Last month, we had the pleasure of traveling to Paris to present at Unwired’s WORKTECH conference. You might call us WORKTECH groupies at this point! The event, which took place in WeWork’s Paris location on La Fayette, revolved around the trends toward flexibility of work and the role of agile workplaces and technology in facilitating this progress.
Batoul Hassoun, managing director of OlgivyRed Consulting kicked off the conference, quoting Bernard Stiegler: “Jobs are dead. Long live work.” There has been much talk about the threat that innovations like AI and robots pose to workers. Many of the presenters, including Hassoun and Philip Ross, Founder and CEO of UnGroup, argue that technology is not going to take away work. It will instead change the way we work. Greater connectivity is leading to greater mobility, allowing people to work from places and at times that weren’t previously possible. Apps like Birdnest, Spacious, and Breather are just some examples of services that provide flexible, alternative work environments that can be booked on the spot.
Not only are these online platforms connecting people to space, but they are also connecting people within space. Audrey Barbier Litvak, managing director of WeWork France and Southern Europe explained that the WeWork app facilitates a community that connects their members both socially and professionally. She said that 50% of WeWork Paris’s members have established formal business relationships. The ability for digitally-enabled buildings to bring people together was also salient in a presentation by Susanne Bayer and James Grose of BVN. They presented B:Hive, a campus of office spaces and an ‘innovation hub’ in Auckland, New Zealand, as one example of a workplace that is focusing on communities. More agile ways of working should be translated into workplace design and tools that support flexible working, and buildings that are themselves adaptive.
Bayer and Grose pointed out that workplaces and buildings have always reflected societal changes. Decades ago, companies strived towards the skyscraper, which was a symbol of power and hierarchy. Today’s workplace values have shifted in the direction of equity and community. This reflection of changing hierarchy could also be gleaned from a talk by researchers Marleen Huysman and Ella Hafermalz at the Center for Innovation of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The two discussed their research on collaborative teams. Whereas employees once only communicated using company-owned channels such as email, Huysman and Hafermalz’s research revealed the prevalence of ‘tunnel networks’ like private text messages, Slack, or Whatsapp. Less hierarchy makes way for greater flexibility and more autonomy over how and when to communicate.
The conference concluded with two presentations that spoke to the importance of designing with human physiology and psychology in mind. Dr. Eva Edelstein, who leads the Human Experience Lab at Perkins + Will, discussed space design from a neuro-architecture perspective. She talked about the importance of considering the human response to an environment before designing a space. Similarly, Melissa Marsh of PLASTARC advocated considering the sensory experience of a work environment.
Both presentations emphasized the influence of the built environment on the health and wellbeing of its occupants. Edelstein gave the example of designing acoustic features for people with varying hearing abilities. Marsh suggested that the five senses we are most familiar with are a good place to begin. Sight goes beyond the aesthetic, encompassing light and visibility to coworkers. Touch is an underappreciated design element, including room temperature and furniture texture. According to both presenters, the interrelationship between human factors and environmental design should be considered in the design process—before the first brick is laid.
We were happy to have participated in this enlightening and engaging event. For more on the speakers and topics, please also see WORKTECH’s coverage. The right combination of digital tools, a focus on community, and people-centric design can prepare the workforce for an evolving and agile future, and at the same time, create more enjoyable work experiences for all.