Pictured Above: Penguin Random House Toronto, Designed by figure3 (Photography: Steve Tsai)
“You don’t need to come to the office to access some equipment or files or something physical that you can’t get at home. You don’t need to physically come into an office to do that anymore.”
The way we work has changed, so why haven’t designs? Tyler Gilchrist leads figure3’s Design Research and Strategy and is looking at a new way of approaching workplace design in light of the way that work has changed. He is looking to design better workplaces that reflect our world, businesses and most importantly, the needs of occupants.
Is the Office Dead?
Without the need to access “stuff”, whether it be files or equipment or technology, it may seem that employees wouldn’t need to come into the office at all. Yet the modern office still provides an enormous value to both organizations and employees themselves. What has shifted is where the value offered by an office comes from.
This is actually one of the benefits that technological disruption has had on the office. What Gilchrist highlights is that the possibility of distributed work allows designers to re-examine why people are coming into an office and move past a superfluous purpose of an office like merely accessing equipment or files. It creates a shift to focusing on what really matters, “In the workplace context it’s the interaction with other human beings”.
So while these traditional office is far from obsolete, the role that it needs to play has changed.
What Users Require
Some people are still designing for offices as if employees need to come to work at a stationary location or only be moving around to access devices like printers. But this simply is no longer the case. The question that Gilchrist notes all designers must think about is: Why (employees) are coming here in the first place?
“Anybody can design something that technically meets functional program requirements x amount of meeting rooms, individual spaces” notes Tyler. Diving below the surface is what requires time and effort. Yet designers often skip a deep dive in this step because of time or resource constraints. What it can lead to though, is actually design that inhibits what users require.
Generative Design Research
Part of the challenge for creating truly effective designs that work for employees is to let go of the conventional way of thinking about problems and approach each project with the desire to understand better. Gilchrist notes that “designing with our own assumptions, convention and without a deep understanding of the people we are designing for limits design.”
This is because designers may come in and use whatever the latest trend is without considering specifics of the space. This differs from what innately drives employees though.
What Generative Design Research seeks to do is look at what is driving employees. It goes beyond simply asking them what they want or what motivates them. Tyler notes that often times they may not even know what they want so you have to observe and look at research on human behaviour.
“Most people are driven by a sense of autonomy and a sense of purpose, so how do you connect people with your organization’s purpose. When they are connected to the purpose of an organization, they’re more motivated, they are more productive, it doesn’t cost as much (for an organization) long term” he explains.
Design Impacts Employees
Tyler explains that “the design of the environment changes how people think, feel, decide and behave.”
One example that Gilchrist notes may seem innocent enough in design, but can have measurable impacts is ceiling height, for example. There is good empirical evidence suggesting that Low ceiling height is better for routine repetitive tasks, like accounting and finance. Higher ceiling height is better for creative tasks. Confined space actually confines thinking as well. Physically and psychologically this affects our thinking.
While it may seem like a small example, Tyler explains that this type of connection between a workplace and employees is huge in terms of connecting them to an organization or their shared purpose within a role. Designers have to dive deeper to look at how design is impacting employees because if employees have what they need to complete a task, elements like ceiling height would never come up.
Making Design Complete
“Art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer” – Alois Riegl, of the Vienna School of Art History in 1900
The user of a design completes and collaborates the designers work. You can’t design an experience – but if you have a deep understanding of the type of experience an employee requires, your design can enable it. Gilchrist explains that “through Generative Design Research we are bringing more empathy and rigour (to design), while also looking to provide people with what they require, whether they are aware of it or not. “
It’s important that as new trends arise, and the office continues to change, not to lose sight of those we are designing for. And while every designer conducts research before undertaking a project, looking deeper with Generative Design Research can be the difference between design that inhibits employees vs one that enables them.