Purpose, Precinct and Performance in our Digital Workplaces

As co-chair for Ark Group’s The Australian Government Workplace Design Strategy forum – with University of Sydney PhD Candidate, Ella Hafermalz (see her guest post) – I positioned the day as holistic investigation of people, place and technology.

People, Place, Technology

Natalie Slessor from Lend Lease quickly reframed this as “purpose, precinct and performance”. Personally I like this positioning, because separating out people, place and technology is really more reflective of the professional domains involved in the design process rather than how people actually experience the workplace. The concept of ‘precinct’ also resonates with my own ideas for the “city as workplace“.

With this in mind, my challenge to the forum in my own presentation was to argue the purpose and benefits of a technology strategy as an integral part of a workplace strategy. Such a workplace strategy is typically used to align the physical design of the workplace with other organisational objectives (productivity, efficiency, etc) and people management issues (including organisational transformation, health, well being, etc). The role of technology in design philosophies like Activity Based Working (ABW) should also mean that these strategies should also take into account digital workplace requirements.

For example, consider the aspirational vision for the future of a technology-enabled workplace we see in design fiction like Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision.

Design fiction like this helps to stretch our imagination to help see what might be possible, even if some of the technologies behind it are still only concepts or are yet to become commercially viable. But rather than playing the role of futurist, a digital workplace strategy can actually explore the work styles that technology support now and into the near future to guide other workplace strategy decisions.

In this respect, while there are some immediate practical benefits of considering technology in a workplace strategy, the most important reason is to actually ensure the new workplace really results in an effective working environment. Designers can easily create dissonance between offline and online environment, if the enabling technologies do not reflect the quality and design-intent of the physical space. And this dissonance can easily offset or reduce the anticipated benefits.

Why Do You Need a Technology Strategy?

One of the most interesting areas of cross-over between physical workspace design and the digital workplace is in the area of behaviour modification. Modern offices have always had a element of behaviour modification in their design. For example, early campus-style buildings were engineered to create opportunities for serendipity, which they thought might lead to new ideas and innovation. Today’s workspace designers try to affect everything from energy efficiency to well-being. Lend Lease talked about “choice architecture” in their presentation, but you may have come across similar ideas around nudge theory and in user experience design (which is where I also see opportunities for cross-over from technology to workplace design).

I shared two interesting examples that I thought might stimulate further discussion:

  • Pavlok – a wearable that uses vibration and a (slight) electric shock to train behaviour and improve memory.
  • Darma – a smart cushion that monitors your posture, sitting habits, stress level, and coaches you to sit better.

Behaviour Modification

Use of the Pavlok is more likely to reflect a personal choice. But with the recognition of the health problems created by sitting, use of products like Darma are likely to become common place in offices.

The impact of technology on the workplace can be as bold as Microsoft’s vision for the future, or as subtle as a piece of smart furniture that can help us to be healthier. Either way, it is time that we started to pay more attention to the relationship between technology with purpose, precinct and performance in our digital workplaces.

If you are interested in Digital Workplaces, Knowledge Management and Activity Based Working, I will be presenting on this topic at the NSW KM Forum on Tuesday 26th May, 2015 – register for Activity Based Working (ABW) Demystified.