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

Image Credits:

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 

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!