The Opportunities and Blind Spots of Data in Workplace Design
At a Metropolis Think Tank discussion hosted one of AECOM’s New York offices, a team of experts delved into the high-tech cutting edge of workplace design.
The end goal of workplace design has always been about increasing productivity. But according to Jeanette Bronée, a performance strategist and culture coach, “Half of our productivity is wasted on not feeling good.” This comment was made at a recent Think Tank discussion that focused on wellness as a growing consideration in work environments.
The panel, which was hosted by AECOM at its Manhattan office, began by outlining new methods of tracking biometrics within a workplace. When every aspect of an office environment becomes measurable—from light and air quality to space usage and noise levels—how do you avoid engendering paranoia among employees? How might employers use data to make the links between well-being and design concrete? And to what extent are people willing to embrace collection of their personal data?
Answering these questions requires “merging the social sciences and design,” said Kelly Bacon, who leads AECOM America’s Strategy Plus initiative. “Work is innately stressful. If you realize that you have a headache emerging around three o’clock, is it because you’ve been in the same room, you haven’t changed location, you need more oxygen, or you haven’t had enough water? Those are all actionable things,” she explained.
For Arlene Ducao, CEO of location analytics system Multimer, biosensor data transmitted by wearables can help identify such actionable items. Because of the nature of her work, the panel turned to her to address issues of ethics, privacy, and best practices. “There is always this aspect of informed consent,” Ducao said. “A big part of that is understanding how your data is being collected and how it will be used—the whole flow of the data, not just the data itself.”
For Bronée, the challenges people face in offices are due in part to the stress of occupying spaces that aren’t inherently natural to humans, “especially at work [where] we tend to just focus on what we need to do rather than how we feel,” she observed. There are elements of the workplace that can be quantified but there are also aspects that can’t be easily addressed through design changes alone, such as self-care, quality rest, hormone levels, and the food we put into our bodies. All have a direct bearing on how we feel while working and none belong to the sphere of work.
Still, the more information captured, the more it can contribute to employees’ better understanding of themselves. From Ducao’s experience, the collection of data has definitely contributed to this sense of individual responsibility among employees in the workplace: “From what I observed [when] there was a moment of empowerment, they could use that data to advocate for themselves. It could really support this being the wave of the future.” To repeat an idea mentioned multiple times throughout the discussion, a lot of what it comes down to is the line between managing people and supporting them.
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