Designers are using sensors, data and virtual reminders to rethink the office of the future.
The workplace is all about the human experience, right? After all, how we think, behave and move through a space isn’t about algorithms and ones and zeros. Rather, it’s a tactile and sensory experience, and we humans have an eye for beauty and a gut instinct for how we feel inside a space. It’s the people around us who influence us, not technology.
New trends indicate that’s about to change. Designers, architects and executives have discovered how software, data, apps and devices can make workplace experience far better. Instead of just theorizing about how real workers use (and don’t use) space, and how design influences work, designers are using data drawn from offices to craft winning office designs and drive positive behaviors.
Here’s a look at how technology is influencing our workplace design and behavior.
Data that informs, sensors that track, and offices that respond
Designers are now using sensors, data and predictive analytics models to help companies manage their real estate and understand how space is used. This is increasingly important when real estate and office lease prices climb. Every square foot counts.
So what does that look like?
Architectural and research firm Gensler recently piloted a test in its New York City office to collect data using IoT sensors. The firm measured everything from daylight levels and occupancy to temperature and energy consumption. The company could measure how well a new way of assigning desks altered the dynamic of the space or perhaps improved productivity or collaboration.
Gensler predicts that these kinds of data-driven intelligent building systems will be essential in the future. The next frontier, according to the firm, is using this tech to create more agile workplaces that can respond in real-time to what’s needed.
Too much energy being used in empty office space? Artificial intelligence can dial down the thermostat or pull down the shades. How about your workload at the time? Sensors that identify a period of intense project-based work might prompt a quick rearranging of space. A focus area perhaps is magically transformed into a space for collaboration.
San Francisco-based Density already provides this kind of insight for clients. It installs sensors inside conference rooms and other spaces to analyze anonymous traffic patterns. Are people drawn to specific spaces? Are individuals camping out in conference rooms, which can lead to an ineffective use of space?
This kind of space planning is increasingly in demand because real estate is one of the top expenses for companies, especially those in top urban markets. Surveys show that office space is empty as much as 40% of the time due to remote working. Plus, the average building wastes 30% of its energy through inefficiencies, such as lighting, heating and cooling areas that are not occupied, according to Gartner Research.
Virtual reality brings imagination to life
What if you could walk through your office space before it’s even designed? That’s happening right now, thanks to advanced virtual reality modeling. Kelly Funk, who leads the data design team at IA Architects, says she often takes people on tours of new spaces long before they’re finished.
According to Funk, this is hugely beneficial. One big reason: she can stand next to them in a virtual model and witness first-hand their visceral reactions.
“It allows us to see what our clients are seeing and feel what they are feeling,” says Funk. “These raw, emotionally-charged reactions connect us in a profound way.”
In addition, VR lets designers explore the ‘why’ behind those reactions. They can come up with ideas on the spot based on a better understanding of what they see and feel inside a virtual space. That, in turn, drastically improves the design process, communication and collaboration about what a workplace needs—long before it’s finished, she says.
Of course, architects and designer have done this for years with clients, except they were looking at a set of paper drawings. But to the untrained eye, it’s hard to fully comprehend what something will look like. This allows people to prepare themselves for what they will see when they move on day one.
Tech that drives behavior
What if technology could “nudge” your employees to do the things you’ve always wished they’d do? It’s already here in the form of smartphone apps and beacons with push notifications.
Here’s an example. The number of meetings has dramatically climbed in the past several years. The result? Conference room congestion. To ensure people don’t book a conference room and then fail to show up for that meeting, thereby eliminating that space for other groups, apps can now automatically release it in 10 minutes if no one shows up.
That’s the beacon at work. Apps can then send reminders to the person who booked the room, and then alert another group if it becomes available.
At Boston Consulting Group, the email system includes a pop-up window that emerges when management sends emails during non-work hours. The message alerts the managers to the situation, and lets them mark the email as low priority, decide to just send it the next day, send it immediately without changes or just cancel the email. This nudge helps maintain work-life balance for employees and for managers.
Another helpful push: Google’s former head of HR helped found Humu, a startup that develops software that among other things, nudges managers to send kudos to employees who are doing great work, and even prompts managers to send messages to reporters asking them what they look forward to doing during the weekend.
Nudging for health and productivity
For several years, wearables have been on the rise, prompting us to do everything from track our sleep and take more steps to meditate. Whether it’s smart watches, rings, bracelets and smart glasses, you can get all the prompting you need with location-based alerts, biofeedback, brain training exercises and meditation.
Now, some employees are using wearables to drive healthy behavior. Compared to other investments in employee health, these wearables are relatively low-cost tools that send a push notification to take the stairs, stand up or use the standing desk for an hour.
In Indianapolis, IT company Appirio gave its employees free Fitbits to encourage them to track their fitness and hopefully cut healthcare costs. Some people believe that wearables will be mandatory for a whole host of workers, including first responders, paramedics, and firefighters, hoping they better track their heart rate and stress levels.
Voice assistants descend on the office
It’s clear that Alexa and Google Home have flooded people’s homes (voice shopping is expected to hit $40 billion by 2022). In fact, the voice revolution has been called the biggest technology shift since Steve Jobs launched the iPhone.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that Salesforce is developing a voice assistant for the workplace. Called Einstein, the virtual assistant lets you get updates, open dashboards, take notes and assign tasks—all with the power of your voice. Of course, real live executive assistants are the ideal way to boost your productivity. But not every employee can have their own assistant. This technology, Salesforce says, will let employees at all levels streamline their workday and be more effective at their job.
Whether it’s virtual reality to see your office before it’s built or devices that encourage your employees to move, tech is redefining where we work and how we work. We’ll be exploring this topic more in coming posts, including how social media impacts the workplace and how to ensure it fuels better work habits.