Walk into a tech company’s office and the chances are you will see employees wandering around with their laptops, Skyping clients, making calls on their mobiles in soundproof pods and working not only from fixed desks but at the in-house coffee shop or from sofas in breakout areas.
Technology has enabled people to work more flexibly, prompting workspaces to be designed with this in mind. As Elaine Rossall, chair of the British Council for Offices (BCO) research committee, says: “We are only just beginning to see the impact of technology in the workplace; we cannot hide from it.”
It is not just established technologies such as laptops, smartphones and wifi that have had an impact. Emerging technologies such as sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) are driving change.
As these are adopted more widely and become better understood, the seamlessness they provide and the insights that can be derived from them are expected to lead to better use of space, increased employee productivity, lower running costs and improved sustainability.
So which technologies are in play? And how might they change the way offices are designed and used?
“We are only just beginning to see the impact of tech in the workplace”
Elaine Rossall, BCO
At The Edge in Amsterdam, which was completed in 2014 and is widely considered one of the world’s most intelligent and sustainable offices, sensors feature heavily.
They monitor how people use the building and produce heat maps showing where people are working. Among other benefits, this helps building managers to direct people to less occupied areas at busy times.
“It helps to optimise different spaces,” says Boudewijn Ruitenburg, executive commercial director of Edge Technologies, whose parent company is The Edge developer OVG Real Estate.
Flexible workspace providers are beginning to get in on the action too. Fora is one of them. The company has installed sensors in communal areas that provide a number of insights. Some detect how often each desk is used, while infrared sensors and cameras detect how people move within a space, all while retaining the anonymity of users.
Data from these devices informs the design and layout of both new and existing offices. It can be used to see which spaces are popular and when, which are not and where changes need to be made to improve the user experience and improve the use of space, for example by identifying that more breakout space is needed or whether there are enough meeting rooms.
Sensors have other applications too. Enrico Sanna, Fora’s co-founder and chief executive, says the company is investing heavily in intelligent sensors that trigger an action in an environment, for example light sensors that will switch off after two or three minutes rather than 15 or 30.
Enabling building users to maximise their comfort by controlling their workstation’s lighting and temperature is also an option.
“At The Edge, users can control lighting and temperature by one or two degrees using an app on their smart devices and can see how the building is performing even down to the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels,” Ruitenburg says.
Rossall adds that some offices have sensors that read the needs of occupiers and adjust the environment accordingly. Such applications are early examples of what the IoT – whereby devices are internet connected and can send and receive data – can be used for.
Billy Marigold, divisional director of ICT at engineering consultancy Hurley Palmer Flatt, explains: “[We are moving towards] an interoperability that gives us lighting, power, IT and wifi, everything that helps a building work, set on the same integrated network. With a network like that, you can have connectivity of devices – IoT – and the analytics from those.”
Insights derived from such devices can then be used to improve the running of a building. “It empowers facilities managers with information and enables landlords to make decisions that will save them money,” Marigold says.
For example, AI can calculate and compare optimum with actual performance and capacity, helping to identify when building infrastructure needs to be fixed before it causes major problems.
The importance of data in workspace design and performance is only going to grow.
Lucy Abbott, founder of Create Interior Design, which works for clients including the Boutique Workplace Company, says designing with data is now as much a part of the creative process as an interiors mood board or architectural plan.
“Processes used to gather key metrics from organisations, such as web-based surveys and physical observation studies using tablets or smartphones loaded with data-gathering software, provide designers and consultants with hard evidential data that can be compared to perceived opinions regarding work styles, agility patterns and space usage,” she says.
Data can also be used to monitor employee happiness and productivity. This is the focus of a PhD study by Joyce Chan, senior associate at architecture practice HOK. She has been looking at three types of data: that related to air and light quality, thermal comfort, temperature and humidity; data on energy use; and a combination of body functions including heartbeat, skin conductivity and brainwaves. In the future, she says, “a combination of these physiological elements could give you an idea of real-time performance to which the building management system could be programmed to respond”.
Chan has also been looking into facial recognition technology, which is already common in New York buildings. “If you have a meeting room booked, the software will recognise it’s you, or, if you’re not there within 10 minutes, it will free up the room,” she says.
Observing human mood
Eventually, facial recognition technology could be used as a more accurate alternative to people circling either a happy or sad face on a post-occupancy survey. Chan has been looking into being able to recognise people’s moods by harnessing AI and using that to measure wellbeing.
Other emerging technologies, such as 5G networks, are also likely to affect the workplace and may soon become a major consideration.
“The type of glass on some buildings that stops glare can also block mobile signals, as can types of double- and triple-glazing,” says Chris Boultwood, head of client connected services at Workspace Group. “We do a radio frequency survey on all buildings to check for this and have developed our own network within our buildings to ensure phone signal.”
This highlights the need to plan ahead and future-proof buildings so new tech can be introduced without causing unnecessary disruption. Cabling, for example, should be a key consideration, says Boultwood: “Of the activity in our centres, 80% is run through wireless technology and with wifi ever evolving, and people using up to four devices each, that’s a lot to support. Just because it’s wireless doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of wires.”
He says working with architects and contractors on what he calls “core digital infrastructure” is crucial, especially in the early stages of development. This will help to minimise disruption when new technologies come in. And there are big changes ahead.
“Software developers are creating a world where a worker needs only augmented reality glasses – which will create their work environment, displaying monitors and diaries – and a keyboard. Companies like Facebook, Boeing and several start-ups are busy developing it,” says Rossall. “The pace of technological advancements will only quicken.”
The workspace developers, owners and users that get ahead now will be those that capitalise more fully on the myriad of technology-derived benefits that are to come.