The intelligent office: smart design in the era of Big Data

Goodbye "class A" office space, hello "class T"

April 2018

Words by Katie Puckett

WSP Colorado innovation centre
At its Colorado innovation centre, WSP has developed a VR model that can be used to visualise the data from its workplace multisensors

When companies are defined by their use of technology, why wouldn’t they apply it to their own workspaces? Just coming on stream is the ability to collect and analyze data about every aspect of a building’s operations and the activity that takes place within it. The workplace of the future will be fitted with a dense mesh of tiny multisensors, constantly collecting information on light levels, sound, temperature, air quality and occupancy, and transmitting it wirelessly.

“The technology is getting better and better, and there’s more and more we’re able to do,” says Herbert Els, senior vice president of building technology systems at WSP. At the company’s innovation centre in Boulder, Colorado, there are 50 multisensors in a 6,000ftspace, which Els’ team is using to develop applications including a virtual reality model. “When we pull that live datastream into the VR environment, a building operator wearing a headset can sit comfortably in their chair and teleport [walk virtually] through the space to see how it’s performing.”

“We used to talk about ‘class A’ office space, but now it’s ‘class T’. Technology firms have driven these concepts, but now other companies want to offer the same environment”

Herbert Els, WSP

This will transform the way we manage and occupy buildings. Real-time granular data will make maintenance more efficient — by identifying which areas are used most, for example, to inform cleaning schedules or charge different business units for the energy and space they use. It will be used to create more pleasant, comfortable environments — so a poor air quality reading could trigger a higher number of air changes. Combined with presence-aware technology, it can support access control, safety evacuation and security: “A tech company wants to know where their visitors are at all times,” says Els. “They could geofence them and send a notification the moment they go outside the area, asking if they need any help. And at the same time, notifying security.”

Building data will become an invaluable business strategy tool. Companies will derive the greatest benefit by combining sensor data from the building with data from other corporate systems, says WSP’s Matthew Marson. For example, they might cross-reference employee timesheets or performance with their location in the building: “So we could see that if we put the designers on the north of the building, where there is a certain level of blue light, they’re three times more innovative. Or if we’ve got teams spread across the globe working on the same bid, if we pay for them to travel and sit together, will we find that we’re 6% more likely to win because of that collaboration? It’s by adding all of this data together that you find out the secret sauce of your organization.”

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“There’s a fine balance between real-estate optimization and space scarcity,”adds Els. “Agile working really means densification, but as you squeeze more people in, the real estate benefit is hugely offset by the drop in productivity. What is the optimum space density before social decorum breaks down because there’s a lack of personal and reservable space? Smart technologies allow us to measure a successful workplace.”

Technology will empower us. Smart systems can give people greater control over their environment and help them find a space that works for them, says Els. His team is developing an app that will show which desks are free, as well as the noise levels, lighting and temperature in each space, and guide users to their chosen spot. They are also working on a meeting room system to clear “zombie bookings” and show real-time availability of rooms.

Employers can use the same systems to see who’s talking to who: “A lot of firms are very interested in using this to measure community building.” From a privacy point of view, it’s the same as social media, he says: “As long as convenience comes with it, people are more willing to share personal data.”

woods bagot superspace
Woods Bagot's SUPERSPACE WX.Layout software integrates many metrics to optimise workplace design

“Giving people more choice is higher on the agenda than reducing space. That means using it entirely differently”

Ingrid Stevenson, Chadwick International
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“Until now, workplace designers have had to rely on people bumping into each other around stairs or coffee makers or water coolers or whatever to create collaboration,” says Sarah Kay, director at Woods Bagot. “I don’t think it does. It might create socialization, but truly valuable collaboration starts when a group of people come together as a project team for a period of time. It might be in a workshop for three hours or sitting at a shared work table for six months.”

Companies need to take a more strategic approach to collaboration, and this is where data comes in. Activity-based working (ABW) is not a very sophisticated way of allocating space, says Kay, nor is it a good fit for the Agile methodology that is spreading from the tech sector to companies of all kinds. “Agile relies on visual management, Post-it notes all over a wall that are a visual manifestation of the tasks that people need to be doing on that team,” she says. “With ABW, everything is virtual and real-time and digital, while agile methodologies require physical stuff and teams to be physically located together.”

When Commonwealth Bank of Australia noticed its free-desk layout was hindering teamwork, Woods Bagot’s SUPERSPACE data team, led by Dr Christian Derix, wrote a piece of software to model how Agile teams come together and disband over time. “It showed us that teams were actually much more stable in terms of allocation of space than a typical ABW environment,” says Kay. “They might be in the same location for a month before they had to relocate.”

From The Possible, issue 03

Read the magazine

So the next evolution of ABW might be an app that allocates space based on collaboration: “On the way into work, you’ll check in to see where your team is located on that day. Because it’s more stable than an ABW environment, the visual management board can be moved to suit the teams. And then individuals will fill in the gaps around the Agile teams to maintain the efficiency.”

Another of Kay’s clients, a tech firm in Tokyo, is using the software as a business strategy tool. Where there are many people scattered through the organization working for the same client, they could be brought together for one day a week, for example. Or the company might analyze where its engineering capability is growing and position the marketing teams close by. “You can manipulate how collaboration happens, as opposed to just leaving it completely to chance.”

This article appeared in The Possible issue 03, as part of a longer feature on the future of the workplace

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