Rethinking Workplace Design in the Age of Big Data

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  • In the highly connected world we live in, technology influences and impacts almost every decision we make. Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT) have enhanced our connected world and helped us understand more about the spaces we inhabit.
  • Aside from the smart homes and smart appliances we have become accustomed to, the modern day office is being redesigned and reprogrammed to include a variety of smart technology systems.
  • The goal of these systems is to put our offices to work and empower businesses to better understand their design decisions, real estate investments, and most importantly- their own employees.

Design trends are adapting to the way that employees are finding new ways to work, with offices shifting between open plans and private offices, the inclusion of new amenities, and a range of open and enclosed collaboration spaces. The data that architects and analysts are collecting from these spaces is helping to transform workplace design into something that is ultimately more efficient and desirable. The notion that live information feeds can teach us that the way we design things could become smarter is the next step in our ever-evolving design process.

Workplace adaptation based on technological implementation is hardly a new practice. Dating back to the early 20th century, researchers discovered that productivity increased on factory floors when people, machines, and spaces were seamlessly interconnected components of the assembly process. They understood that this maximized efficiency was created by reducing time and motion, as it eliminated movements from one place to the next, and created repetitive operations that individuals could master. These techniques not only helped in industrial settings, but also improved methods of construction, especially brick laying. However, this approach has its limits, as workers are only human and they become fatigued. Enter the newly invented air conditioner, which was installed in a number of factories as an early instance of wellness in workplace design. This logic continued through time and now air conditioning is commonplace in modern offices.

Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

With the goal of improving productivity still in mind, some of the most popular technologies being implemented are new IoT platforms that use wireless motion sensors to measure conference room and workstation utilization. These services process results to assist designers in understanding how custom design solutions can optimize workplaces. Some real estate service firms are also experimenting with a variety of climate and environmental sensors that measure room temperature, light quality, and even the placement of phones throughout a floor to record traffic usage patterns. Tracking sunlight and glare levels throughout the day can inform the placement of desks and offices, computer vision can help determine conference room usage, and even various heavy congestion zones could be redesigned to encourage casual interactions between employees.

Some companies become uneasy when they hear words like “tracking sensors” and ‘data collection”, with concerns that they are not consenting to their movements and daily activities being monitored. However, these sensors are often installed under work surfaces or seats, or record data using an employee’s badge where the data is separated from their identity. The ultimate goal is not to follow the patterns of the individual, but of the collective group to recognize large scale patterns over a period of weeks or months.

Steelcase Sensor Based Workplace. Image via Steelcase
Steelcase Sensor Based Workplace. Image via Steelcase

Instead of an architect’s job being complete when occupants move in and a project is closed out, these new data sources provide an amazing opportunity to learn from and perfect the practice of design. The workplace is constantly evolving, and so is the technology that goes with it. Now, with these new resources, businesses have the ability to make data-driven design solutions for how to allocate resources and create a better, and more effortless workplace experience.


This article was first published in Arch Daily and is republished with permission.


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Green Building Africa promotes the need for net carbon zero buildings and cities in Africa. We are fiercely independent and encourage outlying thinkers to contribute to the #netcarbonzero movement. Climate change is upon us and now is the time to react in a more diverse and broader approach to sustainability in the built environment. We challenge architects, property developers, urban planners, renewable energy professionals and green building specialists. We also challenge the funding houses and regulators and the role they play in facilitating investment into green projects. Lastly, we explore and investigate new technology and real-time data to speed up the journey in realising a net carbon zero environment for our children.

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