The intelligent office: building a physical space for the virtual world
The intelligent office: building a physical space for the virtual world
In 2013, work is due to begin on the world’s largest open plan office in Menlo Park, California. Designed for social networking company Facebook by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, it will accommodate some 2,800 software engineers in one huge room covering more than 10 acres.
Despite its vast size, the space has been designed with collaboration firmly in mind, according to a recent Facebook posting by the company’s environmental design manager, Everett Katigbak. “Just like we do now, everyone will sit out in the open, with desks that can be quickly shuffled around as teams form and break apart around projects,” he writes. At the same time, he adds, “we’ll fill the building with break-away spaces with couches and whiteboards to make getting away from your desk easy.”
This multi-million-dollar landmark project underlines Facebook’s continued commitment to the concept of a physical workplace for employees, even at a time when flexible and mobile working are increasingly common. At other companies, most bosses share that commitment: remote working has its benefits, but in some businesses, you just can’t beat the immediacy or effectiveness of face-to-face contact. At the same time, however, many would dearly like to reduce the costs associated with running a physical workplace.
how much space?
This tension is forcing businesses to consider how much office space they really need, how it should be laid out and which technologies should be deployed to ensure that employees’ time in those spaces is as productive as possible, says Mark Fitzpatrick, Head of Workplace Development at Orange Business Services.
On that first point – how much space – it’s clear that most companies need a great deal less space when, on any given day, a good chunk of the workforce will be working productively from their own homes or out on the road.
“A traditional workplace would typically allocate between 18 and 20 square meters per employee, if you take into account all communal areas in a building,” says Fitzpatrick. This is still the norm for many companies, he adds, pointing to a survey conducted last year by CoreNet, the global industry association for corporate real estate professionals.
This is where the second point – workplace design – comes in. Discussions that Fitzpatrick has had with social psychologists have led him to the conclusion that it’s very difficult to measure the effect design changes have on productivity. “What we do know, however, is that we can design workspaces that improve collaboration, with the idea that improved collaboration results in improved productivity,” he says.
Desired design considerations, for example, include adjacency, because physical proximity leads to collaboration, and serendipity, because social spaces are needed where two people can run into each other and have a coffee and a conversation that leads to an idea. At the same time, design must also take into account the work that comes from individual effort; in other words, there should be spaces where people can work alone without noise or interruption.
Organizations must be able to manage increasingly chaotic environments, suggests a Gartner report on the changing nature of work. “Work will become less routine, characterized by increased volatility, hyperconnectedness, ‘swarming’ and more,” said Tom Austin, Vice President and Gartner Fellow. “People will swarm more often and work solo less. They’ll work with others with whom they have few links, and teams will include people outside the control of the organization.”
tying it together with technology
It’s the third element – technology – that really ties the connected workplace together, says Fitzpatrick. “Without the technology element, you’re really only changing where people are working in the office, not how they work.”
Some of the technology transformation involved will be workforce-led, as employees increasingly bring their own smartphones and tablet computers with them to work. Increased productivity is typically cited as the number one benefit of introducing BYOD (bring your own device) schemes, thanks to the ease with which employees use their own familiar devices and the flexibility these tools bring to their work schedules (for example, the ability to check email or complete expense claims on weekends).
Semiconductor company Intel, for example, claims that the 19,000 employees who participate in its BYOD program have each saved 57 minutes per day during 2012 – a productivity gain of 2.75 million hours over the course of the year to date.
For companies looking to emulate that kind of success through BYOD, the first focus must be reinforcing their LAN (local area network) infrastructures, says Philip Clark, International Consulting Practice, Orange Business Services. “They’ll need robust wall-to-wall Wi-Fi and an environment that’s able to securely accommodate all employee devices. In addition, they’ll need to allocate enough IP addresses on the LAN to support the number of employees, carrying multiple devices, that show up on the peak day of the year,” he says.
In the future, near-field communications (NFC) will be important in making buildings more interactive and more responsive to employees carrying mobile devices. In particular, NFC chips will be used to create location-based services: if a chip is placed on the door of a meeting room, with a corresponding app on each employees’ smartphone, then an employee can wave their phone near that chip and use the app to see if the room is available and, if it’s not, book it for a time when it’s free.
In the meantime, there are plenty of networking strategy decisions to be made. In order to support “smart building” technology, companies will need to build out underlying network fabrics built on open protocols, open standards and open platforms.
“In a smart building, a company’s HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, lighting and access control and security systems all run on the same fabric as its information technology infrastructure,” explains Clark. This could be a common network such as Ethernet and Wi-Fi, or an emerging standard called Zigbee. The latter is a wireless protocol designed to create low-power, low-bandwidth networks for devices such as sensors.
In an open platform building, workplace designers can deploy arrays of sensors and controllers to create what is called “ambient intelligence.” Sensors can detect the presence of employees in a room, and counters can calculate how many there are. With this information, the smart building can adjust lighting and heating accordingly.
But it can go further than that, to the level of responding to an individual employee’s schedule, says Fitzpatrick. “If, for example, you schedule a meeting for a particular time and date and your calendaring system is integrated, then you can have a situation where the room starts to cool or warm up 30 minutes before your meeting, and the lights come on five minutes before.”
The ambient intelligence also serves to interact with the enterprise collaboration platforms. A meeting room can become part of an employee’s collaboration infrastructure, even down to the level of the employee having a presence indicator on his collaboration interface (such as Microsoft Communicator or Cisco Jabber) to say whether that room is available or not.
“This requires a complete rethink of what we need from the workplace, and in particular, it means that we need more collaboration space. But that collaboration space needs to be interactive, and it needs to advertise its availability and automatically adjust its own environment for usage,” says Fitzpatrick.
While motivations for workplace transformation – including cost reduction, energy efficiency, greater productivity and employee satisfaction – vary from company to company, he says, it’s only the connected workplace that can help achieve all of these goals.