By Mike Sayre - 16th December, 2020
In early 2020, PLASTARC responded to the challenges presented by COVID-19 by offering a series of webinars and panels. We sought to guide people and organizations through the workplace challenges of this moment,with topics ranging from workplace intelligence to reexaming the purpose of workplace itself. While earlier sessions focused on the short term need to sustain wellness and maintain productivity—taking our 10-point roadmap as a starting point— the panels evolved in response to audience interest in the future of work.
On November 19, PLASTARC hosted experts in workplace design to discuss Activity-Based Working (ABW). Panelists included Amber Wernick, Associate Senior Interior Designer at Clive Wilkinson Architects; Elo Ofodile, Head of Business Development for VergeSense; Karen Lika, Principal, CPG Architects; and Megan White, Chief Sustainability Officer, Integral Group. In this conversation moderated by PLASTARC Sociospatial Designer Amy Rosen, attendees heard more about the benefits of ABW models why such models might be more relevant than ever.
The disruption of the use of physical offices has caused a shift in perspective, encouraging employers to rethink the workplace. There is new interest in hybrid models that blend the best of physical and digital experiences. ABW is right for this moment because it is based on an expectation of change and flexibility. It is centered on wellness and uses technology and design to elevate performance.
As Lika noted in a brief overview of the history of the workplace, it was only recently that offices broke free of the assembly line paradigm. Increasingly, people in modern offices are being trusted to make their own decisions about how to do their work, and this has been accelerated by the challenges of 2020. One of the biggest changes is a new level of trust between employers and employees.With so many people teleworking, managers had to trust their reports to do their jobs even when out of sight. They are now more likely to embrace work models that rely on that trust.
The adoption of ABW is likely to speed up when people return to the workplace, according to Lika. Many people were previously very attached to the idea of having a desk. Now that they have worked from their dining room table or couch, that tether to the desk has been broken. Another key concern of ABW skeptics was security—especially in industries like financial services. However, companies already had to solve those problems to enable long-term telework.
The connections between work styles, sustainability and wellness are strong, according to White. She became seriously interested in ABW while working alongside PLASTARC on the new lululemon HQ in Vancouver, a project that closely examined these links. Using nature as a metaphor, she noted that traditional offices tend to be monocultures, but humans are living beings that thrive in a biodiverse environment. ABW can enable people to thrive based on their individual needs through the power of choice. From an environmental perspective, flexible models can make better use of existing building stock and slow new construction, reducing the carbon footprint. There is also continued interest in centering wellness through certifications like FitWell
According to Wernick, would-be adopters need to conduct visioning and research down to the team and individual levels. For example, a data entry team that works mostly with dual monitors and spends very little of their time collaborating might not be a good fit for a mobile work style. On the other hand, people who flow between different activities (meetings, design sessions, independent work, etc.) are more likely to benefit from the variety of work settings.
This is particularly important for making decisions about telework. Some activities, such as those that require special equipment, really can’t be done remotely. Others, like brainstorming, can be done at a distance, but people tend to prefer sitting face-to-face. There’s a third category of activities that people actually prefer to do remotely. Understanding that balance and how space can be an asset—rather than, as it has traditionally been thought, a cost center—is key.
Understanding the needs of a population requires data. Ofodile pointed out that observation can reveal a lot about how people behave, but it’s difficult to scale. Automated collection of data from access control systems, wifi, and other building systems can reveal how many people are using a space. Occupancy sensors can provide more detailed data that can help allocate space intelligently and determine how well it’s working.
More immediately, occupancy sensors can help maintain social distancing. Systems can detect when a room is over capacity or when people are huddled too closely around a desk and notify them of the risk. Sensors can show which rooms need cleaning after use and enable touchless experiences. Investments in technology could also pay dividends later: “As we aggregate these datasets, we’re getting to a point where we can start to do predictive analytics - based on historical data, should a company think of expanding their portfolio?” Ofodile added.
If for no other reason, organizations should consider ABW and other flexible work models for their financial benefits, says Lika. Having just the right amounts of the right kinds of spaces brings all kinds of efficiencies, and can often lower cost per square foot.
Wernick shared more about what can enable or inhibit choice. One important piece is design: if you’re hoping people will move around the office and interact, you need to create spaces that encourage them to do that. Strategically locating coffee or food at functionally inconvenient places. It’s also important to make sure that people know the intent of settings that might be new to them—otherwise they don’t understand that a phone booth is for a phone call, not to use as a private mini office.
Hybrid work models and ABW will continue to evolve as people use them, and challenges remain. White pointed to a need for a mentorship model that functions within flexible environments in which people may be in constant motion. Another area of interest is in possible synergies between companies that might share flexible environments, such as through corporate coworking.
The new enthusiasm for studying and understanding how people work will make it easier to customize flexible work models for any company. Integrating the home and “3rd place” locations like libraries and public spaces into space planning is not just a nice idea—it is a necessity.