The latest FX design seminar has designers and architects join Intel to debate the role of technology in the workplace.
Words by Veronica Simpson
Photography by Gareth Gardner
Those taking part were
Nicola Osborn, Director MoreySmith; Martin Cook, Director BDP; Colin Allen, MD (Southern), Morgan Lovell; Matthew Kobylar, Director, Arney Fender Ktasalidis; Pernille Stafford, Director, Resonate Interiors; Stuart Dommett, EMEA Marketing, Intel; Daphne McMahon, Designer, Morgan; Natasha Bonugli, Director, BDG; Cherill Sheer, Director, CSA; Theresa Dowling, Chair and FX Editor
Stuart Dommett is an IT man turned marketeer (EMEA Marketing, Intel) with a mission to transform our workplaces into technologically enabled hubs. On his business card he describes himself as an 'IT evangelist'.
So his ulterior motive was fairly clear in suggesting FX hosts a gathering of design professionals whose main expertise is office architecture and interiors: a desire to recruit designers to his mission for total 'workplace transformation'. But he discovered that designers are far from tech-phobic. It's often the complex relationships between - and very different IT requirements of - different departments that gets in the way, not to forget the phenomenal cost of workplace overhauls for businesses of a certain size. So what can - or should - designers do to transform the often clunky, IT disabled, workplaces of today into the connective workspaces of tomorrow?
Martin Cook, Director BDP
Stuart Dommett (SD): 'We're pushing workplace transformation, particularly wireless technology. We see three components to getting this put into the corporate sector. First it's IT. But they can't do it on their own. Second, they need HR, which (mainly) talks about the company culture - what kind of company do we want to be, what do we stand for? Third is facilities, because IT doesn't have the budget to pay for the [refurbishment of] office space...[This is] why I was really interested in getting designers into this conversation because that's the key pillar. Really the fourth is finance, because they pull all the strings. IT needs to push, but we also need facilities to understand that they have a role to play in advancing productivity and the new style of working, because there's a lot of frustration from people saying: "I can't get the same level of tech that I get at home".'
Stuart Dommett, EMEA Marketing, Intel
Martin Cook (MC): 'We have clients that have genuinely tried to join the dots with technology and IT issues, and all the issues that go with the business model, but the refresh programme to upgrade the whole business is a huge issue. The question is how do we get different parties to talk to each other [and coordinate]. If you're a new start-up, you don't have those issues.'
Nicola Osborne (NO): 'But not every company is filled with 22-year-olds. You have to accommodate a mix of working styles. And not every department needs the same level of sophistication.'
Pernille Stafford (PS): 'One of the problems also is that the power is not keeping up with the tech.'
Nicola Osborn, Director MoreySmith
Natasha Bonugli (NB): '....and the cable management.'
Matthew Kobylar (MK): 'When we talk about having better kit at home, I do in some ways. I've got a touch-screen Windows 8 and it's so intuitive to me to move things around. Why I come into the office is because my monitor is bigger there. Touch is going to transform the way we work. I need that thing (he points to an imaginary monitor) to come down here (gestures to desk).
When I was younger I was drawing. Now I seem to be using Excel all the time.'
Daphne McMahon, Designer, Morgan
SD: 'It's interesting. Now we have wireless docks. Anyone can use that desk because they can wirelessly connect to it. It's wireless gigabyte.
So you're getting much better performance. Also it has "Identity Signature": it knows who you are. As you're opening up your laptop you're already connected. Wireless charging for laptops is coming. Have you seen HP Sprout? It's a monitor with a camera over the top and it projects on to the desktop. You can use that, and interact with it... Why can't I use that as a meeting resource? How can that now become part of my collaboration [toolkit]?'
Pernille Stafford, Director, Resonate Interiors
NO: 'Talking about how tech moves forward, it's also about how human interaction moves forward, alongside technology.'
PS: 'That's the thing, you don't want to loose the human interaction. You don't want tech to take over so we're not talking to each other.'
MC: 'I was presenting to a senior group recently - an unusual mix of corporate and academia - and the CEO was talking about [his desire to] encourage collaboration. The problem he has is that with graduates from last year he has to push them to talk to each other. So I say: "That's great. There's even more argument for you [older] guys to be working with them so you can lead by your example." But they don't [learn], they just sit next to each other and text; they don't talk.'
Colin Allen, MD (Southern), Morgan Lovell
Colin Allen (CA): 'Don't you think we're getting vulnerable to IT? I was recently working with a large organisation, all laptops and iPads. Something went wrong back of house. All of their contacts were lost. There was no connectivity. Emails disappeared. They were paralysed. For two days they couldn't communicate with one another. They couldn't even phone people because they had all these numbers but didn't know who they belonged to. It occurred to me that's risky!'
PS: 'But wasn't it the same in the old days? You lost your diary/notebook, you'd never get it back. It's gone.'
SD: 'All my information is available on four machines. All four machines associated to me. Every contact I create on those machines is shared across them. I'm commonly known as a cloud resident in IT.'
MK: 'Again that's really being led by home. I only got comfortable with [iCloud] automatically backing up my pictures and contacts when I changed to a new phone.'
SD: 'I would say gesture is the new thing; projecting on to a _ at surface - you can interact with Sprout like that. I can be sharing a photo and moving it around and resizing it, and not touching the computer because it's all 3D.'
MC: 'One of my colleagues came back from Shanghai with this little device: a projected keyboard. It cost him £40. He sat there tapping the table... Another of my colleagues - a product designer - went to Maplin and for £50 got this device that reads hand gestures. He says it's just too sensitive, too accurate, but the fact that you can do it at all is amazing.'
PS: 'But does it help your working day, is it slowing you down because you're so interested in the technology? Or is it benefitting you?'
SD: 'Has everyone heard of the term millennial? They're people aged between 25 and 35. A 35-year-old in large corporations is probably on the fast track, probably very senior. They are decision makers. These people are now in power. Over time that mix of millennials is likely to increase, and one of the forecasts is that office populations will be 60 per cent to 70 per cent millennials by 2025. They approach things in very different way.
'A millennial's approach to problem solving is to search for the answer, then engage in a forum to see who is more of an expert. I don't do that. I'm not of that generation. Most companies don't allow social media in the office. That's social media. It's that side of things that will come to the fore, and if I use that as an advantage, then my tech has to be designed to support that.'
MC: 'The difficulty still is that when you look at a massive investment, like a total upgrade, the supply chain is wrong. It's not accessible enough. The whole industry is geared to making it complicated. I can get into my own bank account quicker than into our workplace IT. For example, I say to people: why are we still buying fixed phones?
NB: 'Yes, everything can be redirected to your mobile phone.' PS: 'But you still have to charge everything.'
CA: 'The issue is not wireless. If you can get a battery that lasts for two days you're laughing. In the next five years, that will be the biggest [evolutionary leap]: power and battery.'
SD: 'So, wireless into desks: is that happening?
NO: 'You have to drive that [as a designer].'
Theresa Dowling, Chair and FX editor
CA: 'Some companies are struggling just with wifi. Even if different parts of the company want to make the gesture towards taking IT to the next level...people aren't trained [to understand the complexities].'
NB: 'It's not just what's on trend and the latest thing, it's what's going to be the right tech in the space for the right people.'
MK: 'I've done a lot of strategy work where you get facilities and HR lining up, then technology is a bit off-kilter. They might not know it. All they are concerned about is hardware, infrastructure. They're not concerned about how users are going to interact with these things. I feel the real obstacle in creating transformative workplaces is that the people in charge of IT are really not forward thinking about what the workplace needs.'
NO: 'You have to push them and challenge them...the problem is often the lack of knowledge about the technology across the board. We can sit in a meeting and talk about wifi then someone pipes up: there's a security issue with wifi et cetera. The problem with pushing boundaries is not just our knowledge but the client's knowledge. We need specialist knowledge and bringing that all together to find the right solution for the client.'
Theresa Dowling (TD): 'When you go to clients, who is the one with the most influence? Who is driving the technology agenda?'
MC: 'For most corporates, real estate [an office move/expansion] is often the catalyst.'
PS: 'When you have a CEO with loads of vision and they want to take things forward, they still need an IT department that supports that.
SD: Why does the IT department exist in first place? What's their role? They're put in there for one thing: computing came in to give you a competitive advantage. We've got to get back to that because that's their role. They need to make their business competitive, agile, flexible, to be able to adapt to the marketplace. They need to give business something it couldn't have without them. They have got to stand up and fight for things instead of locking everything down.'
NO: 'When can we get rid of a static PC please? Can we change the thought processes around that?'
SD: 'When you stop buying them!'
NO: 'I think we can talk about all this remote technology for the rest of the afternoon and we can talk about people moving around the office. But we hear that everybody still needs a desk with a static PC on it ...OK, not everybody...'
SD: 'I have multiple devices. The average number of devices employees have today is 2.2...
CA: 'I've heard it's 1.7.'
Matthew Kobylar, Director, Arney Fender Ktasalidis
SD: 'What we're seeing is far more people moving up to three, four and five devices. It's certainly going up. There is a role for a fixed desktop. But then it needs to be capable of interacting with different things. So it's about how do I use it in different configurations?'
NO: 'Which sounds great in theory but we still have humans to deal with. We can say: share your desk. But how efficient would that be? Everyone works differently. Everyone has an affiliation with their desk in a different way. Some people are very comfortable about going to work on the roof garden, but there's always someone who will say I can't think unless I'm at my desk. It's not an age thing at all. I've conducted forums with media companies with a cross section of ages, and it doesn't matter.'
PS: 'On a trading floor, it's very unusual for them not to be at their desk with a bank of screens.'
SD: 'Or a call centre - though more innovative ones have people at home.'
CA: 'We ran a seminar with someone from Google's office. They will have 650 people at its new place in King's Cross. Someone asked them: how many workstations are you providing? The answer was 650. And yet most corporates are saying, why pay £50 a foot for unoccupied space when we could have £2m extra profit on to the business.'
MK: 'Space as a cost in business is not very much. Staff is the biggest cost. So...give them their own desk, if that makes them work and makes them happy.'
SD: 'How many clients lead with [the emphasis on] employees and workforce style?'
NB: 'They don't, we lead on that.'
SD: 'How many times, if they haven't done so, do you talk to them about how design affects productivity?'
NO: 'You'd usually pitch that anyway.'
SD: 'How do they measure that?'
MK: 'Measuring productivity is the holy grail! What you have to look at is the Indicators of Productivity - staff engagement, staff morale, wellbeing, absenteeism, what's your social network within the office. Those are indicative.'
SD: 'Is there a lot of tech being required for conference space?'
PS: 'There are loads more conference-call meetings than ever before.'
MS: 'But conference space is not presentation [driven], it's collaborative.'
NB: 'More and more people want to share.'
TD: 'Leaving aside all the practical details, how do you think we'll be living five years' time, 10, 50? Will there be an office?
NO: 'There has to be an office?
NB: 'It may not be called an office.'
PS: 'It might be called the hub or something.'
Cherill Sheer, Director, CSA
NO: 'I don't think technology is going to make us obsolete. Even if we all had implants this conversation wouldn't be the same if we were all dialling in. You don't connect in the same way...the landscape of the office will change. So it may not be called an office. And maybe companies will start sharing office space - it won't be just this company's building here and that company's building there; it may be big incubators for lots of businesses.'
MK: 'What's the purpose of the office of the future? I have to say I do believe that 25 years from now there will be gigantic corporations like Intel and Microsoft and Yahoo - though maybe not Yahoo - or it will just be one and it will be Google, and there will be loads of small firms that Google will want to buy. There'll be this barbell economy with a few big firms and lots of small ones and not a lot in between. The workplace is where all of that dissemination, that culture of information, happens.'
NB: 'Maybe we could get to a point where you do your work elsewhere and the office is just a social environment, where you come to exchange and relax.'
NO: 'Designers always respond [to market shifts]. But we also push the boundaries.'
CA: 'You have to challenge your clients... You cannot be expected to be an expert in everything, but if you get people to talk and discuss the issues, then you can pick the right solutions. I say, what makes me successful, what makes my staff happy, is a great business to me.'
SD: 'So, if I was to summarise the debate about IT and office design with one headline, it would be: design community pushing boundaries but being kept back by modern companies' approach to the workplace.'
Agreement all round.