Article:

Building Technologies/Workplace Design in the Experience Era

July 8, 2020

Rethinking the workspace


“I really enjoy working in this office,” says Olivia as we enter the newly renovated +25,000 ft2 floor of the major Canadian Bank headquarters. The space is lit with natural daylight entering through the large windows with efficient shades. The abundance of plants and greenery gives it a spa-like feeling. You would never know that you’re in one of the most iconic commercial towers in downtown Toronto. Thanks to insulating materials installed on the walls as well as the luminaires, the space feels surprisingly quiet knowing that hundreds of employees are already busy working.

“That’s the quiet area” says Olivia, pointing to what looks more like a Victorian era library than an office. That is where employees can find peace and quiet in the name of productivity. There is of course the kitchen/eating area with healthy food options. Gone are the days of waiting in line at Starbucks for a jolt of energy. Instead, you can simply make a latte or tea while chatting with colleagues.

Olivia gestures to the space around her. “This space is an experimental floor,” she says. It is no secret that the concept of the ‘workplace’ has been changing. With the increasing number of digital nomads, flextime and virtual offices, organizations are rethinking the workspace. To stay relevant in an evolving working culture, this banking organization has decided to evolve alongside it, deciding to re-fit their space.

The bank has decided to refit one of their floors using WELL guidelines, a well-being standard and certification for commercial buildings, and evaluate the impact of the WELL on their staff’s well-being and performance. The WELL standard defines guidelines for various elements within the building including air, lighting, sounds water, movement, community, materials, thermal comfort, nourishment, mind wellness, and more.

Olivia looks around with a smile on her face. “We will use the data gathered throughout this experience to define and refine our design for other floors,” she says excitedly.

Blend working

Prior to the Pandemic, staff working from home and the office, otherwise known as ‘blend working’ was mainly a trend. However, many companies were surprised by how well working from home has fared during the pandemic area. Though the initial bump in productivity reported during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic has faded, most companies/CEOs have reported being impressed with how well remote work is functioning.

In a recent Bloomberg article, Bank of Montreal, a banking corporation employing 45,000 employees, communicated that “they anticipated that as much as 80% of its staff -- or about 36,000 employees -- may adopt new flexible arrangements that blend working from home with going into the office even after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides”.

Now that organizations have seen that they can operate with remote workers, blend working is becoming the norm.

This will result in employers and the architectural community re-thinking the workspace. Instead of being a workspace, the office is going to become a “collabspace” - a place where staff gathers to collaborate, share, and innovate. Being present physically is not only important for innovation; it is also needed for sharing organizational culture. In a recent interview on Bloomberg, Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, emphasized the importance of face-to-face time to “maintain the corporation’s culture as well as to promote innovation”.

In fact, Satya Nadella, CEO of the technology giant Microsoft, warned about the consequences of embracing telecommuting permanently in a conversation with New York Times stating that it would be “replacing one dogma with another dogma.”

Shaper open office space

Most organizations will likely adopt blend working. Companies will therefore need to re-think their work environments and building owners need to rethink what amenities their tenants require.

More collaboration spaces and focus spaces

The office will primarily become a space for people to collaborate and interact. It will also be a space where you can work in quiet with access to required resources - a private library in a way, eliminating distractions from your family pet, emails, TV, etc.

Today’s open spaces where people across various functions sit and work close to each other will most likely get phased out. Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber recent, recently published a study in the Harvard Business Review, where they found that “face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after two fortune 500 firms transitioned to open offices, while electronic interactions increased to compensate”. In a different study for a major technology company from 2008 to 2012, they found “that remote workers communicated nearly 80% less about their assignments than co-located team members did; in 17% of projects they didn’t communicate at all. Their conclusion? “If team members need to interact to achieve project milestones on time, you don’t want them working remotely.”

“Wellcoming” spaces

“Happy staff, happy company” has never sounded more relevant. After all, an organization’s most valuable assets are its employees. How employees work and contribute to the everyday tasks at hand is what makes one company more successful than the other.

According to Gallup, two major factors influence employee performance: engagement and well-being. Low employee well-being typically leads to poor physical and mental health, which leads to lower employee engagement, higher turnover, poorer customer service and higher healthcare costs, which finally translates into eroding profits.

Increasingly, organizations are changing their corporate culture to be centered around their employees by putting in place well-being and engagement programs. The well-being programs include many elements, such as providing flex hours, and fitness and mental health support programs.

One of these programs focuses on a healthy workspace environment. What is a healthy workspace environment? Well, there are many factors that need to come together to create it.

Some features under the program are mandated, such as higher standards for water quality, as well as advanced lighting design that alters with daily circadian rhythms. There are many optional initiatives, from sound masking for better acoustics to supplying basic bike tools for commuting cyclists.

In their Harvard Business Report article, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber recent discuss GlaxoSmithKline wanting a new office format that would optimize performance. The company started a pilot called the workplace performance hub where they experimented in the space with the help of architects and behavioral scientists. Using everything from wearable devices and sensors to traditional performance-management systems, they tracked steps, heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, lung function, posture, well-being, collaboration, and performance. The data was used to tweak all aspects of the space from lighting, temperature, aroma, air quality, acoustic masking, ergonomics, and design to see how these controllable parameters would meet their employees’ needs.

This type of approach can be expensive. However, once you have identified the right formula, you can replicate across all spaces within the organization. This is approach is no different than how retailers and the hospitality industry manipulate sight, smell, and sound to trigger purchase behavior in consumers and brand loyalty in travelers.

Using your connected lighting system as part of a well-being design

How can lighting help with the well-being of an office? Let’s go back to the Canadian Bank’s new re-fit floor in downtown Toronto.

The architectural firm responsible for the project had selected Cooper Lighting Solutions’ connected lighting system, for its ability to meet the WELL lighting elements as well as the other elements defined by the standard; notably thermal control and sound features.

The selected luminaires satisfied the visual requirements for a high-quality light for healthy space such as no signs of flicker as well as high color rendering index.

Meanwhile, the integrated lighting control system satisfied the circadian requirements of individuals by providing the ability to create personalized lighting environments to improve an individual’s productivity, mood and well-being. Using an app on their mobile phones or a web browser, employees can customize their immediate lighting environment by adjusting the luminaires’ intensity and color temperature.

Smart phone - app

The light architect also got enchanted with the Shaper® luminaires with built-in sound absorbing acoustic panels. Installed in the conference rooms and lunch areas, these beautiful architectural lights allow natural light to pass through, creating a unique window effect while also absorbing sound.

Shaper open office space

However, the lighting system was also selected for its non-lighting related properties. We have all experienced unfavorable levels of heat, humidity and ventilation, which lead to itchy eyes, headache and throat irritation. Outdoor weather, indoor occupancy and building physics and performance, including ventilation rates, are highly variable and have a direct impact on human perceptions of thermal comfort. The engineering firm working on the project had designed a ventilation system that would react quickly to the change in outdoor weather and spaces performance. They also wanted to incorporate occupancy counting as part of their ventilation strategy, i.e. the airflow adjusts within closed spaces based on the capacity rate. The project also needed to continuously gather thermal data across the floor to monitor the performance of the system and inform remediation actions. The selected connected lighting system came with ceiling sensors that also measured temperature and humidity, and counted people within the space, which provided the necessary data needed by the heating and cooling system.

Software app on tablet

Finally, the executive sponsors from the bank liked the idea of sharing the data gathered by the lighting system with other applications via APIs to enable non-WELL use cases such as automatically cancelling a conference room if the conference was empty 10 minutes after the meeting start time or providing an application that would allow their employees to find out when and where the next collaboration room is available or even offering a wayfinding application to their employees once they have re-fitted all their spaces.

WaveLinx Wireless model
Exciting places for exciting times

As organizations embrace blend working and continue their focus on employee wellbeing, they will need to review their workspaces and how it will meet the needs for the new reality. These changes are not going to be easy and would most likely require several iterations to come on with a space that would meet their specific needs.

All in all, these changes are going to be based on data gathered during the proof of concepts or even throughout the workspace life cycle. That is why connected systems, such as WaveLinx, can help organization such as Olivia’s gather the necessary data needed for the exciting and optimistic journey toward the well-being “collabspaces”.

 

References

  1. Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber, Harvard Business Review, The Truth About Open Offices, https://hbr.org/2019/11/the-truth-about-open-offices, Dec 2019
  2. Jim Purcell, Forbes, Case Study: SAP shows how employee wellbeing boosts the bottom line,  https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimpurcell/2019/10/28/case-study-sap-shows-how-employee-wellbeing-boosts-the-bottom-line/#11fc107a32a4
  3. Jim Purcell, Forbes, How to Build A Culture of Employee Well-Being, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimpurcell/2019/07/25/how-to-build-a-culture-of-employee-wellbeing/#d3d968d13d79, Jul 25

Well Standard web site, https://www.wellcertified.com/

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