Today’s designers are taking an increasingly sophisticated approach to workplace design, using sensors, internet-connected furniture and fixtures, and data analytics to study offices in real time.
A workplace that improves employee productivity and efficiency has been a white whale of corporate managers for decades. But even before the office as we know it today was born, designers and innovators were already studying sites of labor, such as the factory, to devise strategies to boost worker performance. By the 1960s, Robert Propst, the inventor behind Herman Miller’s Action Office line of workplace furniture, and others were conducting workspace research that would ultimately lead to the creation of the modern cubicle.
These developments relied largely on observation and intuition to organize office workers in purportedly effective ways. Now, advances in technology allow designers to take a more sophisticated approach, using sensors, internet-connected furniture and fixtures, and data analytics to study offices in real time. “You can take into account every single employee, and people are very different,” says London architect Uli Blum. “It’s about solving the fundamental problems of getting people the environment they need. And the easiest way is to ask them,” he adds. But finding out the needs of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers can quickly become an exercise in futility.
Blum helped found the Analytics and Insight unit at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) three years ago. His team has focused its early efforts on devising methods to study the workplace and anticipate employee needs. Naturally, Blum decided to experiment with his own office first: “We installed sensors to understand our own workplace better,” he explains, referring to a cluster of devices that monitor visibility, noise, humidity, light, temperature, and air quality. Among these were smart surveillance cameras that track the location, but not the identity, of workers over time. “They don’t know who they see,” Blum says reassuringly.
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