February 2015

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Building Smarter Workplaces for the Digital Age

"We found that rectangles or squares or long buildings or buildings with more than four stories would inhibit collaboration."
Vishal Mallick PhD
& Raja Bose MSc, MBA, Performance Buildings AG

Edited & Published by

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Recently there has been considerable activity in workplace design, with research and experimentation undertaken by academics, consultants, architects and suppliers of office equipment.

All these stakeholders are trying to understand how we can design and build smarter workplaces for the Digital Age.

A generic framework for workplace comfort (ie: needs) has been proposed by Dr Jacqueline Vischer at the University of Montreal (The Concept of Workplace Performance and Its Value to Managers, California Management Review, Vol 49, No. 2, Winter 2006). Her framework echoes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Figure 1 Framework for New Workplace Concepts

 Vischer Triange

Above the Threshold of Habitability (which establishes minimum requirements for enabling people to work) she defines three levels of comfort.

Physical Comfort
Determined by standards on safety, hygiene, temperature, etc and influenced by the designer. In most modern buildings it is guaranteed and is increasingly aided by buildings automation technology, such as security and climate control.

Functional Comfort
This concerns the effectiveness of workspaces in helping people perform their work, and depends on lighting, furniture ergonomics, room design, etc. 

Figure 2 Room Design for Functional Comfort

 Vodafone Amsterdam

Vodafone Amsterdam – OCS Workplaces and Steelcase case study, May 2012

In our view, Functional Comfort must include the actual Functional Use of space, for example, lobby and reception area, Board Room, meeting room, workshop and brainstorm room, areas for collision with colleagues.

For all these spaces there is considerable scope for technology to improve their intended purpose, based on a solid understanding of the Use Case and going beyond aesthetics-led design.

Thus, a reception area need not just be for check-in and check-out of visitors, since these can be automated, but could be transformed into a hospitality center, where the receptionist’s job changes from handing out, collecting and logging badges in a register to a concierge, serving visitors personally.

Psychological Comfort
Psychological Comfort is about linking “psychosocial aspects with environmental design and management of the workspace through territoriality, privacy, and control.

Psychological Comfort, where we move from the influence of things to the influence of people in the workplace, is by definition a dynamic and messy state, subject to societal changes (social media, Gen X and Y employees, and beyond), technology changes (connectivity and mobility), workstyle changes (anywhere, any time, on the move), and workplace changes (flexibility, office on demand, co-working hubs).

Workplace design must keep up with these influences.

For example, Vischer claims that studies have shown people consider negatively moving out of private offices into open workstations, because of reductions in privacy, acoustic ambience and confidentiality, and these have clear implications for workspace design. Yet, private offices inhibit chance encounters and informal exchanges. Many workspaces are deliberately being designed for people collision.

Figure 3 Pixar HQ – design influenced by Steve Jobs

 Pixar HQ

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” Steve Jobs

The design of the new Apple HQ, started with an understanding of how people should work: 

“We found that rectangles or squares or long buildings or buildings with more than four stories would inhibit collaboration. We wanted this to be a walkable building, and that’s why we eventually settled on a circle.” - Peter Oppenheimer, Apple CFO.

Apple Campus Rendering

Figure 4 Apple HQ

This need for adaptability of workplace design to meet changing needs is made clear in Cisco’s Report, Office Design Case Study: How Cisco designed the collaborative connected workplace environment:

"The work environment we've been building is not necessarily what employees need.” Christine Ross, manager in the Workplace Effectiveness Team for Cisco Workplace Resources (WPR).

"Nobody would consider building a manufacturing facility that they intended to use just one-third of the time. And yet that's what we routinely do with workspace. We realized that assigning resources based on utilization would significantly reduce Cisco real estate costs." Mark Golan, Vice President, Worldwide Real Estate and Workplace Resources (WPR), Cisco Systems

To date, most initiatives in workplace design have concentrated on physical implementation - Physical and Functional Comfort - through ergonomic furniture design, room layouts, creation of flexible spaces, architecture, interior design, and building automation.

Indeed, building automation has mostly been at an even lower level – alleviation of Discomfort.  But there is real opportunity to apply technology at the upper layers to make a big difference.

Reliable Controls In future articles, we will discuss the role of technology in understanding and serving workplace needs. Based on hard, occupancy statistics and constructing evidence-based Use Cases, technology can create solutions that free up people to do their work wherever they are and not waste time on mundane processes like inviting and managing visitors, booking meeting rooms, organizing brainstorms, ordering AV equipment and catering, and so on. Just like turning receptionists into value-adding concierges and letting technology take care of security.

Psychological Comfort, when people meet people, is dynamic and messy because of continuing societal and technological changes, and workplace design has to adapt to satisfy the changing needs of workers.

This article was authored by Vishal Mallick PhD & Raja Bose MSc, MBA from Performance Buildings AG, whose technology reduces consumption of resources in buildings and enables new services for users. The article was edited by and 1st published on Memoori.


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