By Lucia Shorr - 18th June, 2021
The past year has fundamentally changed perspectives on going digital. It has become obvious that where and how work is done does not necessarily relate to sharing physical space. In many organizations, physical workplace occupancy now ranges from 75% on an office’s busiest days to 5% on the slowest ones, and the move to more flexible hybrid arrangements is likely here to stay. In a recent webinar, “New Data Sources for Hybrid Workplaces”, PLASTARC explored the new design challenges and data-related opportunities created by this shift.
PLASTARC Sociospatial Designer Amy Rosen, acting as moderator, introduced the discussion by claiming that, “the workplace sphere is in a position in which it is unacceptable to return to the workplace structure of the past, as we know to design for a better [hybrid] future now”. As advocates of people-centered metrics, PLASTARC elevates the measurement of factors that are often absent or undervalued in design, like accessibility, interactivity and comfort.
Panelists included Anthony Vanky, Ph. D, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at University of Michigan; Charlie Miller, Principle of Charles Miller LLC; and Shivani Chopra, Workplace Strategist with a focus on Data Insights at VergeSense. The speakers spoke about the recent acceleration of pre-pandemic workplace trends such change and flexibility, the need for collaboration, sustainability and wellness. They discussed how people-centric data can be used to make informed decisions about the hybrid workplace in order to optimize it for users and operators.
Data allows us to understand how people are using spaces, and thus how to maximize usage and minimize waste. In order for landlords and operators to understand how people move throughout buildings and spaces, data from sources like access control, parking, elevators, retail, and transit are commonly utilized and recommended by Miller to his clients. These movement-based sources help designers and operators to optimize use. For example, by understanding which elevators people use and when people enter and exit a building, landlords and employers can decide where to place signage—critical in the wake of COVID-19 for social distancing reminders—and amenities. Chopra, whose work often makes use of sensors, added that sensors that detect where people are within a space are both useful to understand area usage and to save electricity and energy.
Smart buildings have changed the workplace landscape, but Vanky remarked that data on its own does not equal knowledge or wisdom. The value of data is in our ability to use it. Vanky went on to share how anthropologists and researchers strive for “thick description”, a primary component of ethnographic research, to dig below the surface that raw data provides. In order to use data effectively one must move beyond knowing, for example, that the air conditioning is on—perhaps to knowing that in California people prefer the temperature to be 3 degrees lower than groups of similar people in similar workplaces in New York.
Understanding the meaning and the “so what” behind people’s usage of space involves comparing and contrasting cultures and social groups, such as the culture of the chatty-watercooler or the coffee room. Data can also explore emotional states of individuals to give further insight, such as exploring if people smile more when they are closer to windows. Vanky highlighted geographical based happiness censuses such as in Summerville, MA.
It is these human aspects of data that will drive the creation of an optimal hybrid future. Space has value, and as individuals transition from COVID-19 related virtual work environments to assigned or choiceful hybrid environments and varied usage of office space it will be critical to understand the value premium that this office space can have. Chopra discussed how machine learning and AI can be useful in optimizing utilization, through automating such tasks as determining if a room that is booked is actually used. Miller highlighted a similar usage around parking spaces.
Typically, operations managers and landlords are one degree removed from everyone who actually works in the building. However, being able to understand the likes and dislikes of different consumers is desirable as it enables operations managers and landlords to develop marketing and digital programs that provide value. Given that it can be challenging for landlords to pitch putting tech into a communal space or store, Miller encourages his clients to establish a basis of mutual gain such as giving access to public wifi in order to gain usage data. People are more likely to choose to share data if they are also gaining something from it. Given the nature of hybrid work, with employers, landlords, and operation managers having even less observation ability over the spaces of people’s personal usage as they spend more time at home or in third party areas, maintaining this mutual benefit mentality when devising methods to continually gain data will be crucial.
This mutual aid mentality also applies to self-quant data from individual people, such as that from Fitbit or mobile devices. Data about visits to nearby restaurants, numbers of steps walked, or other location and lifestyle metrics sit at the key intersection between work much of the rest of life. Enabling people to donate this data can benefit both the individual user and the organization. Chopra added that integrating it with other outside sources such as transit can allow for more sustainable designs.
Improving experience through data should be central to our collective hybrid future. On a closing note, Vanky encouraged practitioners to aspire to a higher use of data like the one advocated by Catherine D'Ignazio. Beyond the day-to-day concerns that confront many businesses during this period of disruption, data can be used to build a more just and equitable society.