Proceed With Caution: A Clear Understanding Of Where You Are Headed And Why

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Chair of the Month

Kay Sargent
Kay Sargent
Kay Sargent, Director of WorkPlace, HOK With 37 years of experience, Kay is a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues and an award-winning designer. Kay is Global Co-Director of HOK’s WorkPlace team and sits on HOK’s Board of Directors. In 2020 she was named ASID’s Designer of Distinction. Kay currently serves on the ASID’s Foundation Research Taskforce; George Washington University Advisory Council; the IWBI Mind Advisory Team and the Advisory Boards for I+S and WorkDesign magazines. During her career she has also served on the International Boards of CoreNet Global, AVIXA, IFI - International Federation of Interior Designers /Architects, ASID, IIDA, NCQLP and the Advisory Board of Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design and NVCC. She is an active member of IFMA and co-founder of the IFMA Workplace Evolutionaries, WE community and serves as an Executive committee for WE. In 2021 she was selected from her field of peers to provide Congressional Subject Matter Expert Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on “Federal Real Estate Post-COVID-19: A View from The Private Sector.” Kay also serves on the GSA Diversity taskforce and is an advisor for the HOK Diversity Advisory Council.

Excerpts from HOK’s upcoming whitepaper “Tech Workplace: From Frontier to Center Stage.” An investigation of the forces reshaping the tech industry and how workplace design can position companies for success.

CISCO Waterpark Place Toronto. Image by Tom Arban Photography;; [email protected]

In a time where technology is evolving so rapidly, many organizations are still struggling to provide their team with basic technologies – such as ubiquitous high-speed Wi-Fi, portable computers, videoconferencing, collaboration tools, security solutions, cloud-based access to files, intranets, and more. But technology isn’t waiting for them to catch up. It’s charging forward.

Leading that charge is the emergence of the internet of things (IoT), a network of devices, embedded with sensors and actuators, which enable the collection and exchange of data. IoT is machines talking to machines. This creates direct integration of the physical world to improve efficiency and create smart buildings. Experts estimate that today there are approximately seven sensors for every person and that by 2020 the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion objects, exponentially increasing the potential.

A smart work environment uses sensors to collect information about the physical environment and the users in it, and in turn leverages that data to achieve a strategic advance. Beacons, sensors and cameras can all communicate with building systems and employees’ phones. By leverage this data and making it accessible via technology in workplace, we can enhance the user experience for all.

Workspaces can also leverage this information to assess the patterns and preferences of the workforce as well. Ambient computing is an ecosystems of network technology responding in real time to what’s actually happening in the business environment, rather than relying on static workflows and monitors. These systems are lying the foundation for the creation of an autonomous workplace. Smart tech can help create a truly intelligent, autonomous workplace designed to support users. From tracking utilization, noting preferences and identifying patterns, sensors can provide valuable intelligence that can boost productivity and aid in improving the user experience within a space. They support space that encourage freedom of movement, are designed to operate without direct human control and enable users to select the right space or experience to meet their needs. Leveraging sensors and the IoTs to create smart workplace can include building systems that address:

  • Temperature and HVAC systems
  • Space utilization
  • Security and access control
  • Room reservation and booking solutions
  • Automated cleaning
  • Solar controls
  • Lighting
  • Acoustics
  • Work point height adjustments
  • And even food and beverage options


We are living in a time where we have access to lots of fast data. There is such a thing as ‘too much of a good thing’. Fast data is often thin, or worse irrelevant, and can lead to false conclusions.

Utilizing the traditional method of capturing information via time utilization studies, on-site observations and stakeholder interviews can take time and yield limited comparative data. Although using sensors and the IoT can generate “big data” faster, it often lacks the multiple dimensionality and more subtle aspects of the more traditional methods. According to Tricia Wang, what’s missing from big data is human insight. Data collected from a singular point is thin at best and can be misleading. Thick data on the other hand is the compilation of data taken from multiple viewpoints, queried by human understanding with logic applied and addresses the question, “why?” For example, data taken from an occupancy sensor might indicate that a room is occupied and therefore unavailable, leading to the notion that more space is needed. But if it is a 10-person conference room being repurposed by one individual who just wants some privacy, that data alone would lead you to a false conclusion, and a lot of wasted space. Or if there is a work point in the space that no one is utilizing, again the data might conclude that it isn’t a desirable setting and should be eliminated. But upon investigation it might be ascertained that the power outlet was broken, or it was just located in a noisy, hot spot and therefore less desirable then other options. Relocating it and fixing the power would address the problems and save what could otherwise be a popular setting option. Hence understanding how best to collect data and how it applies it essential.

Until it’s assessed and analyzed, data isn’t valuable information. And information isn’t knowledge unless you know how to apply it. Wisdom comes with understanding how to leverage it. That where data, analysis and experience all come together to create meaningful conclusions.

An investment in data collection needs to be well thought out as it is an investment in time, money and technology. The first question is why are you collecting the data? Is it to achieve a specific business objective or to provide information that will be acted upon to rethink the workplace? Is it to look for cost savings or to look for ways to enhance occupant experience? Understanding the ‘why’ is essential to taking the right path forward. Other questions to consider may include:

  • What problem are you trying to address?
  • What do we need to know to make an assessment?
  • How can you leverage data to help in the assessment?
  • Are there any privacy concerns or sensitivities amongst the employees?

Second question is what are you going to do with it?

  • Is this a one-time assessment or will it be on-going?
  • Are you looking to use the data for passive controls of the building systems and the environment?
  • Are you looking to give users active control over the building systems and their environment?

Once you understand the ‘why’, then you need to consider the how should you collect the data. Potential solutions often depend on the number of facilities to be included, the existing data that can be leveraged, the amount of investment you’re willing to make (time, money and resources), and what you’re trying to achieve. Data collection options include:

  • Human Sensors
  • Badge swipe or log-in data
  • Time utilization studies
  • Reservation and booking systems
  • Wi-Fi triangulation
  • Sensors and Beacons
  • Mobile Apps

It’s important to remember that often all that is needed is a low tech assessment by a trained workplace expert. After all, people were the first sensors. Conducting on-site observations with experienced workplace strategist can help determine the anthropology of the workplace. Even if you employ a high tech solutions, it needs to be balanced with professional insights to ensure the data is thick and looked at from different perspectives to truly vet it.

The use of sensor technology often gets push-back from employees that question what is being collected and how it is being used. It has been our general experience that when people perceive technology is being used to monitor them, they resist it. But when people something as enabling and empowering them with options and choices, they embrace it. Some companies are using an opt-in program that allow employees to see where their colleagues are in a building at any given time, using a mobile app that shows employees’ initials on a map. These systems are not designed as an oversight or monitoring management tool but as a way for employees to have awareness and control over their own environment. The entire focus shifts to being about improving the user experience.

It’s imperative that we have a clear understanding of what we need to collect, and why; that we ensure the data we are using is accurate; and that it is thick data and vetted various ways so it is a true and accurate reflect of the situation. The worst scenario is you spend a lot of time, resources and money collecting information that you don’t know what to do with or don’t have the authority to act on. Or, you rely on thin data collected from a single perspective that leads to false conclusions and ultimately proves to be a misfit for your organization. Data, with clear intent and human insight nets the most valuable insights. We have the ability to harness this ever advancing technology to benefit not only the business but to put the power in the hands of people and transform the user experience.

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