User Experience Design Revives Corporate Real Estate

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Chair of the Month

Melissa Marsh
Melissa Marsh
I am a passionate practitioner of Workplace Strategy and a leader in Change Management services. I have defined a career in workplace innovation by constantly seeking to explore ways to embed social and organizational design within real estate strategy, architecture, workplace design and master planning projects around the world. Across North America and Europe, I have had the great fortune of working with clients on the forefront of leveraging workplace to inform corporate culture and employee experience. Where appropriate this has included delivering alternative workplace solutions, and integration of physical and virtual work practices. I enjoy sharing knowledge and experience through teaching in both executive education and academic settings. I have contributed to courses for CoreNet, spearheaded international learning and technology initiatives, and lectured at UVA, Cornell and MIT's Sloan School of Management. I began my career following the completion of a Masters of Architecture thesis entitled Design for Achieving Strategic Business Objectives, supervised by DEGW founder Frank Duffy and Professor Diane Burton.

Despite claims that the office is dead, it’s not the end. But hopefully, it’s the end of obsolete models for designing, delivering, and procuring buildings.

The physical workplace is now one of many media through which work may be delivered. Yet, it remains unique.

  • Buildings will be one of the most important media forms for the next generation.
  • Physical space — rendered in three dimensions and occupied – is full of sights, sounds, smells, and reminders of life.
  • People are the patina of office space; the part that makes it real and enjoyable.

The current state of much office space – compressed, individualist, partially abandoned – is the result of partial truths played out to unfortunate conclusions. Economic drivers brought on by the recession have further fueled this myopic approach, but separating fact from fiction is tough when they seem so closely related.

For example:

  • We discovered space is unoccupied and concluded we should get rid of it (or re-purpose it)
  • We wanted individual control and designed furniture with fully adjustable features and customizable accessories.
  • We enabled employees to work anywhere and lost track of how to measure the impact of “place.”

But are these conclusions the best reactions?

We discovered space is unoccupied and concluded we should get rid of it (or allocate to other purposes)

The recent and intense uptick in the use of occupancy data to inform workplace program decision-making seems in many ways to be a misinterpretation of data – or, at least, unfaithful to the intent of the original data-collection exercise.

Occupancy Data
Occupancy Data

From a design perspective, occupancy studies were intended to examine a day in the life of both a building and its occupant – to match time with actual use.

Results were expected to show how spaces and places could be multipurpose, serving one need in the day and another in the night. Results might inspire designs for conference rooms which double as community centers.

But why is space under-occupied in the first place?

Employees report “seeing and being seen” as a primary driver for coming into the office; if space does not enable this interactivity, it’s a disincentive for staff to come in and not have their needs for community met.

In other words, when outpaced by organizational change or not considerate of culture, space management studies and design solutions won’t solve underutilization.

We wanted individual control and designed furniture with fully adjustable features and customizable accessories.

Individuals need to have a sense of control in their life, some to a greater or lesser degrees.  For many, control over their environment provides a baseline of satisfaction.

However, superficial control mechanisms on our furniture won’t resolve this.

A deeper version of control is required: namely, choosing when, where, and how to work.

True control comes from autonomy – giving individuals choice in their working environment – and with autonomy comes responsibility. This contributes to engagement where individuals are co-designing the work itself.

Yet, serious challenges appear when choosing space and self-management. Individuals who have lost the ability to make smart decisions about this may need coaching or advice.

Another powerful mechanism for communicating degrees of control is facilities management. Rather than resetting our workspaces to a snapshot in time, we need multipurpose designs to be more open-ended and responsive to user inputs.

For example, facilities could enable this reusabillty – providing spaces, places, and objects that can be used in different ways by various individuals and groups over time. Well executed, this performance-driven design could enable cooperation, thereby reinforcing the social contract between/among occupants rather than erasing it and starting over.

We enabled employees to work anywhere and lost track of how to measure the impact of “place.”

People are social creatures; we need to balance individual control with interaction so that we are not prevented from doing our work, but enabled to deliver in a supportive and energizing context.

Under-occupancy of space suggests that the space is not serving/performing as intended or desired. Occupants have voted with their feet and gone to more desirable locations. It needs to be improved, repurposed, and enabled.

The most anticipated innovations are often the most pessimistically received — work anywhere didn’t arrive fast enough. In the rush to adopt technologies, we have neglected some of the basics of our own profession: like the importance of color in stimulating the mind.

Enter: The user-experience design model

In order to design spaces that will anticipate and enable the activities of occupants, we must understand users’ drivers and desires at a deeper level.

That’s where user experience design comes into play; it offers productive tools and metaphors for just this task.

And we can look to the emergent trend of coworking spaces to observe commercial and organizational behaviors without the physicality of the corporate environment. Because it is occupant-driven, it’s inherently user-experience driven design.

And in this way, it helps us design for a future workplace environment that:

  • Represents history of changing design of work and expectations about accommodations
  • Offers potential for more transparent relationship between occupant and value of space
  • Demonstrates the multiple aspects of human factors in work-life: spatial, social, and technological
  • Represents an opportunity for inverting the workplace management and design model from top down to bottom up
  • Adopts new approaches to real estate, facilities management, and workplace design
  • Alters some barriers to entry, especially when space is combined with business services

Similarly, we can take cues from vacation destinations – hospitality is another user-experience driven industry, after all.

So I often ask clients, colleagues, and friends questions like “Where do you spend a lot of time and money to go?” and “What are the characteristics of these places?”

They tend to describe resorts, fine destinations, and exotic locales. We often then begin talking about how long they spend commuting to work, and how much it costs to get there.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that as mobile working and individual choice of location spreads across organizations, innovative workplaces are being designed more as destinations and less as “the place my boss tells me to go.”

Buildings, locations, and designs all have the power to provide occupants with creature comforts, amenities, and social opportunities.

As designers and real-estate professionals, it’s our job to discover what is of ultimate value to the current and future occupants who’ll make the workplace desirable and inspiring… even irresistible.

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