer must allow you to work part time ‘unless there are reasonable business grounds’ (this is in fact our legal definition of flexible working). The reality of this meant many companies technically permitted part time but individual managers, might not make it easy or comfortable. It was also common for this to be accompanied by little opportunities for pay rises and career progression . So it’s wasn’t surprising many part time workers ended up feeling like second class citizens.   Finding an employer and team that genuinely supported and believed in part time was a difficult proposition.  Promises made at a corporate level or at interviews didn’t always translate to reality.


Particularly when employers are finding it hard to get great employees, employers and managers might sell their company culture as being genuinely friendly and positive to part time employees when it’s only surface deep. The same is now happening with remote and hybrid work. Whilst some employers feel the power is with the employees they will “allow” hybrid (or part time or remote). For anyone looking for a company or team that genuinely believes in different ways of working – the fact they use the word ‘allow’ demonstrates straight away their true beliefs on the subject! 


While part time work is now better accepted and easier to fit within the framework of a hybrid work culture, these challenges still remain, the difference is that now a larger group of employees are potentially being exposed to this attitude – will remote, hybrid or asynchronous work hurt peoples careers? Many organisations and teams are still struggling to build cultures and processes that support all these ways of working, and at the same time support employees who want to work part time too.  A culture that supports these kinds of working should also easily translate to a culture that supports dispersed working over multiple geographic locations (something almost every larger or multi office company has longed to achieve) as well as asynchronous work (allowing working at different times – creating more flexibility and the ability for team members in multiple time zones to work together) Perhaps even more boldly in the future – could these cultures also support the idea of everyone working 4 days a week with the same pay for reduced hours?


What all of these kinds of working have in common is that not everyone is there is one place all the time (or at the same time). There are a couple of different challenges with all of these kinds of working.


One is the most obvious difficulties that everyone talks about is the challenge of mixed presence or hybrid video meetings.  Just 10 years ago the idea that we could all communicate and meet via video this easily was possible but still incredible, using expensive meeting room based VC was still considered somewhat wow.  But now people complain that hybrid meetings are not good enough.  Technically this is still some way off from being solved.  For now though the best solution is quite simple.  All participants to have their own laptop/device cameras, and reduce reverberation by using a single microphone and choosing your room carefully.  Otherwise – you are better to choose an all remote meeting.  Its surprising to me to see how many people don’t seem to get this basic right and still try to cram 6 people into a room with one camera, a crappy laptop mic and poor acoustics.  Then wonder why the people on the hybrid end are getting frustrated by not being able to hear and everyone is having a poor meeting experience.  Get this right and for many kinds of meetings, hybrid works. 


That is not to say that we should be spending our day on teams or zoom.  There are many kinds of meeting that benefit from being in person.  From meeting new people, to performance discussions to networking – meetings or events that require an emotional connection and are not just about facts are better conducted in person.  But if possible, they are better conducted with everyone in person – not some people in one place and other people as faces on a screen.  If essential these things can be done online (as we provided during lockdowns) but these are the kinds of interactions people want to come to a workplace for – regardless of if its 3 days per week, 1 or 4 times per year.  People don’t want to come to the office to spend all the time sending emails or on Zoom/Teams.  I think most of us accept that some of our office time on these things is inevitable but not whole days.


Regardless of if meetings are online or in person, the biggest challenge to the part time, hybrid or asynchronous worker is a lack of planning.  Not just planning for meetings and on site physical presence but planning around who does what and when.  If there is an assumption that everyone is always available and you can grab them anytime for input, meetings or even team social events then those that work part time have historically often been left out – both from gaining relevant information and building connections.  Ad hoc is the enemy of sometimes there. Ad hoc can be good for friendships, for networking, for social media. Ad hoc and the serendipitous can be great for business relationships too. But as hoc shouldn’t be the cornerstone of how you deliver in your business. It’s not how to get a project done.  Relying on ad hoc literally means you are relying on chance to get work done well.  Everyone benefits when there is some level of planning and expectations are clearly set.


Planning is not just about booking meetings and all these ways of working shouldn’t mean more meetings but can in fact mean less.  By planning work in different ways, you should need less meetings.  Often a meeting isn’t the best way to allocate or check someones work.  Meetings are best used for questions and interactions not listing tasks and deadlines or reading documents in front of someone else.  Working collaboratively in documents using comments and tracking, using tools like Trello or Monday, or specialised collaborative software like Revizto or BIMtrack allow for people to allocate, comment and work together as a team regardless of if they are in the same place or working at the same time.  Not all of this has to be about typing or writing either, tools like Loom allow for creating screen recordings and videos to share with colleagues.  Yes, sometimes there will be some things won’t get solved as quickly as they would in a phone call or a meeting, but then a short meeting can resolve the important or misunderstood issues.  Overall the time saved for everyone and people can spend more of their time focussed on getting work done.


Planning isn’t just about being organised.  Its also about respecting the time of the people you work with and trusting that they will get it done.  If you work in this way – you don’t need to be constantly ‘checking in’.  Planning doesn’t mean that something can’t ever happen by chance, that you can’t have an ad hoc coffee with a colleague, it just means that its not the primary basis of how work gets done. Serendipitous, cross team encounters and overhead knowledge are one of the biggest challenges to overcome, and perhaps another subject for a blog post on their own sometime – although interestingly enough this old one from 2013 actually still covers most of it!


Often the complaint that “it’s easier” in person (sitting alongside this is always how we have done it) means it’s easier for the manager. It doesn’t mean it easier for the organisation or in fact that it’s either  the most  efficient or effective way to get things done.


Personally I think of all the emerging description for all of these different mixes of working which don’t involve 9-5 at the office, I’d choose ‘liberated work’ a terminology and concept from John Preece from Hub Australia originally in this article , with a further paper that can be downloaded here as well as frequently discussed in his Linkedin Posts.  The concept of liberated work is all about choice and true flexibility not just of place but also time.  At its heart success at liberated work relies on mutual trust, respect and consideration.  It doesn’t matter if you work part time, hybrid or asynchronous – these all require the same ingredients to succeed.  Some companies have always worked with these kind of ideals. Others will never get there. What will be interesting to see is how this plays out now that more flexible work options are the wish of many employees and not just a small minority. Will these new ways of working end up like activity based work did, with many companies claiming they offer a version of ‘hybrid’ but doing it poorly because they don’t truly believe in it?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Jon Tyson via Unsplash

What if instead of ‘learning by osmosis’ we tried sharing with intention?

Before 2020 if you googled ‘learning by osmosis’ you would mostly find memes of cats and students asleep atop a pile of books, alongside articles telling you this was no way to study.

Then came lockdown, and all of a sudden the idea of ‘learning by osmosis’ was everywhere and all of a sudden I realised I now had a name to put to the problem I had been seeing with many many graduates of 2-5 years experience. No-one was actually teaching them anything and they were just expected to be learning because they sat there working in an office.  Similar to the people who believe that a positive workplace culture comes from just sitting in an office together, there seems to be a lot of people who believe that learning happens just by being together.


So is leaning by osmosis really the best way to expect professionals to learn? Do graduates actually get exposed to training and life lessons through overhead phone calls and incidental conversations? Do many people even have phone conversations anymore? Or is it just like culture, in that you might find you get better outcomes if there is some intentionality behind how you teach, coach and mentor.  Maybe more learning happens by inviting them to sit in on client meetings and spending time explaining the concepts behind what we are asking them to do?  Maybe even investing time in regular group training (which can also easily be recorded for future use).  All of these things can happen both in real life and virtually too.


It’s not just about learning for graduates but other ways we communicate and share information in the workplace too. The pandemic has highlighted the function of the office as a place where frequently all kinds of project and organisational knowledge is shared on an ad-hoc basis between whoever happens to be physically around at the time.  Long before Covid and remote work, larger companies have been aware of the need to create ways to record and share knowledge beyond smaller groups and individual teams who might speak to each other on a day to day to basis – to share across different disciplines and geographically dispersed locations. Anyone who has worked if a dispersed team has probably noticed this and perhaps thought about how to change it. I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons why dispersed and hybrid teams are often so difficult to setup and manage.


Do you want to rely on the right person happening to overhear the right phone call to learn or know something? Its a pretty chancy way of communicating even without the fact that people taking taking phone calls in the open office has been on the decline since before Covid (unfortunately though still to many people think its okay to do a Teams in an open office). More business is today conducted via email and scheduled meetings. Frequently one on one phone calls just create confusion when multiple parties are expected to be on top of the issues and part of the decision making. Copying everyone into an email or scheduling a meeting became the solution to ensuring no-one was inadvertently left out. While endless meetings are not ideal, sometimes it’s better than circles of calls (and messages) trying to keep everyone in the loop. Even when phone calls do occur, with mobile phones now the default number to call, frequently they are taken while on the go, or in a meeting / focus room so as to not force your colleagues to have to listen in.


An informal and ad-hoc approach to sharing information also can create disadvantages for many in the workplace. The people who are part time, work shifted hours, work on site some days or happen to have the day off. Even someone who was in a meeting or at lunch.  Whenever we communicate based upon whoever happens to be physically present at the time, we are potentially creating inequalities of information (which can even become a form of bullying).  A more intentional approach to sharing information, whatever level people are at helps avoid this bias.


Intentional teaching and sharing also helps address different modes of learning or language barriers.  By writing down or recording what we are communicating, we allow people to review and learn at their own pace and to check back in later.  Written forms of communication particularly where shared amongst the group – such as chat, planner platforms or shared documents are invaluable for dispersed and hybrid teams. As long as people use them! Make these methods the starting point for all your team interactions and very quickly most people will see the benefits. Not everyone finds writing the easiest way to communicate though – video and screen recording is now so accessible sometimes this can be an awesome way of communicating and learning. (Thanks to my recent grad who demonstrated that to me one day recording her software troubles on video to share with me).


For individuals and teams who work closely together and need to communicate frequently, scheduling time together regularly and in advance is an easy start. Both group time and one on one time are necessary depending on the structure of your teams. It doesn’t have to be weekly, maybe for some people it’s monthly.  Rather than focus valuable time together on who is doing what (which is easily written down and doesn’t always need discussion), consider discussing project issues and problems as a group so everyone can learn from one another.   


Sharing knowledge with intention means people are going to learn what they need to know and do it faster than if you rely upon  chance.  It has been a long time since I’ve spent a lot of face to face time with my team (long before covid), but I’ve always spent a lot of time teaching and coaching with intention.  One of the graduates I worked with told me she learned more from me on 3 months than she had in her previous 3 years of work.  I probably saw her 2 days a week. Throughout my career, I have experienced different models of distributed and remote work which have frequently meant I didn’t work in the same physical location as people who I could learn from, people I needed to share information with or teach – either inside or outside my organisation. Being open to learning, sharing and collaborating remotely opened up many more opportunities than it would have reduced or constrained my learning.


If the workplace is not for learning by osmosis, what is it for?  One of the things that is much harder (its not impossible) to either learn or do virtually is to network and build ties within an origination outside of your own team.  There is a lot of research starting to come out on the importance of weak ties and this is one of the challenges that remote and even hybrid work will need to overcome. Its not learning stuff that matters but connecting with people. In this way workplaces, real life conferences or networking events all serve the same function. You create connections that can help you later. You don’t need to learn everything yourself, but to know the right people to help you.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image via Marco Chilese on Unsplash

The Future of the Built Environment: Population Pandemic Climate

We are currently facing two forces that promise to fundamentally change the nature of our world and our industry: 

1. Changing demographics and population growth – as we face a future with ever more crowded urban populations, what must we do to cater to their needs and ensure that the Built Environment provides quality of life, freedom and choice? What implications are there for the way in which we work given the need to increase our production drastically, with a declining workforce?
2. A global pandemic reshaping the way in which we work – as remote working looks to perhaps become our ‘new normal’ what will this mean for an industry still centred around a manual labour model and struggling to increase collaboration and coordination? How do we manage this at a time when we are being forced to increase separation and isolation?

There is no doubt that fundamental change is upon us, our industry and the greater world community; but HOW will the built environment change, and how must our industry change to reflect this?

After a 2 year break from blogging – let’s not start back on a small insignificant topic! Last November I was asked to speak on a webinar for Singapore Polytechnic and the Digital Built Environment Institute on the above topic. From my perspective as an Australian, it seemed to me there was a third piece also critical to this discussion – climate change. So my talk addresses this as a third major driver of change. tI was invited to join two other speakers Randy Deutsch and Josh DeStefano to discuss this topic, and I was specifically addressing Interior Design (it was a little intimidating to be speaking alongside Randy, whose books I own!)

To me these three drivers of change are interlinked and have significant impacts on the world in general and on construction and buildings – as both a major part of our economic activity and a major contributor to environmental change. Our whole global economic system is dependent upon population growth. Countries like Japan have economically stagnated because of a lack of population growth, and countries like Australia could follow with the pandemic set to reduce immigration and population growth in coming years. At the same time, COVID 19 was caused by the twin factors of population growth and climate change which is causing increasing contact between humans and wild animals likely to lead to more increasing frequency of virus transfer between animals and humans. Unlike population growth and climate change which have so far been measured in years not days and months, the pandemic has an urgency. Like climate change and population growth, the end of the pandemic has to be a global solution. Unlike climate change and population growth, we see the short term impacts immediately but don’t yet know the longer term impacts on individuals and society. All three of these issues will form the background to future directions in our industry over coming years.

My approach to this topic was to address 10 trends in interior design, which to quote Sir Norman Foster “Instead of change, it [covid] has merely hastened, accelerated trends of change that were already apparent before the pandemic”

1. Flexibility

Flexibility has been a growing topic in workplace for many years (and a personal favourite to write about), however in 2020 when lockdowns instituted an immense global WFH experiment combined with no childcare, flexibility took on a whole new scale of meaning.

Flexibility encompasses place, time and space and all of these became factors for many people during the pandemic. Work from home, work when the kids are asleep or on the weekends, work from the bedroom or the kitchen table. All of these things were and are continuing to happen. Some are positive, and allow people choice as to where and when to work and others were forced upon people due to the unique circumstances of not being allowed to leave the house.

We can expect to see flexible work options remain, becoming more mainstream in the new hybrid workplace of the future. Design of homes might be more flexible to allow for spaces to change from study to guest room or dining space. Design of workplaces is also likely to see a need for more flexibility to accommodate less desks and more variety of collaboration spaces.

Time forms the biggest challenge for flexibility, and needs flexibility of mindset. From flexible start and finish times, many teams and organisations have moved beyond the idea of core hours to any hours – the idea of asynchronous working where people can work together, even if they don’t have work at the same time. (All remote tech company Gitlab being one of the best documented examples)

These changes towards a more flexible workplace will also have a positive impact on urbanisation and climate change. Choices for remote working or hybrid working will give people more choice of where to live and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary commuting or business travel.

2. Global vs Local

Interior design (and architecture) have become more and more homogensied globally as international communication and global trade gets easier and easier. Frequently you can’t tell which region of the world an image of an office comes from – particularly if the image is of a social space rather than a desk.

COVID has us questioning the global nature of the world, from travel to exports and imports the gloabalised nature of today’s world has made it easier for the virus to spread, and frequently created significant disruption when borders are closed or the amount of freight is restricted. To rely more upon locally produced goods for food or building mitigates these supply chain issues as well as the impacts on the environment that come with transporting so much stuff around the world every day.

Spending more times in our homes and local areas, rather than driving or flying around the city or the world has also made many of us see our own local area differently. Perhaps we realised we loved where we lived, or for many realised we actually didn’t like it all and wanted to be closer to nature, the beach or family. Once freed from the daily grind of commuting to the CBD, many took the opportunity to move out of cities to regional areas which here in Australia has caused a housing price boom in larger regional centres and coastal towns. Over time, this could very well mean a reduction in the urban city population, and more of a balanced choice between living in an urban centre of choosing a regional lifestyle. This is a trend that was already beginning as technology and wi-fi become more readily available, but the work from anywhere opportunity created by the pandemic has enabled more people to make this choice.

3. Blending

This is one of my personal favourties. Offices that start to like like homes or bars, and homes start to incorporate office spaces. The trend towards more domestic or hospitality style workplace design has been growing over a number of years, and was perhaps reaching its peak just in the months before COVID – I saw a large number of workplace fitouts featuring beds!!! (Casper is a mattress company – but was only one of a number I saw. Google has long been famous for its nap pods)

One of the most extreme examples of this was a solution to the COVID lockdown. These 9m2 pods encompass a work area, bed and small sink/kitchen space. Apparently you could sit out the lockdown in one of these bizzare new alternatives to co-working. Not sure where you would shower or how bad your home setup would have to be for you do want to do this…

I think it is unlikely that such extremities will be a feature of post COVID design – why sleep at work when you can work at home and sleep in your own (clean) bed. What I do think we will see is more comfortable office spaces, less a sea of workstations and more spaces that are designed for connecting with other people from breakout areas and lounges to collaborative meeting spaces. COVID has also meant many of us have become less formal, so I think we will see a dominance of more informal spaces for a mix of face to face and video collaboration rather than formal presentation / meeting rooms. Softer more residential style furniture and styling will make offices more welcoming to staff and visitors alike.

4. Wellness

In 2019 I think its fair to say that THE hot topic in workplace design was wellness. From end of trip studios and yoga classes, WELL buildings (this is an old post but is my own summary of WELL) and plants, corporate psychology and sleep programs, improving the physical health of people within the workplace environment has been a topic of growing importance for a number of years now. The pandemic has brought additional layers to what we might start to consider in the area of wellness. From physical distancing, to touchfree environments, anti microbial surfaces and increased air flow in buildings – again some of these, such as touch free design and increased airflow were already in evidence before the pandemic and will probably continue to grow in popularity as they offer benefits beyond the pandemic. Sneeze guards – maybe not so much in the workplace (although I can see the value in retail).

5. Co-working / living

Prior to the pandemic both co-working and co-living were fast growing sectors, with much initial doubt over if there would be a future appetite to share space with strangers after the pandemic. Whilst the future of co-living remains somewhat unclear, co-working has weathered the worst of the lockdowns and is in many places again booming. Whilst many people think of co-working has open plan hotdesking, for many co-working spaces this has never in fact been the reality. Many co-working spaces consist of smaller suites for individual companies, with shared breakout, meeting and support spaces and in reality these spaces are really no different from a large office building where you might share lifts, coffee shops and toilets with other people – either co-workers or other tenants. The really big benefit of co-working for businesses has been the ability to pay only for the space you need, and the flexibility of not being signed up to a 5 or 10 year lease. Co-working is also being seen as an alternative for individuals who can’t work from home but don’t want to travel into the head office, or indeed for some companies the alternative to even having an office with desks. Dropbox is moving to a 100% collaborative ‘studio’ workplace and will fund co-working as a corporate perk for employees who wish to work from an office.

6. Consumer Tech

Ever since the introduction of the smart phone, our home IT capabilities have frequently been exceeding what we are provided with at work. Whilst most people are frequently used to using multiple apps on their phone and frequently upgrading their devices for personal use, the same adaptability and attitude hasn’t always been seen in the workplace. However as technology becomes smaller and more portable and work has become less formal, these two worlds are starting to merge. Ten years ago it would have been very weird to receive a text message from a client, now its totally normal as is the use of chat groups such as Slack and Teams – and not just for work chatter, but for actually getting things done. Video conferencing has existed for years, but lockdowns have suddenly made it the norm rather than an exception and have also encouraged the software developers to put more resources into developing new features. Technology still struggles to replicate face to face but as development continues, we are likely to see more business applications for virtual and augmented reality (which again are probably more widely used in gaming than business today). Some companies such as PwC are already outfitting staff working from home with virtual reality headsets to enable more immersive collaborative meeting experiences. (I can’t believe I could be calling a meeting an experience…but in this application it seems to make sense!)

7. Smart Buildings

Another area of technology which has been in existence and growing for some years is the idea of technology enabled smart buildings. Automation of elements of buildings from sensors for lights and air conditioning to destination control for lifts (where you chose your destination from a lobby control panel not in the lift itself) are all fairly standard features of new or refurbished city buildings. The integration of these systems to allow for automated environmental controls and / or mobile apps for individual user control really takes them to the level of a smart building. A smart building can create a seamless user experience of navigating a building from entry via a touch free app through to ordering coffee to your meeting room which is preset to your audio visual, lighting and air conditioning requirements. These kinds of systems can also play a part in the pandemic, facilitating touch free movement and building operations and allowing for contract tracing. The collection of data from building occupancy could in future also allow for much more significant design simulations than is currently available.

8. Automation

Automation is the first and simplest step to implementing new technologies in design practice as well as buildings. Even autoCAD can be considered as some level of automation. But now for most practices we are already well beyond this. From tools that general sheets or building levels automatically to add in that upload your drawings and models to aconex while you sleep, many designers are now relying upon automation to undertake routine daily tasks. These tools are frequently based upon simple algorithms and many graduates are now capable of various kinds of visual coding.

The potential of automation for design is growing quickly. WeWork were a key early adopter of technology for interior design and the workplace, and developed an algorithm for automatically laying out desks within an office space a few years ago – this type of automation is now readily available within architectural design software.

9. Machine Learning

WeWork have also been a leader in the use of technology to understand how their workplaces are performing, to analyse improvements and then predict their spatial requirements. Beginning with using apps to gather data on meeting room usage, the research team were able to feed the information on booking frequency, room size, and audio visual technology to teach a neural network. The neural network learns to associate different layouts with frequency of booking, and over time was better able to better predict the actual usage of meeting rooms than the human designers.

This kind of process could allow us to better understand and validate many of our design assumptions and better anticipate the needs of building users. Simulations and machine learning can also help us design buildings to control airflow and spread of viruses. Across many kinds of commercial design from hospitals to hotels, retail and workplace – the future of machine learning has the potential to influence how we plan and design our buildings for better use of space, and could potentially allow us to reduce the amount of space we need to occupy add therefore build.

10. Artificial Intelligence

In some way the last three trends form a grouping of the direction technology is advancing. Automation and machine learning are required before we can get to artificial intelligence. While AI is already making an appearance in many industries (a chatbot is a basic AI), many people, particularly designers, would like to think that an AI will never be able to design – that creativity is a purely human attribute.

Whilst AI in creative industry has a long way to go – one of my favourite examples being the AI paint colour names from Stummy Beige to Stanky Bean – there are already examples of AI artists, fashion designers and more. It won’t be long before we start to see more examples of AI in interior design, although the likelihood is that humans will continue to work alongside the AI for some time to come.

If design and construction leverage these trends, what could our industry look like by 2030?

Thanks to the Digital Built Environment Institute and Singapore Polytechnic for inviting me to join them and share my ideas on this thought provoking topic – up until this invitation I’d been deliberately avoiding joining the pandemic speculations!  Early in 2020 it seemed too soon to understand what the impacts might be, now I’m looking forward to exploring the ideas and topics that have exploded in the world of work over the last year.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: Photo by Stanley Li on Unsplash

WORKTECH Sydney Coming Up

I’ll be at WORKTECH19 Sydney on Thursday 21 February – will I see you there?

From time to time, there are certain perks to being a blogger – one of which is the chance to convince people that you do know something about what you do, and you’d be a great person to help them out promoting your event.  While I do this on a regular basis for BILT (which actually probably involves more hard work than perks), occasionally other opportunities arise such as being a Social Media Ambassador for WORKTECH. 

I’ve been attending WORKTECH for a number of years (maybe since they first started their event in Australia actually) and this is the second year I’ll be there tweeting away in my capacity of social media ambassador.

Personally I’m really looking forwards to Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun as a speaker you wouldn’t get to see here in Australia often who is doing some really interesting work at the intersection of design, technology (and everything else really).  Hopefully I’ll have some great inspiration for some new blog posts too.

Here is a link to the full programme, sessions include:

  • BCG Create An Office Of The Future In Hudson Yards, New York | Ross Love, Senior Advisor, Office of the Chairman at Minderoo; Ex- Managing Partner for Boston Consulting Group New York
  • Super-Experience Designing For Talent In The Digital Workplace | WORKTECH Academy & Mirvac
  • The Art and Science of Murmuration: Burning Man’s Culture of Cooperative Leadership | Stuart Mangrum, Education Director, Burning Man Project
  • B:Hive – New Zealand’s Largest And Smartest Co-Working Space | James Grose, CEO, BVN; Greg Smales, Director, Smales Farm
  • Gen Z Workplace | Natalie Slessor, General Manager, Workplace & Change, Lendlease
  • What Is This Tsunami Of Data Arriving From My Buildings Telling Me About How To Save Money?! | John MacLeod, Internet of Things Specialist, IBM
  • A MONSTER AT WORK | Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun, Designer of Extreme Experiences, NBH Studios | Sponsored by Mirvac
  • Crossing The Threshold – The Sustainable Digitalisation Of Work And Real Estate | Simon Carter, Director, Morphosis | RICS & Morphosis
  • The Sentient Workplace | Philip Ross, Futurologist & CEO, Cordless Group & UNWORK
  • Designing for Fashion David Jones & Country Road Group – Case Study | Heidi Smith, Partner, Gray Puksand

If you are interested in future of workplace, people, culture and technology – then this is a great event to attend. Here is the link to register to WORKTECH Lounge Wednesday 20th February & WORKTECH Conference Thursday 21st February.  I hope to catch up with you there!

If you are interested in the event but not based in Australia, check out Unwired’s website as they hold similar events all over the world.

Ceilidh Higgins

Is your work flexible, agile or autonomous? (and what is the difference anyway)


What does flexible mean to you? Is it the hours you work? Or the place? Is activity based working the same as flexible working? And what does agile working really mean?

These days companies are frequently talking about offering flexible and agile working conditions or environments but what that means in reality can vary widely between different organisations.  If you google “flexible work” in Australia you will find the top links are to the government Fair Work Australia website. Fair Work defines flexible work as “Examples of flexible working arrangements include changes to: hours of work (eg. changes to start and finish times), patterns of work (eg. split shifts or job sharing),locations of work (eg. working from home).” However, one of the key items of note in Fair Works requirements for defining and flexible working arrangements is that everything is documented and approved – essentially it is a contractual definition of flexible.  Definitions from government bodies in the UK and USA are similar.  Is this what you thought flexible working was? I only discovered this definition when I was returning to work part time after maternity leave and I found it very surprising – for years I thought I’d had flexible working arrangements but it hadn’t been this. This contractual or legal definition of ‘flexible work’ does not allow the flexibility of varying hours day to day or with little notice.  It’s not about trust or performance based outcomes, it’s still about watching and clocking the hours.  I was used to travelling, working from home if I had a tradesman coming (or needed to write a submission), taking time off if I worked a weekend or even just arriving at a different time because I chose to fit a yoga class in before work. I would have thought for many people having to contractually defining flexible is almost the opposite – it wouldn’t meet the needs of many people looking for more flexibility in the workplace – such as the ability to attend children’s school events or to care for a sick child while still working. So if flexible isn’t what I thought it was – what is the right terminology to clearly define this way of working, based upon trust and the ability to change the plan? Could this be activity based working (ABW) or agile working?

While ABW is a way of working, it is a way of working which has been very much linked to physical environments.  Often the term agile working is also used to define these types of working environments. But what is the difference between agile working and activity based working?

ABW is based upon the premise that staff choose where to work in order to best perform the task required.  The choice may be in a variety of work settings within the workplace, or somewhere else all together. It’s is generally acknowledged that for ABW to be successful, a different style of management with a higher level of trust is required. If a supportive management culture exists this would therefore seem to lend itself to people also chosing the time at which the work is performed?  But the definition of activity based working is also dependant upon the premise that staff don’t have an allocated desk. So what kind of work is it if you do have an allocated desk but you can choose when and where to work?

I recently started researching agile working and what this term really means, and discovered that agile working is a lot bigger than just a way of working or an environment.  Agile working begins with how you run your business “you allow the established routines within your business to quickly and seamlessly adapt to the quickly changing marketplace.” While agile working does involve the flexibility of time and place, it is also about the flexibility of management, structures and the ability for an organisation to respond and transform itself. (You notice this articl doesn’t use the government/contractual definition of flexibility but the more commonly accepted notion).

It’s also important to understand that agile working is not the same as agile development – it’s not about the post it notes.  Agile development is a project management methodology developed in software development in the 1990’s which in recent years has become very popular across various sectors.  One of the most popular methods is known as Scrum.  Scrum is best known for the daily scrum and scrum task board of post it notes. (Kanban is also similar).  One of the limitations of Scrum is that is works less well for teams whose members are geographically dispersed or part-time – whereas agile working should not be limited by this. Paul Allsop of the Agile Organisation defines “Agile working [as] bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).” 

In this article, John Eary discusses he differences between flexible and agile working, and the concept of work-life integration. Work life integration allows staff to choose when and where to work to suit their personal lives, and as long as performance outcomes are achieved.  John notes that “Managing this trade-off is a challenge for employers and employees. For employees the trade-off for more flexibility in working time is accepting greater responsibility in meeting work commitments. For employers the trade-off for staff becoming more responsible and responsive is adopting a relaxed attitude to their staff’ working practices, particularly to when staff choose to work. ”

To me, this says that agile working is really about giving everyone autonomy to chose how, when and where they work. Numerous studies have been published to verify that autonomy is one of the single biggest predictors of workplace satisfaction. Whether it is control of your place and time of work or of your environment, autonomy helps both attract and retain the best and brightest staff. And according to Gensler, autonomy also increases your chances of innovation.

While everyone these days claims to offer flexibility, how many organsisations are truly offering autonomy? When we ask for flexiblity should we be asking for autonomy instead?

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I’m currently looking for a new role as a lead/senior workplace designer – in an organisation that offers flexibility (3 days per week) and autonomy.  Get in touch with me via the links at the bottom of the about page you are hiring! (no recruiters please)

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

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