With artificial intelligence (AI) so prevalent in the news today, it’s no surprise it is being used to help design better workplaces.
The New York Times recently featured a piece by Farah Nayeri on how AI technology is able to track use patterns of a space to determine how it could be improved, or to give guidance about how an organization’s new space should be designed: “Sensors track people and environmental conditions—temperature, air quality, noise levels, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and daylight. Architects and workplace designers then cross-reference that data to get a better picture of actual needs.
And they’re putting the data to use: relocating coffee spots and pantries to more popular corners, rearranging furniture and desks, redesigning lighting, seating people at desks that are better suited to their work, and using partitions in smarter ways.”
A Space’s True Use
AI can offer insights into a space’s true use that people might not be able to provide since employees are often unaware, or have a skewed picture, of their living and working patterns. An employee might report on a questionnaire that they use a conference room or other office resource as much as three times per week for one to two hours at a time, but tracking technology shows that, in reality, they use it once per month for no more than a half hour at a time. They also might report sitting and working at their desk diligently for hours at a time, but, in actuality, they have a restless working pattern, getting up at least once per hour to go to the bathroom or kitchen, or to consult with a colleague.
I had a co-worker years ago who seemed to spend the whole day going back and forth from his desk to the kitchen. He was on a healthy-eating plan, which required him to eat small portions of fruit and other healthy food frequently throughout the day—and he took it seriously. An AI system might note his pattern, and that of others who sit nearby with similar habits, and decide a small refrigerator located in the cubicle aisle could be a good idea, or even tiny refrigerators located between cubicles, so instead of taking 10 to 15 minutes to walk back and forth to the one kitchen on the floor, employees could take one minute or less to access their healthy snacks.
On the Move
If employees have a restless working pattern, an organization could design an office with no permanent workstations, in which employees have their laptop and can connect it to one of the generous-sized monitors spread throughout the office. Employees sit at whatever spot appeals to them when they come in and then move throughout the day to accommodate their restless patterns. When an employee is required to think consciously about where in the office they want to work each day and then have complete untethered mobility, they may find they lose the itch to so frequently get up and interrupt work and concentration.
Quiet vs. Noisy “Cars”
The automated tracking patterns of AI should be complemented by information taken from conversations with employees and managers’ knowledge of each employee’s work responsibilities. An AI system can’t tell you whether an employee is irritated and disrupted by nearby colleagues whose work requires them to be on the phone almost all day. If an employee’s job requires mostly solitary work using their computer, e-mail, texting, or other electronic messaging, they should not be placed alongside employees who need to have almost constant phone conversations.
An organization could set up what amounts to a call center area in which all employees who will be on the phone more than a couple times per day are placed. In other words, an organization could create the office equivalent of quiet train cars and train cars where limitless noise is acceptable. Employees in the “quiet car” would be able to make work and personal phone calls and have long conversations with each other in nearby closed-off rooms, like modern phone booth rooms or small conference rooms. Employees in the “noisy car” would not have to take those measures because it would be expected in advance that they have the need for a high level of phone calls and other out-loud interactions to accomplish their work.
The comfort level of employees related to air conditioning and heating is also a point to take into consideration. If many employees express discomfort due to extra-cold air conditioning, some companies with a building and property that allow for it could have a working area with large open windows and ceiling fans versus air conditioning. In the winter, this area could have the windows closed and be heated, but maybe not as much as the rest of the office is, accommodating employees who say they frequently feel too warm during the winter.
Are you using technology to complement the input you get from employees to help you create a workplace that promotes comfort and productivity?