Effective workplace design: Technology’s role in modern environment
AT A GLANCE
• How is technology being introduced in the workplace to benefit firms and their workforces?
• Are companies compromising employees’ rights by adopting more advanced workplace technology?
• How are businesses adapting to technological changes in offices and what does the future hold?
Technology is playing a huge part in workplace design, helping to increase flexibility, minimise costs and incentivise staff, says Christine Toner.
Words by Christine Toner
How important are our surroundings when it comes to promoting productivity? It’s a question architects and developers are asking themselves frequently.
The way in which we work has changed and so too must the place in which we work. And technology is a driving force in this.
“The impact of mobile technology on workplace design has been huge and it is no longer necessary to have a standard fixed office design,” says Amanda Townley, office manager at K2 Architects.
“The last few years has seen a trend for open plan office design with the option to use mobile devices such as tablets and laptops anywhere in the building. Integrated systems that allow presentations to be made on large screens controlled from mobile devices eliminate the need for endless wires and plugs.
“Current collaborative working strategies demand office design that is simplified, flexible and adaptable to the presently unimaginable future of technology.”
Indeed flexibility is one of the key focuses in current office design. The ability to accommodate staff with flexible or part-time working hours, encourage more independent working and boost performance is essential for businesses and is a primary concern for most employers. Many are calling on designers and developers to help their premises to cater to that.
“In today’s modern world we are now valuing the relationship between office design and worker performance,” says Townley.
“The main driver of this is staff wellbeing – long gone are the days when workers were tethered to their desks due to technology restrictions. We have seen a rise in inclusive office design for dedicated breakout areas, where staff can relax and socialise with colleagues.”
Along with providing more creative and inspiring spaces for employees, technology is also being utilised for sustainability and cost efficiency.
Stephen Fieldsend, associate director at Falconer Chester Hall, says smart buildings – buildings which integrate technology and energy systems – are making a huge leap into the future with office technologies.
“With greater leaps forward into sensor technology and Building Maintenance Systems (BMS) this gives greater control to building managers to reduce individuals changing thermostats,” he says.
“PIRs (passive infrared sensors) for lighting allow [lights in] meeting rooms, WCs and changing facilities to be turned off when nobody is in the room.”
Fieldsend says smart building technology and automation are making manual control of a building’s heating and cooling a thing of the past, and commercial real estate’s adoption of this technology is shaping the future of building management.
“In today’s modern world we are now valuing the relationship between office design and worker performance.”
“Building managers can utilise this technology to manage their lighting,” he says. “Automated systems can detect the vacant parts of a building and turn off lights in those rooms.
“Likewise, these systems can make the same adjustments for temperature so that facilities managers aren’t wasting energy heating or cooling vacant parts of their buildings.”
Offices tend to be designed to reduce the requirement for individual controls and adopt the BMS system option. Falconer Chester Hall has recently finished a commercial office smart building at Tower Wharf in Birkenhead. It includes sensors for all lighting within the building together with a fully installed BMS system which monitors power and heating usage throughout the year and can be changed through the varying seasons by the building manager.
“People have different tolerances for hot and cold, but different sections of buildings have different temperature ranges depending on the design and orientation, sun exposure, shade and the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system,” adds Fieldsend.
“Even when the HVAC system is in tip top shape, maintaining consistent temperatures across the building remains a challenge.”
Of course, technology can assist in cost saving and efficiency when it comes to staff numbers too.
Dean Ward, co-owner and technical director of Wirral-based Evoke Creative, which designs and manufactures digital technology, says businesses are increasingly using technology to automate and streamline processes.
“We were commissioned by Google in 2012 to design and manufacture digital kiosks to replace the company’s antiquated visitor book,” says Ward.
“The current model can take a picture, print off a visitor pass, read barcodes on security cards and alert staff that their guests have arrived. There’s now one in every Google office worldwide, handling upwards of 6,000 visitors a day.
“We’re continually developing the technology behind our kiosks and we’re working with a Dublin-headquartered security firm, TDS, which is doing really interesting things with facial recognition and head-counting.”
Ward says automatic check-in – whether by facial recognition or Bluetooth from an employee’s smartphone – eliminates the need to clock in or out and lets a system or user know not only how many people are in an office, but also which people.
“This has important implications for employee safety – for instance during an evacuation for a fire or bomb threat,” adds Ward. “Sensors outside the building can be set up to ensure that all staff are safely out of the building and at the designated muster point.”
“Businesses are increasingly coming to us for advice on tracking technology.”
And it’s not just offices that are benefiting from the safety aspects of such technological advancements. Indeed, any premises which receives high numbers of visitors could make use of this technology.
“The technology is incredibly popular on university campuses in the USA, where they are ever vigilant to the risk of violent incidents, but it will inevitably become commonplace in this country,” says Ward.
Automated processes can also help to provide additional perks and benefits for employees – something which can be crucial when operating in a competitive market and vying for the top staff.
“Remote PAs operating through Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) via a digital kiosk are popping up more and more at the receptions of blue-chip companies,” says Ward. “It gives employees the chance to drop off dry cleaning, order flowers or a taxi, on walking into or leaving the office. It allows an employer to provide the kind of personal assistance to vast numbers of staff that would otherwise prove costly and unworkable.”
However, such technologies are not always welcomed by staff. While much of the technological advancements being employed at present surround sustainability and cost saving, there are more ‘tracking’ focused technologies being developed which enable employers to monitor staff performance. Recording computer monitors, tracking internet and phone use and even tracking location could become a standard feature in offices.
Lee Jefcott, employment partner at Brabners, says this is raising questions about employee rights.
“Businesses are increasingly coming to us for advice on tracking technology, asking what they can and can’t do, and what the consequences are,” says Jefcott.
“In truth, it’s a balancing act. On one hand, people have a right to privacy and, on the other, businesses are entitled to know if employees are abusing their time at work.”
Jefcott says if an employee believes they have been intruded upon, they are within their rights to raise a grievance against their employer.
“They may even have grounds to sue for constructive dismissal if they can prove the employer’s implied duty of trust has been broken,” he adds.
“Businesses need to be mindful that any information they collect falls under data protection laws. Ultimately it’s their responsibility to ensure any information is secure, gathered for reasonable and necessary aims and, most importantly, that employees are aware. Transparency is vital here.”
Any innovations in technology can only benefit a business – and its employees – if employers are willing to embrace them. According to Townley, engagement with new technologies varies considerably.
“We find that the baby boomers’ lack of adaptability is really becoming a competitive disadvantage as they don’t understand the way the modern world moves,” she says. “Generation X is resourceful and possesses natural entrepreneurial spirit so it is happy to move with the times.
“Generation Y is a highly social generation that thrives on collaborating and is currently the main driver for technological advances within office design.
“What really needs to be discussed is the needs of the next Generation Z – how the technology and culture of the future will influence office design.”