13/04/2021 • 4 min read

Space for the People, by the People

Using sensor data to inform workspace design

by Priya Manoharan

The complex relationship between the built environment and human movement has been a key experiential factor for thousands of years. By merely understanding how one moves through an environment, we are given insight into what, how, and why that specific space is used.

In the 21st century, the relationship between space and functionality can be accurately observed and measured to influence current and future workspace design. Recent research indicates that when it comes to design, the user has power—because successful spaces are made for the people who use them.

The Research Process
The democratic way to design is by the user and for the user—not alienating people for the sake of a creative venture. Although, it is painstaking and quite physically impossible at times to involve and attend to tens and hundreds of users’ necessities for a space. By involving people in the process, their engagement will lead to the optimization of the space—and will make them feel responsible for its success. 

In workplace design, user-directed spaces result in increased productivity. Analyzing user data in a workplace to understand patterns and trends can be an indirect way of involving the people in the process of space design. An example of this comes from a global tech organization—which we will refer to as GTO, as the actual name is not being disclosed for privacy reasons—that employed user sensor data to optimize space utilization and design.

Haworth conducted a year-long analytics study of over 3,000 individual workspaces and observational workshops. The goal of the study was to understand how to sustain the relevance of space, how to increase space utilization efficiency, and how to engage with user feedback about the space.

In the study, 70% of individual workspaces in the GTO were measured for usage and performance with heat and vibration sensors, and 30% were not measured. The 30% included assigned workstations, event spaces, specialist spaces—such as broadcasting or brainstorming spaces—as well as wellness spaces that often have assigned hours or are far too unique in usage and activity intervals to be measured on a regular basis.

Three key results indicate that designing with user specification in mind will lead to a healthier work culture—improving legibility of space, adjusting for supply and demand, and taking a balanced workstyle approach.

Legibility of Space
Considering the 70% of individual workspaces in the GTO measured using heat and vibration sensors, spatial analytics led to surprising discoveries. The spaces that were occupied the most were the spaces that allowed for higher user control—flexible workstations and areas with technological plug-ins or traditional furniture that could easily be moved around. The least used spaces were those that lacked technological advancement, were highly enclosed private or open public settings, and rooms that could not be booked in advance. The uncertainty of how the spaces would impact workstyle and experience made people less willing to use them.

This sense of uncertainty related to space ties into the concept of legible design. Legible workplaces provide configurations that are easy to understand and navigate. Having observed the data from the GTO study, we know that to positively influence the workplace, a space's design should enable people to be aware and in control of how the space functions.

Supply and Demand
The GTO study also explored the supply and demand of applications being used. Data shows that the supply of large formal collaboration spaces was higher than demand for them. On the other hand, the demand for smaller formal collaboration spaces was much higher than what was available. Therefore, establishing a necessity-driven plan for applications based on the supply-demand chain will help drive an optimized design solution for any space.

Balanced Approach
Employees at the GTO were spending time evenly between focus work and collaboration. People who were not pressured to do focus or collaborative work but instead had a self-guided, balanced approach to work reported feeling more engaged and invested in the workplace. These positive results provide a strong baseline for design decision-makers. 

When used appropriately, data analytics create opportunities for design improvement, critical understanding of needs, space optimization, curating a supply of the right workspaces to meet demand, identifying space challenges or threats, and understanding organizational culture.

In order for organizations to reach the healthy work culture that most are striving for, based on the results of the GTO study, we highly recommend designing spaces with user specification as the driving factor.

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