Study takes sensory approach to improve office of the future

For decades, designers have been rethinking the workspace of the future. But now, with the ability to embed new technologies, the future work environment is becoming more than just a concept.

In any traditional model of working life we’re likely to spend up to a third of our waking hours in an office. Yet, a British Council for Offices survey this year finds that more than 40 per cent of us are dissatisfied with our workplaces. It’s a problem that can have unwanted effects on any business, from lowered morale or creativity to higher staff turnover and absenteeism. Creating an effective and comfortable working environment should therefore be an investment rather than a cost. But with mobile technologies and a shifting work-life balance breaking up the traditional working model in any case, how should we begin to conceive and design the workplace of the future?

Just before Christmas a multidisciplinary team of designers, architects, engineers and universities presented the first results from a forward-looking piece of research into how technology might begin to answer this question. The study, called Building Awareness for Enhanced Workplace Performance, or Bop, received £1m of funding from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board, a £1bn-plus fund to promote technology and innovation in business.

In an attempt to get a better understanding of the conditions of a workplace, Bop uses pervasive computing, where devices are embedded into ordinary activities without users even necessarily knowing they are there. Built into the fabric of the building, these wireless network devices monitor the state of individual rooms, gathering information on temperature, noise, air pressure, humidity, light and even human presence.

According to Duncan Wilson, who describes himself as a ‘futurist’ at engineering group and Bop partner Arup, there are commercial benefits to be gained from applying pervasive computing technologies to the design of working environments. ‘The wireless sensor network offers the potential to understand which factors affect work performance and how people feel about and interact with the building,’ he says.

Installed at Central St Martins College of Art and Design and Arup in London, the sensors provide a continuous reading of environmental conditions, which are then fed back to workers via a live ticker tape designed by interaction consultancy Artificial Tourism. This information is then connected with how people in the office are actually feeling, through interactive installations designed by Maoworks. The consultancy developed a number of user feedback devices, including a simple yes/no floor mat on to which users step to register their response to workplace-related questions shown on an adjacent screen.

Stuart Jones, a designer and senior research fellow in Interaction Design at Central St Martins, believes that this type of information can help to create better working environments. ‘This kind of tool would support those organisations that do want to change, because it gives you the means to understand what’s going on. Then you can start to change whatever will be beneficial,’ he claims.

Perhaps our offices need this kind of scrutiny. Unlike most other areas of business, a building’s performance is seldom monitored from the user’s point of view, says Wilson. ‘In the sector of building design there’s a huge void between feedback from the consumer and how the product [office] is performing. This is not the case in other industries such as automotive and retail.’

Bop organisers claim the research is the first of its type in the world. Its approach to understanding how spaces function and people relate to them may inform the design of more adaptable workplaces in the future, suitable for mobile workers and fluid roles. According to Frank Duffy, founder of office design specialist DEGW, this is exactly what’s required. ‘We need buildings that can learn, with the capacity to accommodate change. It is better to do this with interior design than with architecture, which is fixed in a 50-year time scale. We need more choice, more complexity and more diversity,’ he says.


• Bop is a multidisciplinary research partnership between Arup Foresight Innovation & Incubation, Central St Martins College of Art and Design, BT, Imperial College London, Brunel University, AP Futures, Artificial Tourism, Maoworks and Spy

• It is funded by the Technology Strategy Board, which hopes that resulting products will come to market within five to seven years.

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