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Design Forecast: The Smarter Workplace

Schuchart Construction, Seattle, Washington

Grande or tall? Window or aisle? For here or to-go? In our personal lives, we are not only offered choices—we’ve grown to expect them. It seems strange, if we can’t customize.

This desire for customization extends to all facets of life. Some people like to shop in brick and mortar stores where they can handle a physical item; others prefer to order it online, in their favorite color from their favorite brand. But everyone at least wants the option to choose between online shopping and the in-store experience. At sporting events, discriminating fans look for more than just a seat in the arena—they want a customized experience that provides a litany of food options to choose from, and (for a price) allow greater access to the players. When traveling, people want to be able to choose between five-star brand hotels, comfortable-but-affordable boutiques hotel, or the budget-friendly option of a unique home or apartment via Airbnb. Travelers also customize their vacations online by perusing a host of discounted airfares, tours and attractions and then choosing what best suits their unique itinerary.

This level of personal choice is now expected in the workplace, as well. No two people do the same tasks or work the same way throughout a day or week, so no two people should occupy the exact same workspace. The one-size-fits-all model for individual workstations has become a relic of the past.

Think about your typical work week. There are times you need to work alone, and there are times you need to come to the office to connect and work with other people. You socialize with colleagues to build relationships, trust and social capital. You learn from others, in groups, and online. You reflect and focus, meet and collaborate. And all these activities aren’t equally supported at the average desk. So you get up and move around. You complete some tasks at your desk and others in conference rooms. You meet with colleagues while pouring a cup of coffee or eating lunch. You socialize at the copier or printer. Even the gym, cafeteria, and corridors present opportunities to work in different ways and support the tasks you’re trying to meet.

Given this trend towards increased customization and “smarter lives,” it will be important for workplaces of the future to anticipate our work life and patterns and respond in real-time to our needs, just like apps and websites do. This is already happening. I worked with GSA on their new headquarters building in Washington, D.C., which is not only a pilot project for mobility for the federal government but a pilot project for smart buildings as well. We helped renovate a 100-year old building so that it could not only detect when/where employees are working but respond to their needs. It can do this because the building’s independent systems are tied together into an integrated system developed by AgilQuest Workplace Management Solutions and this systems communicates back-and-forth with the various building systems in real time. If this sounds a bit abstract, let me walk you through how this integrated system supports GSA workers on a day to day basis.

Let’s say Bob is coming to the GSA building to work on Wednesday. While on the metro that morning, he reserves a workstation with tools he needs to complete his morning work for 11 am and a conference room for his meeting later that afternoon. As he walks from the metro and gets close to the building, his phone beeps. Up pops up a little message that something like “I see you are close to the building; would you like me to check you in?” If he says yes, then the system checks him in and notifies all the building systems “Hey, Bob is almost here. Get his space ready for him.” The lighting system now knows to turn on the lights in his workstation zone; the HVAC system knows to come out of standby mode and stay in occupied mode for the day; and electricity is turned on for the electrical plugs. The same system also knows to turn on all the features in the reserved conference room so that the space is ready when Bob’s meeting is scheduled to start. The system turns the systems off at the conclusion of the meeting, thus saving electricity and other resources rather than keeping an unoccupied room powered up and ready for work. Sensors in the lighting system monitor the conference room to make sure the meeting actually occurred. If no one arrives within 15 minutes of the scheduled start time, the various systems automatically turn all services off. Lighting is turned off, HVAC goes into standby mode, and any variable electrical power is turned off. The Agilquest system also cancels Bob’s reservation and releases the conference room back into the available pool. If someone else needs a meeting room, this conference room now becomes available much earlier than previously planned. So the building not only anticipates, but responds to shifting schedules. It is allowing GSA to use their space more efficiently and save significant operating costs and energy.

Wragge Lawrence Graham, Birmingham, United Kingdom

Working smart ultimately boils down to helping people achieve peak performance. We all work differently depending on the task at hand, what’s happening around us, and our personal motivation or engagement level. Some people work better under pressure, others do not. This is why workplace customization can play such a huge role in fostering productivity and worker satisfaction.

Take focus for example. Gensler’s workplace research has revealed that workers spend, on average, about half their time working alone on activities that require significant concentration. But not all focus work is the same. I do some of my best creative work on airplanes, in hotel rooms, or at my home office—spaces where I’m not typically interrupted or distracted. I can write this blog or check emails at Starbucks or the Gensler café, because I’m not vested the conversations taking place around me. But when I analyze information, I want to be at my desk where I can spread out, quickly connect with others to confirm data, or bounce an idea off a colleague before diving back into the analysis. To achieve my personal best, I take advantage of all these work settings. I choose whatever space will help me to “get into the zone” for each task. Doing so allows me to achieve my most intense focus and to get lost in the joy of the work itself. Having a choice on not only where and when, but how to let my mind do its best work lets me work efficiently and effectively and greatly increases my satisfaction with what I’m doing.

Gensler’s 2013 Workplace Survey, which collated and analyzed responses of over 2,000 U.S. workers, made one thing abundantly clear: choice plays a powerful role in performance, innovation and job satisfaction. In fact, we found that employers who provide a spectrum of choices and customizable spaces are regarded as more innovative and have higher-performing employees than employers that do not. This year, we surveyed 7,200 respondents across the U.S, U.K., and Asia. It’s the largest workplace survey of its kind. We seek to understand how work is continuing to change over time and we want to identify and understand the key drivers of innovation. We are currently in the process of analyzing the results. So far, we’ve uncovered that we were on the right path in 2013. Choice is still a powerful driver, along with some other important findings…. but that’s another blog. Results of our 2016 Workplace Survey will be shared later this spring. Stay tuned!

This post is part of a series related to the 2016 Gensler Design Forecast, highlighting trends that will transform how we live, work and play in the next decade.

Janet Pogue is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office. She co-leads the firm’s Workplace Sector and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. Contact her at janet_pogue@gensler.com.

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