WHAT’S THE BEST way to prepare students for the rapidly changing workplace of the future? Teach them to address complex problems through ideation and creative problem-solving techniques. And, most important, help them recognize that some problems have no easy—or right—answers.
That’s the approach of Inquiry to Innovation: The Future of Work, a transdisciplinary honors class at the University of Cincinnati (UC) in Ohio. In the class, which was launched in 2013, students consider topics ranging from autonomous vehicles to workplace diversity to contract-based work environments. The semester culminates with a showcase of the students’ research insights, implications, and actionable solutions.
The university developed Inquiry to Innovation in partnership with BHDP Architecture, which sponsors the course and outlines deliverables for each semester. Up to 24 students can enroll in each 15-week course, which is considered a professional elective for several departments at the university. Classes meet in a variety of campus locations—including UC’s 1819 Hub, a 100,000-square-foot building that includes makerspaces, classrooms, and gathering spaces—as well as BHDP’s offices. Classes are taught by both UC faculty and creative leaders from BHDP.
A typical class meeting might start with a theoretical discussion related to the project, followed by timed rapid ideation and brainstorming exercises to stimulate ideas. As they brainstorm, students might use a word association or visualization exercise related to the discussion topic. Over the course of the semester, students will employ design thinking, ethnographic research, and rapid ideation techniques to look beyond their initial thoughts and biases to consider the impact of factors such as cultural norms and societal trends. Other techniques, such as building relational or journey maps, help students visualize and communicate abstract ideas. In addition, students examine situations and products unrelated to the future of work for sources of analogous inspiration.
Throughout the course, students work in interdisciplinary teams, where they learn the value of exposure to perspectives of people from a range of different backgrounds. Students consistently report that interacting with a diverse group of individuals is their favorite part of the experience.
A main objective of the course is helping students become comfortable with ambiguous situations where there is no one right answer. Many students find it challenging and uncomfortable to embrace ambiguity in this manner, but it’s a skill they need to develop if they are to push past boundaries to address complex problems and succeed in a rapidly changing society.
Another objective of the course is to encourage students to consider real-world challenges that might have major implications in the future workplace. This is an area where co-teachers from BHDP can really share their expertise, making the course a more meaningful experience for both students and businesses.
In the academic world, students are used to taking specific and concrete steps to complete final projects, papers, or exams. In the professional world, many problems do not have clear-cut processes or answers. By teaching students to use creative problem solving, ideation, research, and cross-disciplinary teamwork to solve problems, Inquiry to Innovation prepares students to succeed in a rapidly changing professional world.
Dominic Iacobucci is a workplace client leader and partner at BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati, Ohio. Aaron Bradley is an associate professor of the Design and Arts Initiative at the University of Cincinnati.
The dynamic of design is a multi-layered process. Business executives who are developing newly constructed or renovated office space will certainly focus on the aesthetics—rooms that are visually appealing, trendy, inviting, and comfortable. But it is often what happens within a given space that dictates how a room should look, feel, and function. Studies indicate that when these factors are taken into consideration, workspace can have a positive impact on creating an engaging culture, increasing staff productivity and enhancing employees’ overall perceptions of the company and workplace.
Conversely, an ill-designed space will work against any staff and company, at both an obvious and subliminal level. As real estate costs escalate and interest in space optimization gain greater attention across the country, today’s leaders know their current workspaces need to be able to perform at their most effective capacities if they are going to save money and achieve company goals.
With ongoing advancements in technology, the elements of design are becoming more of a science than they are an art. Data collection and analytics are helping executives to better understand the nuances of their workspaces, sometimes before they even exist. This phenomenon occurs through the use of digital devices that are in and of themselves designed to monitor and record activity within a space to predict design appropriateness. Combining the artistic expertise of an architect with the analytical evidence provided by these machines may be where the future of design creativity flourishes—that is, for those organizations willing to place a certain level of trust in the available technology.
Use and misuse of space
How companies use a space and the objects within it is easily enough defined. People sit in chairs. They gather around tables. They are positioned in front of screens. It’s the misuse of a space that can be tougher to identify or anticipate during design phases. A room may have the most comfortable furniture available. The wall-mounted screen might be big enough to cause a Hollywood director to blush. But what if that furniture can’t be positioned to allow everyone in the room to view that screen together? Why spend money on a table and chair set that sits six people in a room where no more than four people routinely gather? There are many offices and conference rooms that can’t contain all their furnishings and all the staff members typically necessary to be present in that space. In these instances, employees may find themselves wasting time (and risking injury) removing heavy furniture from a room in order to fit all colleagues into a meeting. Or people may be seated around a table that’s not big enough to fit everyone’s laptops, causing some people to sit with their devices literally in their laps. While this might suit the inherent nature of these devices, it can cause a lack of engagement among staff if people can’t comfortably sit and look at each other while they chat.
A recent case study showed that 40 percent of conference room seats can be eliminated, saving some 14,000 square feet of conference space and reallocating for more rooms and additional common spaces. This utilization is affected by many different factors beyond size, including location, ownership, room name, technology, and ambiance. For example, research shows that lighting, an important consideration with any room’s design, can impact mood, alertness, and other biological effects. A space that is too bright can be just as distracting as a space that is too dark.
Predict space utilization with technology
Focus groups and surveys are traditional means of conducting research, and they continue to have significance. However, there is a reliance on asking the best questions with these methods, and preconceived notions among participants can impact and potentially skew collected evidence. Today’s technology offers more novel options for executives to glean information, including wireless ceiling-mounted devices equipped with sensors that monitor and record how people interact with their environments. These sensors, which use machine learning and artificial intelligence (see AI section below) to evaluate the behaviors and postures of those occupying a space, can identify engagement and productivity for purposes of determining usage of space. This “crowd learning,” when combined with traditional research and actual observation is becoming a more indicative means of preparing designed space. For instance, a non-engaged, distracted, or uncomfortable individual may be often seen to be scanning the room instead of focusing on someone or on a screen, something that the sensors can detect. Then there are instances in which the monitoring of a non-active space can be telling. Conference rooms located near a human resources suite may not be considered as “welcoming” as other locations in a building. These rooms may not get much occupancy, and therefore may be more appropriately located elsewhere. Other key questions that this technology can address include: Where are employees gathering? Are there enough individual spaces versus meeting spaces? What is the usage of a space versus its capacity?
Sensors can accumulate information about the utilization of space to accurately measure such metrics as total average occupancy to typical thermostat settings, and crowd-learning data have proven to be most effective when data is collected over long periods of time.
We are still at a point in time where society’s “digital natives,” those born into a digital technology-driven world, are far outnumbered by older generations of business professionals. As such, a mistrust and potentially outright fear of technology still exists. Make no mistake. Any organization that engages in data collection on their employees, customers, or any other constituents must instill and adhere to ethical and legal privacy, security, and other policies that govern the collection and dissemination of data. Some employees may be uncomfortable with the notion that employers can monitor how much time they are not at their individual workstation. But if the data collected are being used to enhance their surroundings and other benefits, the rapid advancement of technology becomes more intimately integrated in our daily lives can help to alleviate concerns.
Also, business and society are at the onset of learning who actually “owns” collected data, and the growing implementation of 5G connectivity is changing how quickly data can be collected, as well as the actual depth of data that can be collected. As productivity and interconnectivity become increasingly important concepts to any business model, any new facility construction or reconstruction will rely more on technology to predict optimal working conditions. Appropriate data collection and assessment represent important first steps to this “next generation” line of thinking. When married with a shared corporate vision, the final designed space can be a more effective working environment poised to make a significant impact on the company’s future success.
Defining Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI), is the ability of a computer system to perform an intelligent action that a human otherwise could perform. Examples of AI include a digital calendar deleting a series of Monday meetings that haven’t been attended or reserving conference rooms for those who have frequently utilized certain spaces at certain times, and a cell phone that offers word options as one texts based on previously sent texts. A subset of AI, machine learning is a set of algorithms entered into a system that enables the “machine” to infer information and then perform specific tasks or suggest certain actions based on predictable follow through (for instance, knowing that 27 days has passed since someone purchased a 30-day drug prescription and reordering that prescription). Other examples of machine learning include voice recognition, such as when a bank’s automated answering service allows access to an account through spoken words over the phone or speaking into a cell phone to create text messages; automated fraud alerts that are generated when spending patterns on a credit card are abnormal; and web-streaming services that suggest interesting movies to watch based on viewing habits.
A sensor is an electronic device that measures and captures data of variation in environmental stimulus. In today’s world, people encounter sensors throughout their day—at home, in the workplace, and at other locations. In a spatial workplace environment, sensors measure environmental aspects such as noise and light, while gathering information on when and how space is used. This data can be linked with technology solutions to enhance the experience and utilization of a space. As the use and availability of sensors increase, it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of using sensors in a spatial environment. Organizations that design and implement a comprehensive sensors strategy can ensure their facility space assets are leveraged to full potential.
Types of Workplace Sensors
There are many applications for using sensors in the workspace. Sensors can deliver information about sound, light, temperature, humidity levels, occupancy, and how people interact in the space. The most commonly used sensors for occupancy are motion sensors, which include passive infrared, pressure, vibration, and optical sensors that capture video motion. These can be deployed within the architecture of a room, attached or integrated into furniture, or placed within the floor. Occupancy sensing can occur using sound, lighting, temperature, and device recognition through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals.
Newer, advanced sensors use optical technologies that allow for artificial intelligence (AI), including image recognition and machine learning technology. Older sensors that collect information from only a single data source may not deliver a true understanding of how a workspace is used, whereas newer sensors offer more enhanced, comprehensive, and actionable data. For instance, an advanced sensor with AI can distinguish the quantity of employees using a set of desks, including environmental stimulus and levels of collaboration and focus. With a trend towards more activity-based workspace design, organizations are seeking data to understand how a workspace is being used and how enhance the user experience to drive results.
Using Workplace Sensors
Frequently, workplace sensors are used by the real estate sector. Real estate executives rely on utilization and occupancy data to manage and optimize their portfolios. The metrics provided by sensors help drive better informed real estate transactions due to accurate utilization and occupancy data that can be tracked to the minute. Beyond portfolio optimization, corporate real estate teams also use sensors for facility management and employee experience. The utilization and occupancy data provided by workspace sensors can enhance experience while driving sustainable practices through adjusting spatial qualities like lighting and temperature based upon occupancy.
Sensors also deliver accurate data on hotel desking, conference rooms, and activity setting availability and usage that interfaces real-time with interactive availability, booking, and reservation systems. And these systems can also unbook reserved spaces if occupancy is undetected after a set amount of time. Desktop browser systems and mobile apps provide access to several real-time data streams from sensors while allowing for individual interaction with reservation systems. For example, typically conference rooms are booked for a set amount of time. However, employees may vacate the room before their allotted time is over. A sensor in the conference room detects no occupancy and then sends a message to update the booking system to indicate that the room is available.
Additionally, building and workplace sensors support facility management through their connection to building management systems. Data and utilization from sensors can trigger notifications to a facility management team of potential maintenance requirements.
Today’s sensors also assist with the growing trend toward creating smart buildings. Some, however, consider the infrastructure and coverage required for some systems to be cost-prohibitive. This is especially true with existing buildings, if they require a retrofit of entire systems like HVAC to ensure proper communication between the building management system and the installed sensors. As the technology advances, newer buildings will be able to take advantage of integrating this automation.
One common concern with sensors is employee privacy and misuse of data. Whether or not employees are worried about being “tracked,” it is crucial that there are assurances from the organization that the data is collected anonymously and aggregated before it is released to management. Of even greater concern is data security, which requires organizations to have proper processes and controls in place, including data encryption, malware protection, and anonymization.
Designing a Sensor Solution
To maximize the use of sensors, facility space planners must understand the questions that the organization wants the data to help answer and then develop goals based on these questions.
A primary question for many organizations is whether their workspaces are well utilized. While sensors can measure occupancy to answer this question, the nuances and goals of the concern may be overlooked. Does the organization want to know the average occupancy of the space during any given hour, desk usage, or even conference efficiency? If the question is how often the room is used during a typical workday, the conference room efficiency based on number of employees using the room during a specified amount of time does not affect the answer. On the other hand, if the question is about the efficient use of the space, the number of employees using this workspace compared to the seats available is important.
These goals and questions impact the sensors used to measure space. Automated lighting sensors can measure if the space is in use, while infrared can measure the number of people around a table at seat locations. Optical sensors are needed to understand the quantity of people anywhere in the room and their work patterns. Organizations need to determine their own definitions of when workspaces are considered well-used assets. Depending on the goal, the answer may be when one employee uses a space designed for 10 or it may be when it is used by seven employees. Defining these questions and goals is crucial.
Equally important is the use of sensors to address the employee experience. Tools relying on sensor data, like mobile apps, provide employees the ability to find an available, suitable space quickly, increasing individual productivity and utilization of diverse spaces.
Achieving success requires evaluating the available sensors and selecting the ones that will provide the necessary data for desired insights. Understanding how real estate assets and workspaces are performing and being used gives organizations predictability. When implemented effectively, sensors can assist with workspace optimization, enhance user experience, and cut costs for the organization.
The October Program for SMPS Research Triangle was led by Elizabeth Griswold, a Senior Graphic Designer at EwingCole. Elizabeth was invited back to speak after a very well-received Coordinator’s Club presentation. October’s program was all about Design Thinking, and how to apply it to marketing. Another way of looking at it would be – “How Do We Stand Out?”
Elizabeth helped to explain the basic principles of Design Thinking, emphasizing that remaining human-centered with the focus on people will lead to better results. This has proven to be successful not only from an architectural/engineering design standpoint, but also with marketing. By being methodical in our approach to Design Thinking, the result is an increase in engagement, and a better chance of being memorable.
So how does this work? Design Thinking is a process. The process starts by asking the important questions, the old “who, what, where, when, why” is a crucial first step. By addressing questions like “Who is the Audience,” “What Do They Want to See,” and “Where Do They Find Answers,” a tailored design can be crafted. Next, Rapid Prototyping – a series of quick trial runs, helps to narrow in on a solution. By brainstorming, sketching, and modeling, several ideas can be generated in a short period of time. Finally, an important step, generate both quantitative and qualitative infographics. Infographics help break up boring text with graphs and imagery, and not only look great, but also help to emphasize key points and stand out to someone doing a quick skim.
To wrap up the program, Elizabeth walked us through an example of the process, and showed us that, with a few simple steps, Design Thinking can truly transform anything we create.
It’s early afternoon and Mary, a 35-year-old mother and college student who’s pursuing her master’s, soon will be up against her weekly deadline to submit an assignment. She’s had the typically unpredictable “routine” week that only mothers know about, but she’s not panicked. In fact, she’s quite comfortable in the Family Study Room at Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg, Wash., where her 5-year-old son keeps busy by coloring and doing puzzles while she works. Equipped with children’s toys, books, and games for young visitors as well as tables, desks, and chairs for students, the room is the kind of space that Rebecca L. Lubas, dean of library services at CWU, couldn’t have imagined in an academic library when her career began almost 25 years ago.
Nearly 2,300 miles away in Ohio, Sara A. Bushong, dean of university libraries at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), is undertaking a months-long process of uniting the facility’s special collections, a set of four libraries including the Browne Popular Culture Library, the largest collection of American pop culture in the United States. The effort to co-locate these collections is part of an overall master planning redesign at BGSU, where library renovations generally happen annually.
Clearly, these facilities are not examples of the typical stodgy, old libraries, despite both being more than 40 years old. They are not just places of seclusion for those who demand total silence while they read or study, although both facilities offer quiet spaces for those who need it. Instead, these academic libraries have evolved into spaces that provide a variety of amenities to meet the needs of today’s students. The offerings help the libraries remain relevant among the many stakeholders who affect their funding and existence.
The placement of academic libraries—often in the heart of campus—saddles them and their staff with a responsibility to always adapt or risk having their prime real estate overtaken by competing institutional programs that are in more demand. At a time when the average academic library is at greater risk of being undervalued, the libraries at Bowling Green and Central Washington show how such facilities can stretch available funding to make improvements that meet evolving patron demands. They can be proactive in their services and style (or play catch up if need be) as digital technologies and changing student habits affect their functionality and purpose.
Beyond the books
The library’s role has expanded beyond acquiring, storing and circulating print material. One important service modern libraries provide is to help students make use of their personal devices and to offer public use of digital devices. Nobody should walk into a library and feel that the use of a desktop or laptop computer, including internet access, is a luxury, Lubas says.
“It’s a basic need for students to complete their education,” she says. “Ideally, students would be able to keep up their own devices throughout an academic year. But you can’t count on that. If you’re having trouble paying your rent, you may have trouble paying for your internet. So, you come to the library for the connectivity that you have by right of registration. Libraries are providing basic needs in a way they probably weren’t 20-25 years ago.”
Other examples of meeting diverse needs include use of therapy dogs for emotional support or having ambient music play in common areas during finals week. Many libraries now allow (or even provide) food and drink.
“In our facility, we provided a popcorn bar and free pizza during finals week,” Lubas says.
Culturally and collaboratively connected
Also critical to the success of an academic library is ensuring that the facility aligns with the mission and goals of the institution. At Bowling Green, the philosophy is that the special collections are what make the library unique.
“And so we’re trying to figure out a way to make those spaces and collections more accessible, as well as providing all of the services that we have always offered,” Bushong says.
Bowling Green’s collections include a music library and sound archives, a center for archival collections, and a curriculum resource center (support for preservice teachers in pre K through 12).
“Our preferred scenario would be to have all of the collections on one floor with a shared reading room rather than them being siloed on different floors,” Bushong says.
At Central Washington, a public university dependent on state funding, engagement with the greater Ellensburg, Wash., community is a priority for its library, Lubas says. The Cultural Conversations program brings together students and community members for lectures by faculty, staff, and students who were born outside the United States but live in Ellensburg.
“They talk about life in their countries and their experiences,” Lubas says.
Likewise, the Central Washington library partners with the English department to have local writers discuss their diverse backgrounds.
“So, both students and community members get the chance to interact and ask questions about cultures that they’ve maybe only read about previously,” Lubas says.
Focus on furniture
OA core component of the modern campus library is comfortable and versatile furniture. A combination of longer tables, preferably those lengthened with extenders or connectors, smaller tables, and cushioned chairs that feature swiveling arm desks, is recommended. Tables and chairs that have wheels and are easily movable also should be available.
“In collections, you need some bigger tables because people will be spreading out maps and other bigger documents,” Bushong says, “and we’ve found that students don’t like high-top tables because they can’t reach down to get their bags or other items off the floor.”
Power stations for smartphones and other devices need to be built into or close to as much furniture as possible. “Users want power,” Bushong says, “and part of being relevant as a library is that you constantly are trying to improve the space, so it fits what students need.”
Leverage your real estate portfolio for an eventual downturn in the market.
Although the sting of 2008 may not register for some of today’s workforce, many clearly recall the excesses leading up to the Great Recession. To mitigate risk related to a corporate real estate portfolio, leaders must identify shifts in economic conditions and deliver spaces (and experiences) that appeal to tenants and their employees.
As David Shulman, UCLA’s senior economist, notes in his article, “The Goldilocks Economy,” an inflection point exists that is neither too hot nor too cold, where inflation and recession seem to be in check. Before recession looms, however, it’s important to outline a long-range, scenario-based planning and investment strategy for commercial real estate to provide for the best and worst of times.
5 Ideas for Planning Ahead
1. Look at the balance sheet. The healthier a business, the more resilient it will be in a downturn. Could an economic downturn present an opportunity to invest in people, spaces, or technology related to operational efficiencies and employee effectiveness? Yes. Understanding long-term organizational objectives (cost-cutting and growth strategies, for example) will help CRE professionals advise investors or clients in decision-making.
2. Follow emerging trends. A joint publication by the Urban Land Institute and PwC identified that the market is sensing a slowdown in the real estate marketplace in 2020. The reason? Rising costs for land, financing, and construction. Office development and investment prospects ranked toward the bottom of the six property types. The demand for more logistics (warehouse) space is one outlier, thanks to the Amazon effect.
3. Keep an eye on construction costs. Many general contractors report business in specific growth markets is robust, with a backlog of projects stretching into 2023. That backlog helps drive prices for real estate because contractors can be more selective about bidding on projects. The primary challenge, however, still revolves around skilled labor and project management.
“The next three years look really bright,” says Jon Dandurand, vice president of JE Dunn Construction, based in Kansas City, Mo. “We’re finally starting to see technology catch up with outdated means and methods in construction. Even with a downturn, the war for talent will only continue, meaning the investments corporations make in their real estate will be that much more important.”
4. Assess the rental marketplace. “Rental markets have remained strong as rate increases persist,” explains Renae Bradshaw, vice president for tenant representation at JLL. “To incentivize tenants, landlords are offering richer concessions in abatement and tenant improvement capital. Last year’s 12 percent increase in construction costs also provided a challenge to tenants. We are helping tenants approach the market differently today, focusing on how to build flexible space for growth, without adding square footage. We continue to structure leases with options to respond to business drivers over the life of their lease.”
5. Recognize real estate is an unavoidable and somewhat fixed capital expense. Current economic conditions are ideal for conducting a full-scale evaluation of real estate assets. The technology sector has evolved to the point where data collection, synthesis, and application have provided a strategic advantage for tenants.
Pay Attention to Economic Cycles
Historically, when the market experiences a slowdown, corporations quickly reach for options to help maintain profitability and shareholder confidence. What areas are hit? Research and development? Marketing and advertising? Layoffs might provide a quick fix, but how does that impact an organization’s overall morale? “I’m witnessing a large investment in activities and amenities that drive corporate culture,” says Vik Bangia, CEO of VERUM Consulting in Minneapolis. “Clients who demonstrate a concerted effort to foster their corporate culture are experiencing the greatest growth and will be in better competitive position to weather any pending economic storm.”
With today’s low unemployment rate, some say the war for talent is driving the need for increased employee engagement and amenity-rich spaces. Flexible space can help companies remain light on their feet as employee populations fluctuate.
Rolling the Dice Is Not a Strategy
Because no two recessions are exactly alike, how might a downturn affect your portfolio? What are some steps a commercial real estate professional might consider doing now?
Partner with a company’s financial team to understand the market outlook and impact on the business (cash flow, credit rating, etc.).
Create an enterprise plan that spans your portfolio.
Identify immediate, midterm, and long-term opportunities to optimize the portfolio.
Develop three to five planning scenarios for various market conditions (hot, warm, and cold).
Identify tactics for each condition.
Balance strategic scenario planning against the human/cultural side of things.
Everything begins and ends with customers (both internal and external). When the market contracts, customer behavior shifts – in terms of confidence, lacking funds, shifting priorities, and other factors – and strong businesses acknowledge that the game has fundamentally changed.
While it may seem incongruous to plan for the worst when times are good, the best CRE professionals will. They will be in tune to their lines of business and understand how the work, the worker, and the workplace may change. They look at how to adapt spaces if a tenant or part of their organization moves out, and they know how long the investment can be carried if a downturn becomes extended.
You do not have to be a trained economist, but you need to understand and act when it comes to up and down cycles. As a result, you’ll be able to create a more well-thought-out commercial real estate investment strategy.
Start the conversation on planning for the worst, even if you remain bullish about the investment market.
The workplace design community has facilitated the transition from a workplace as a fixed destination to a workplace as a fluid experience.
Always on and burnt out. That’s the current state of the workplace. Ubiquitous Wi-Fi, cloud-computing, smartphones, thin clients, high-powered laptops, and video-conferencing software connect people the world over. In great numbers, the workforce has truly become nomadic, moving from meeting to meeting, office to office, workplace to workplace. These digital drifters are no longer bound to their work in a physical way. Thanks to technology, both in terms of accessibility and immediacy, there are no boundaries, no rules, and minimal obstacles to getting jobs done, regardless of the time of day, day of the week or physical locality.
Workplace as a fluid experience
As the tools changed, so did the composition of the work itself. Accordingly, the workplace design community has facilitated the transition from a workplace as a fixed destination to a workplace as a fluid experience. And, in the process, designers have grappled with the seeming incompatibility of “everywhere, all of the time” with the real limits of human performance. Employers want and expect people to collaborate, contemplate, execute and socialize, and they want them to do it now! It’s exhausting—so exhausting that burnout is now commonplace enough to be classified as an officially diagnosable condition by the World Health Organization.
In response, workplace design has rallied around activity-based functions and well-being strategies as cure-alls for the contemporary workplace. While this complimentary set of ideologies has largely prevailed, there is yet another wave of technological progress that promises to shift the conversation yet again. The focus centers around the Big Data revolution, including sophisticated analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the looming specter of automation that threaten to challenge the very nature of human work in the near future.
From bits to bots
From the trading floors of Wall Street to the shop windows of Main Street, businesses flourish or fail based on their ability to assemble and capitalize on information while serving fluctuating markets. If the data wars of the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that the vast pool of personal data in the digital world can be honed into a tool with the power to shift global economies. Data is the world’s most valuable resource, and the world’s data set is exponentially expanding at a mind-boggling rate. With Big Data challenging the limits of human comprehension, innovators have built non-human tools to help us understand and exploit its economic potential. Data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are new business holdings that challenge old world management platitudes like “people are our most greatest asset.” The truth is a well-structured algorithm might be more valuable than an entire workforce.
The pessimistic view is that machines are coming for our jobs, but the upshot is they are taking jobs we are most ill-equipped to perform, anyway. The days of data entry and data processing are now inked in the yellowed pages of our twentieth century history books. Creativity is the new superpower. While algorithms and artificial intelligence are best-suited to optimize and systematize old ideas, winning enterprises in the twenty-first century rely on human ingenuity to identify new opportunities. They recognize the capabilities of humans and machines alike and apply them in new and exciting ways.
The next generation workplace cultivates collective intelligence and nurtures human interaction with a seemingly infinite amount of information. As a result, notions of a fixed workplace simply no longer work. It’s not about open or closed, present or absent, private or public. Yes, those questions still linger, but they are on the lagging end of the adoption curve because the conversation has shifted. Organizations on the leading edge are exploring technology and real estate strategies that have the potential to dramatically and irreversibly restructure the landscape of work itself. Emerging technology is poised to topple the traditional workplace by targeting the balance sheet in four ways:
CAP EX: Enables companies to optimize or even forego capital expenditures in fixed assets
OP EX: Roots out operational inefficiencies and reduces operating expenses through automation
UX: Creates rich, nuanced user-experiences
PX: Fosters stronger overall performance by facilitating the specialization of tasks amongst humans and machines
Space on demand
Work is becoming increasingly fluid, with the liquidity of the workplace often at odds with the inflexible nature of fixed assets like real estate. While the majority of corporate portfolios consist of leased space, increasingly, corporations are adopting co-working as a complimentary component of their future growth strategies. Space on demand offers organizations a quick, affordable, disposable real estate option to minimize capital expenditures. As a result, companies can invest in technology to accelerate core business services. The PropTech movement is aimed squarely at restructuring the fundamental nature of the real estate market by enabling organizations to make smarter, faster, more financially prudent decisions with their real estate portfolio. With real estate being the primary component of the largest industry sector in the United States, even slight deviations from the historic norm have the potential to dramatically alter the landscape.
The automated workplace
While the debate around work-from-home vs. work-from-here has largely quieted, the emergent truth from that back-and-forth is that people want flexibility and choice. To meet those demands, organizations are continuing to adopt flexible workplace strategies including activity-based working, neighborhoods, and agile environments. The fluid nature of these workplaces is naturally at odds with the rigid reality of walls, windows, furniture, and furnishings. Forward thinking organizations are beginning to monitor employee activity in their environments using a combination of sensors and scheduling applications to understand where and how people are using space. When combined with the right analytics and connected to better building management systems, the immediate benefit to these technologies is reduced operating expenses and more efficient work processes. Smart buildings know when and where to exert energy. There is a secondary, longer-term benefit, though. When paired with modular, mobile workplace components and the right workplace services team, organizations can modify portions of the workplace on the fly. When done so, CRE is positioned as a partner to the business, rather than an obstacle for the business to overcome.
The experience factor
Everyone is talking about experience. It’s a complex, nuanced topic that takes into consideration emotional and aesthetic dimensions. That said, there are still practical ways that technology can facilitate a more seamless, integrated, and frictionless employee experience. For people working in flexible workplace environments, a real source of anxiety is knowing when and where to be at any given moment, feeling confident that space will be available when needed, and that co-workers will be present and available to collaborate at the right time. Imagine if everyone had an administrative professional at their service. Workplace applications in development aim to serve as those digital assistants. By bridging the divide between individuals, calendars, room management systems, and workplace sensors, applications aggregate information, perform analysis, and provide recommendations to employees. They eliminate unproductive time scheduling meetings. They reduce search time. They function as reliable aids and can even recommend workplace settings to compliment the type of work being performed.
The holy grail of workplace strategy is quantifying the role that space plays on human performance. In many ways, it’s a fool’s errand. As people begin to partner not just with other people but also with artificial intelligence, it’s about to get a whole lot more bizarre. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to take advantage of emerging trends and opportunities. Increasingly, people are using technology to boost their physical activity, manage their diet, improve the quality of their sleep, and now predict the type of day they will have based on their recovery levels. Since the days of Taylorism, management has sought to increase the productivity of the human workforce. Aided by new technology, there might be a segment of the workforce interested in managing and maximizing their own performance. While the concept of executives as corporate athletes is a bit dated, emergent technology provides people with real data to build improvement plans.
It’s a bit too soon to state that management will be the next to be “Moneyballed.” At a minimum, though, organizations will continue to see the workforce leverage technology to eliminate the mundane, frustrating, and confounding parts of their work. As work shifts away from administrative tasks and toward higher-value, higher-order activities, expect the expectations of the workplace to evolve with it.
Kaitlyn Dwenger University of Cincinnati Professional Writing Major Class of 2020
View the open position for Marketing Co-op (Spring 2020) here.
Q: How has your co-op experience at BHDP benefitted your education or advanced your skillset?
My co-op experience at BHDP was everything I had hoped for–and I can assure you, that is my true and honest opinion! I knew this summer would be a good experience, but I had no idea the amount that I would learn in such a short amount of time. I have grown my writing and editing skills, but I also gained experience with graphic design, video editing, and business development. I was able to touch parts of the proposal writing process and felt as though I was an integral part of the marketing department. I wasn’t just a “co-op,” I was a team member. It was awesome.
Q: What was your favorite part of working at BHDP in our marketing department?
BHDP’s marketing department is made up of some awesome people that I had the pleasure of getting to know throughout this semester. What’s great about the department is that everyone has their strengths and they work together to get the job done. They are a group of collaborative, hard-working individuals who all took me under their wing to teach me something new. That had to be my favorite part.
Q: Did you have a favorite project that you worked on?
Honestly, I really enjoyed getting to learn more about video editing. It’s especially cool to get hands-on experience in a position and learn something I might not have had the opportunity to learn elsewhere.
Q: Did you feel like you were able to explore different areas of marketing? Did you enjoy or learn from one part in particular?
Absolutely. This internship was great because my mentor, Deidre, was more than willing to get me hands-on experience in whatever area I wanted. Of course, there were some weekly tasks I oversaw, but a lot of my projects were tailored to my interests. I really enjoy social media, so this semester I was able to create a lot of our content and create a calendar that helped organize our posts.
Q: What advice do you have for BHDP’s future marketing co-ops?
Dive in! Don’t be afraid to speak up and get involved in everything. Obviously, don’t overwhelm yourself, but if you have an interest and haven’t gotten to explore it, volunteer to help or ask to attend meetings. The marketing team is very busy, but if you want to see how something is done or want to help them, they are more than willing to integrate you into the project.
See the careers page if you’re interested in learning more about co-op opportunities at BHDP.
Experiential graphic design (EGD) is the vehicle for communicating the intangible, value-generating factors that drive a company’s business goals. These qualitative factors within a workplace cannot be easily itemized. However, they are infused in its culture and contribute to its vision and success.
EGD’s primary purpose is to create an emotive experience that elevates a company’s culture, brand, and engagement with its mission. The appearance of permanence reinforces commitment to the message that is being shared. This adds weight to more ephemeral publications, published online or in print. EGD captures an overarching narrative and brings the story forward from an abstract concept to something that can be physically and intellectually explored.
EGD is “on brand,” while at the same time, it is not branded to the point where
it becomes mundane or redundant. In a workplace environment, for instance,
overuse of a logo throughout can feel out of touch or even oppressive in
relation to the individuals experiencing the space. EGD must strike the fine
balance between reinforcing a curated, high-level message and encouraging
risk-taking and creativity of individuals and teams.
BHDP, we understand that brands have more depth beyond their visual appearance.
We look beyond the idea of typical signage to reinforce your what and why,
stimulate team building, and encourage key behaviors. Through our discovery
process, we take a deep dive into a company’s culture to unearth the narratives
that resonate with specific audiences. The Harvard Business Review defines
culture as an ecosystem.
“The elements of culture interact with and reinforce one another […] A great culture is not easy to build — it’s why high performing cultures are such a powerful competitive advantage. […] More and more organizations are beginning to realize that culture can’t be left to chance. Leaders have to treat culture building as an engineering discipline, not a magical one.” 
place company culture at the forefront of our design process. We not only
explore the look and feel of the graphic content as it relates to interiors and
architecture, but we work to unearth the stories with which people identify. We
value partnerships where our clients are willing to explore beneath the surface
of their institution to share the processes, milestones, and aspirations that
are so intrinsic that they are sometimes lost. We want you to teach us the
intricacies of manufacturing, higher education, and healthcare so we can forge
stronger connections between your organizational narrative, your employees,
your clients, your leadership, and your vision for the future.
result of successfully implemented experiential graphic design can be seen in
the numbers. BHDP’s strategic processes result in improved recruitment and
retainment. We impact productivity by fostering positive work environments and
social connections . We shape employee motivation by celebrating
workplace culture through encouragement of play, purpose, processes and
potential . We build spaces where employee growth and innovation is
reinforced and realized. BHDP’s EGD team makes visible human investment by elevating
the stories of people, their life’s work, and their collective vision to the
forefront of its culture.
MANAGING PEOPLE Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive by Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron DECEMBER 01, 2015
ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi NOVEMBER 25, 2015
Stop thinking about millennials when designing your workplace. Here’s what to think about instead.
Research shows flexible workplaces that follow a lifespan of your employees are more important.
All too often, executives look at their office design and workplace environment with a narrow focus. Millennials. Millennials. Millennials.
They will be the next generation of workers when boomers retire, right? They will be the ones that will drive your growth, and they think differently than previous cohorts of employees. Indeed, by 2020, they will account for half of the workforce.
But designing your office around their present day needs is short-sighted.
Look beyond the gourmet cafeterias and free massages, the giant slides and foosball tables. While these design ideas can aid in recruiting, retaining, engaging, and empowering your employees, they emphasize younger workers.
Demographers like to uncover, classify, and name groups: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials. It’s what they do. But it’s not what corporate real estate, human resources, and workplace designers do. We deal with living, breathing, changing organisms called organizations—made up of all kinds of individuals, juggling all kinds of life events, needs, and desires.
A generational focus can obscure the fact that employees have lives, and life experiences influence how people engage at work. The “perfect” workplace would understand this and be able to recognize, via sensors and other technology, how employees are interacting with their environment. The workplace will then evolve to meet employee needs in close-to real time.
We’re not there yet.
A life stage approach
But we do know that employees at certain stages of life have typical requirements and expectations of work, and face predictable work and life challenges. Some of the more obvious are single employees who want ways to socialize at and after work, or new mothers who have specific needs such as mother’s rooms. And, these life stages do not necessarily align with arbitrary generational groupings.
It’s also important to remember that life stages don’t have to be a linear progression. As Merck & Co.’s workplace strategist Adrienne Rowe points out, some parents of grown children may have grandchildren living in the home. They may have the needs of older employees closing in on retirement as well as a young family. The challenge for a truly successful life stage approach to workplace design is dedicating the necessary resources to identify and understand the typical life stages that exist uniquely in each organization.
So what does that mean for workplace design?
If we focus on employees according to their life stages, not their generations, what are the consequences for workplace design? First, flexibility and choice move to the forefront. Environmental versatility is key if you’re trying to create spaces that engage and empower people who are focused on everything from self-definition to balancing commitments (work, family, community) to workplace stability.
Versatility doesn’t just mean providing different types of workstations and meeting spaces with various furniture configurations. It’s a business strategy that must be integrated across human resources, information technology, and operations.
Still, no matter how much we stress the importance of thinking about life stages, millennials will still be a concern for my clients. Yet my firm and the University of Cincinnati conducted research to characterize millennials, and what struck us most was not how different they are from previous generations of young people entering the workforce but how similar they are. They seek fulfillment at work, connection to a greater good, and a sense of community and collaboration, just as their parents did at that stage in life. Millennials may be more passionate and outspoken about these values, but that’s a difference of quantity, not of kind.
As Merck’s Rowe says, “With respect to designing spaces and amenities in the workplace, we observe that most individuals have the same essential priorities. They want places to collaborate, focus and socialize with colleagues. Flexibility and autonomy are universally important. Everyone loves an airy, naturally lit environment. They all want to learn, adapt and perform their best work.”
Best strategies for investing in workplace design
Generational definitions can get in the way of this commonality. Our research backs this up, showing how your smartest investment will be to create strategies and environments that do the following:
First, meet the full spectrum of employees’ needs across all generations and life stages. That means everyone—from the young singles craving opportunities to socialize and collaborate and the middle-aged workers balancing family and maturing careers, to the elder knowledge-bearers with an eye on retirement.
Second, honor core human desires, such as having a strong purpose, clear goals and meaningful work. This means acknowledging and promoting specific talents and rewarding performance, not just long hours at a desk.
Third, make sure your workplace evolves over time, just as workers’ professional and personal lives evolve. Plan for singles who crave socializing, for the new nursing mothers, and for the seniors who value mentorship.
I often caution my clients at BHDP Architecture to worry less about gourmet cafeterias, in-house massages and design-your-own workstations. Because what truly matters most to workers is universal, no matter the generation.