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    Design for diversity

    What can be done to improve well-being for today’s demanding workforce?


    Offices today are required to host a more diverse workforce than ever before. Indeed, designing for diversity is becoming one of the dominant signatures of organizational life—and this is set to have profound implications for how our increasingly digital workplaces will be planned and built in the future.
     

    Walk into any large open-plan space and you are already likely to see four different generations at work at their desks. Legislation addressing age and disability discrimination in the workplace has removed some of the barriers in Europe and North America to people of different abilities. Women have broken through the glass ceiling in many previously male-dominated companies. The provision of prayer rooms, safe spaces, and non-gendered rest rooms further suggests how working life is getting to grips with identity politics around diversity—and with the many different needs that arise.
     

    Inside our larger urban business districts and corporate campuses, the general pattern is of employees from all creeds and corners of the globe contributing to a global economy. A workforce that is essentially a kaleidoscope of such a broad span of different shapes, sizes, abilities, and cultural preferences represents a much greater challenge for workplace designers today than in the past.
     

    The mid-20th century office population—the “family-formation workforce” of 21- to 45-year-olds, as economists have described it—was overwhelmingly white, able-bodied, and male. Today, one size does not fit all. And diversity in the workplace is more than just about age, ability, ethnicity, and gender. It extends to the type of employment offered by companies, which are making far more use of part-time, consultant, and project workers as part of an on-demand, contingent workforce.

    Amid a growing “gig economy,” office populations are not as homogenous as they once were. In any standard city-center corporate HQ, at least 80 percent of people present during the working day used to be in full-time employment with the host company. Now that figure is dropping below 50 percent as contractors, clients, customers, suppliers, partners, and investors mingle with employees. Faced with a more complex mix of people with different needs and a more arms-length relationship with the host organization, it is little wonder that workplace designers are searching for new strategies and technologies that will help to span the diversity of office life more successfully.

    More demanding workforce


    Then there is a further factor to add to the equation. Not only is the office workforce more diverse, but it has also become more demanding—and dissatisfied. While physical injuries in the workplace have reduced from a generation ago, mental health problems are now sharply on the rise. Working days lost through stress, burnout anxiety, and depression are costing developed economies more than ever before and contributing to a stubborn resistance to boosting productivity in the ten years since the global financial crash.
     

    According to a major global poll of employee engagement by Gallop, more than 90 percent of the workforce is disengaged, with 15 percent actively so and doing things that might sabotage the organization. This does not make for happy reading. Part of the problem is the rise of knowledge work for the global digital economy over the past decade, which many companies are struggling to manage and quantify effectively. Many workplaces are still geared up to supervise process-driven work in a command-and-control industrial economy. They are far less comfortable with the agile and distributed patterns of knowledge work that the global digital economy now requires.
     

    Knowledge workers work inside their own heads—unseen and unfathomable—and in collaboration networks that are frequently dynamic and unstable. This is all very different from measuring more conventionally visible output, a legacy from the factory production line. Knowledge work requiring a higher quotient of emotional intelligence, judgment, intuition, imagination, and experiment is far more likely to resist automation. AI and robotics will be kept at bay, but developing the right techniques to accommodate and manage this type of work is proving elusive.  

    A perfect storm around diversity


    All of this adds up to a “perfect storm” around designing for a diverse, demanding, distributed, and (often) disengaged workforce doing new types of collaborative office work, but still searching for the new work environments that will support new work styles. Against this background, organizations are looking at ways to improving well-being across the diverse span of the workforce as the first building block in raising productivity. Some of the well-being problems that workforces experience can be laid at the door of inappropriate employment policies, inadequate training, insensitive management, or unreliable IT systems, but undeniably the work environment itself is now under real scrutiny.
     

    So what can be done to improve workforce well-being? In a partnership with Research Design Connections in Chicago, WORKTECH Academy reviewed the available academic research in the field of environmental psychology and design. Four factors emerged from this review, highlighting the most common themes in the field:

     

    Control: Well-being is enhanced when people have a comfortable level of control over their physical environment and their working life—when there is some choice in how, where, and when they work, but not too much choice and control, as this can be disorienting.

     

    Messaging: The silent messages sent via the design of the workplace can make employees feel good; spaces communicate to employees that they are respected by their organization.  

     

    Alignment: The design of the workplace improves personal well-being and supports knowledge worker performance when it directly supports the tasks that people actually need to do.

     

    Refresh: Workplaces that provide opportunities for people to refresh mentally—after they’ve become cognitively exhausted by doing knowledge work—make a valued contribution to well-being.

     

    The themes of control and messaging relate to conveying respect to workers; alignment and refresh support getting work done. By far the largest body of research focuses on a “sense of control” as a key driver of well-being and happiness at work irrespective of the age, gender, ability, or culture of the employee. This control takes many forms—control over work-life balance, time, tasks, interactions with others, and patterns of commuting, for instance. The ability to exercise control by finding people and resources within the building when you want them, or to connect seamlessly, should not be underestimated. But this aspect also relates to the design of the work environment itself.

     

    A sense of control in workplace design is expressed through individual control over physical environmental conditions (heat, light, air); choice in terms of different types of workspace to use (not just the standard desk); freedom to reconfigure your workstation (height-adjustable desks are increasingly popular); personalization (hacking your workspace is a growing refrain); and participation in the design process itself.

     

    But too much control can be damaging to well-being. Some studies suggest that a carefully curated set of options is more pleasant for workers than unlimited variability. So, for example, a lighting system with a half-dozen carefully selected pre-set options is likely to boost employee well-being more than one that allows light color and intensity to be combined in millions of ways.

     

    The use of silent, non-verbal messaging, which has become a vital part of workplace design, is also essential to improve well-being. More than a decade ago, a UK report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the British Council for Offices (2006) reported that, “Whether or not the message is being consciously managed, staff will interpret the physical clues around them to evaluate the organisation and their relationship to it.” [1] This process has since accelerated and there is now growing emphasis on what researchers Moezzi and Goins have referred to as how “occupants read organizational values into physical systems and care not only about doing their work but about how they are treated.” [2]

     

    When it comes to alignment, research scientists have learned a lot about the types of environments in which we work well. The key variables which can affect alignment with tasks (both routine and those requiring high concentration) often relate to the use of color, light, and material finish. The theme of refresh is similarly angled at how our environment can support work, in this case by recognizing that after we’ve had to concentrate for a period of time, we become mentally exhausted and require help to restock diminished levels of cognitive energy. This recognition is vital: we have long recognized that physical manual labor is exhausting but have been far more reluctant to acknowledge the issue of burnout and exhaustion in the white-collar workplace.

     

    What restores our energy levels at work? Indoor plants, views of nature, daylighting, inspiring artworks, and spaces for privacy all crop up in the research literature as potential ways to reboot the brain after cognitive overload. In my own research, I have made recommendations that dedicated spaces should be provided for knowledge workers not just to concentrate and collaborate but also to contemplate and recuperate. Such spaces are often green spaces offering individual control of ambient conditions, an escape from the madding crowd of the large, noisy, open-plan office.

    Smart buildings hold the key


    All four of these research themes are being evidenced in practice in the global workplace today. All four too can be addressed by the rise of smart building technologies, which will increasingly enable the physical environment to respond automatically to the needs and preferences of the diverse groups of people working inside. Smarter buildings hold the promise of giving more comfortable control to employees, of sending “silent messages” of respect and engagement to the workforce, of aligning work tasks more closely with people’s real needs and aspirations, and of allowing recovery and recuperation from exhausting cognitive work. 
     

    One should temper any utopian sense of what new digital technologies can achieve: in the use of sensors to plot movement, sense presence, and engineer social interaction, technology also has the potential to cast a “Big Brother” shadow over the workplace and reduce well-being rather than boost it. But if deployed in a mature, sensible, and inclusive way, new technologies can have an enormous impact on managing and supporting large, diverse, and dynamic office populations. 
     

    Who wouldn’t want their personal environmental preferences to be recorded and repeated each time they enter a space? Who wouldn’t want their place and value in the organization to be reinforced visually in the work environment? Who wouldn’t want their tasks to be supported functionally and psychologically through smart settings and services? And who wouldn’t want the opportunity to avoid burnout and recover energy in the workplace? All these things are possible in the new era of connected lighting services and systems.
     

    A lot has been made of what separates or differentiates people in the diverse workforce of today. This is particularly so in relation to age cohorts where there is so much focus on differences between the Millennial workforce and the Baby Boom generation. But perhaps we should concentrate on what brings people together rather than what sets them apart. Yes, evidence suggests that older workers have particular problems with noisy open-plan offices. But open-plan distractions and the relentless, exhausting grind of office life under fluorescent glare affect all age groups. Younger people can burn out just as quickly as older workers. Smart inclusive design that improves the environment for all is increasingly seen as the way to go rather than providing interventions for any special group needs.
     

    In our knowledge economy, despite the current disruptions in global trade, we will continue to demand increasing levels of innovation, collaboration, and communication at work. Redesigning the workplace to lift the well-being and satisfaction of employees is a vital first step along that road to a recovery in productivity. And, in the age of diversity, we now have the digital tools and technologies to make that happen right across the board. 

    Research into practice: how new technologies can support a diverse workforce 


    Control

    At Majunga Tower—a smart building in Paris—users can download a mobile application that allows a higher degree of comfort and control at work with 3D navigation, meeting room finding, and booking in real time, as well as information on other connected services such as restaurant queues and parking availability. The system allows employees to have a curated number of choices over how and where they work throughout the building. As the individual starts to choose their preferences, an algorithm suggests preferred settings to tailor the experience further.
     

    Messaging

    The lighting in Bloomberg’s new headquarters in London not only sends a message to its employees about its commitment to sustainability, but also sends a message of awe-inspiring design and respect to its workforce. The ceiling is comprised of a canopy of half a million LED lights, which are typically 40 percent more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs. The lighting canopy has been carefully engineered to demonstrate a commitment to the value of the Bloomberg employees.
     

    Alignment

    Advertising firm R/GA developed a novel lighting solution for its innovative workplace in Hudson Yards, New York. The strategy involved bundling approximately 10,500 surface-mounted, tunable LED lamps into groups of four and allowing employees to locally adjust their individual workspaces with color, indicate the occupancy of a meeting room, or match the lighting above individual workrooms and huddle spaces. This is an example of how lighting can align to a variety of different work tasks.
     

    Refresh

    Czech energy company Innogy has undertaken the biggest human-centric office lighting installment attempted in Europe in its Prague headquarters. LED luminaires from Philips are tuned to workers’ circadian sleep-wake cycles and are designed to stimulate energy levels at set times in the day. First thing in the morning and directly after the lunch period, the lights are set to a “boost” mode of 780 lux in a cooler temperature of 5000 K. This helps increase energy levels, workplace comfort, vision, and performance. Employees can override the light settings at any point using a wall-mounted control panel.


    [notes]

    1       The impact of office design on business performance. Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the British Council for Offices, 2006.

    2       Mithra Moezzi and John Goins. “Text Mining for Occupant Perspectives on the Physical Workplace.” Building Research and Information, 2011. Vol. 39, no. 2.

    About the author

    Profile picture of the author Jeremy Myerson
    Jeremy Myerson is the director of WORKTECH Academy. An academic researcher, author and activist in workplace design and innovation, Jeremy holds the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford.

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