Why technology needs to be brought into the workplace design conversation earlier

MacBook Pro on white surfaceWorkplace design in Australia evolves to reflect our changing attitudes towards work. Back in the 1980s, managers and senior executives would have their own segregated four-walled offices while the remainder of the workforce sat in high-walled cubicles. Work was largely carried out in silos and the workforce was still far more male dominated.

The ‘80s was also a time when major technological developments changed working life – and working spaces – forever. The first Mac computer was sold in 1984, the first dot.com business registered in 1985 and the World Wide Web arrived in 1989.

It is no wonder that the workplaces we frequent today are vastly different to what they were before. Now across Australia and New Zealand, 69 percent of offices are open plan. The walls between senior management and all other levels of staff have come down and workplace diversity is a key driver for most businesses.

Now we face yet another evolution with the advent of remote and hybrid working, driven initially by the coronavirus pandemic but also by the realisation that remote working can lead to higher productivity and lower costs. 85 percent of businesses believe greater location flexibility has led to an increase in productivity according to International Workplace Group.

Amidst all this change – one thing has remained constant. New technologies continue to shape the way we work. Today things like video conferencing technology, digital collaboration tools and even noise-cancelling headsets are having a huge impact on the way that people be productive and collaborate in the workplace.

Technology is at the epicentre of today’s digitally transforming businesses and cannot be an afterthought. In particular, there are three major cultural shifts that will continue to have an impact on workplace design and the technology that thrives in it for years to come. These three shifts demonstrate the need to bring technology into the workplace design conversation from the onset.

1. Workplace diversity and accessibility

Organisations around the world are ramping up efforts on diversity and inclusion policies, programs and events. Indeed, 97 percent of people recently surveyed by Boston Consulting Group said their company has a diversity program in place.

Given the prominence of this issue, both locally and globally, ensuring that workspaces are designed from the outset to cater for different individuals is crucial. This means not only creating inclusive and accessible workspaces for all through structural means, but also creating functional environments that cater to the varying work preferences of people within the workforce. Some people may need quiet places of solitude to be productive whilst others thrive off the energy of a busy environment.

Technology has a key role to play in creating these inclusive workplaces – but it must be considered from the outset.  Whether looking at incorporating assistive technologies for those who require aid in their roles, or technologies that allow each unique individual to perform at their peak – trying to retrofit technology can be a complex and costly exercise. New office spaces should be created with a holistic view of the working needs of those who will occupy it. Otherwise they will be destined to become outdated and ineffective very quickly.

2. Flexible collaboration

While the need for collaboration is not a new concept, the way organisations and individuals approach collaboration continues to change. When the “open office” was first established it was seen as a means of forcing collaboration through mere physical nearness. If workers had to sit close to each other, then collaboration would just happen. We now know of course that this approach doesn’t work, and instead the open office has caused much disruption. Virtually all employees surveyed across ANZ stated that they were distracted while working (99 percent) in research we conducted last year, and half said that distractions make it difficult to listen or be heard on calls in an open plan environment (51 percent).

The workplaces of the future will create effective spaces to foster effective collaboration between employees, without forcing their hand. By creating open, collaborative areas as well as spaces where people can seek privacy, such as huddle or conference rooms, designers can cater to a wide variety of individual needs and ensure that everyone has space to collaborate. Meeting rooms will also need to be adapted to ensure remote workers can join meetings seamlessly and be a full part of the meeting. Collaboration spaces must allow for people to be working from wherever.

Demand for video, in all shapes and sizes, will be stronger in the next normal of working. Office spaces will need to be video-enabled so those in the office can stay connected to those working remote. Conference rooms and workspaces of all shapes and sizes will need to adapt to support a video-first approach.

The ways that technology can foster collaboration in the workforce are almost infinite. Noise-cancelling technology can be used to create truly effective huddle rooms. Customisable headsets allow employees to cut themselves off from noise while at their desk and ensure quality phone interactions during conference calls. The list goes on. But flexible collaboration must be built into a workplace – physically and through the culture – and cannot be retrofit.

3. Sustainable workplaces

Now more than ever, businesses are being held to account for their impact on both the communities they operate within and on the environment. Nearly two-thirds of Australian CEOs now see climate change as a major threat. This was among the top 10 growth threats in PWC’s 2020 Annual CEO Survey for the first time in the study’s 23-year history. But what does this mean for workplace designers?

Clearly using sustainable building materials and energy efficient electrical goods are a must. But technology, when used in the early stages of design process, can also help to reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint. For example, cleverly using space within an office reduces wasted space, and designing a technologically enhanced workplace from the outset reduces the need to redesign and waste valuable resources. Technology also has a key role to play in enabling flexible work practices, such as working from home, which can hugely reduce an organisation’s carbon footprint.

Technology has an undeniable role to play in shaping workplaces of the future. But if organisations are to truly capitalise on the power of these technologies, and keep pace with evolving market trends, they must incorporate them at the beginning of the design process.

Andy Hurt is Managing Director, Poly ANZ

This article was first published by Architecture & Design