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Design and Technology for People-Centered Workplaces

Scott  Alan
In the not-so-graceful transition from private to open-plan offices, the focus was on efficiency, optimizing the office with one-size-fits-all furniture, illumination and temperature control, with the needs and preferences of individuals marginalized. While office design trends adopted by most progressive organizations have evolved significantly away from the dismal days of the cube farm, recent scientific advances in our understanding of the human senses, behavior and cognitive functioning, coupled with new building technologies, have opened the door to a whole new level of people-centered workplace.

Accommodating individual needs used to mean tolerating desk fans and portable heaters (or install dummy thermostats) to appease the hot-and-cold complainers, and encouraging noise-canceling headphones for those distracted by the din. Most companies know that people are their most valuable asset, but new scientific findings identify and quantify the key factors that influence productivity, leading to specific design solutions and technologies that respond to and capitalize on this knowledge.

While this is a broad and deep topic, there are three areas where I see the most interesting advances taking shape—diversity of work environments, thermal comfort and air quality. These are closely aligned with the healthy building trends we have been following, as well as supporting established standards for sustainable building and energy performance.

Diverse Work Environments

Traditional offices supported two types of work, individual task focus and meetings. We are now acknowledging both the personal preference and the physical and cognitive necessity for variety and choice in the work environment. In her revolutionary book, “Quiet,” Susan Cain documents the neurological differences and unique psychological needs of introverts, who make up nearly half the population. She highlighted how open-plan offices can be over-stimulating, unproductive and exhausting for introverts. Her work has spawned creative efforts by designers, and by companies like Steelcase, to create comfortable areas for focused-work and for rejuvenation, along with the social and collaborative areas that support innovation and teamwork. After periods of interaction, introverts need quiet places to go and recharge or to concentrate on tasks, and people-centered offices are providing them.

These workplace design strategies have been picked up in the Comfort and Mind concept areas of the WELL Building Standard, outlining requirements for ergonomic, acoustic and thermal comfort, biophilia and adaptable spaces. The “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design” outlines patterns for thermal and airflow variability, dynamic and diffuse light, and spaces that provide prospect and refuge, which are shown in studies to reduce stress and improve comfort, wellbeing, productivity and concentration. Core to this trend is “free address” workspaces that offer a variety of furniture types, open and cloistered workspaces, and warmer and cooler thermal zones, and use technology to allow people to work anywhere they want without being tethered to an assigned desk.


Crowd-sourced Comfort

Thermal comfort design has long relied on ASHRAE Standard 55, which assumes that there is only one answer to the question of where the thermostat set point needs to be, and that you can never please more than 80 percent of the people. The creative solutions deployed by building engineers to address the hot/cold calls from the other 20 percent has been a running joke in office management circles. However, designing HVAC systems to allow occupants full control of their microclimates has proved costly and challenging. A recent study by the Berkeley Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, reinforces the need to find a practical solution. While the study focused on the practice of overcooling buildings in hot-humid climates to manage humidity, its findings are broadly applicable. Thinking is impaired in spaces that are too cold (or too hot) and the optimum temperature for cognitive performance is three to six degrees warmer than the typical office setpoint of 73 F.

This new understanding allows us to save energy by allowing for a wider deadband in high and low temperature setpoints, but more importantly, points out the need to find thermal comfort solutions that allow for individual preferences. Thanks to open-source building automation systems (BAS), advances in internet-of-things (IoT) solutions, and the prevalence of smart phones, new options are available that work with typical office HVAC systems. 

One of the most promising on the market today is Comfy by Building Robotics. Comfy is a tool that works with the BAS (BACnet) and common HVAC systems (like a VAV). It has a user interface deployed in an app for computers and smart phones, which allows individuals to register their current comfort condition (too hot, too cold or just right). Users immediately receive an automated response with a temporary increase in warm or cold air in the zone where they are working. Over time, the system learns the preferences of occupants, and the trends in space usage and thermal needs in each zone, and settles into an optimized pattern of variable setpoints that improves everyone’s comfort while reducing energy use and saving building engineers a lot of time.


Breathing easy

Like thermal comfort, indoor air quality (IAQ) has been shown to have a profound impact on human health and productivity. Thanks to LEED, strategies like specifying low-VOC materials, increasing ventilation rates, and implementing construction IAQ management plans have become common practice, but these do not by themselves guarantee healthy IAQ over time. Thankfully, new, affordable sensor technology is providing solutions that allow monitoring of IAQ, to help ensure healthy conditions are maintained and to identify and proactively address emerging problems.

One new solution is RESET, an on-going IAQ certification that is complementary to LEED and WELL. RESET establishes standards for the quality and calibration of sensors, and the density of deployment within a building, to provide real-time monitoring of particulate matter (PM2.5), CO2, volatile organic compounds (TVOC), temperature and relative humidity. The platform then communicates the results to building management and occupants. The standardization of measurement and transparency of data allows better communication of the healthiness of buildings and greater trust by occupants that their wellbeing matters to building owners and managers.


Risks and Rewards
  • When a building owner or employer commits to creating a people-centered workplace, it is hard to go back once the bar has been raised.
  • Detailed knowledge of issues that could impact health comes with a responsibility to take corrective action, and a potential liability for not doing so.
  • Data is good, but too much data can be overwhelming and lead to paralysis.
  • Multiple user interfaces and cloud-based technology can create vulnerability for data breaches, and some companies insist on using tightly controlled “on-premises” solutions.
  • Energy savings are easy to quantify, but cannot always justify the cost of new technologies, and while anticipated productivity gains clearly eclipse the costs, they are harder to quantify.

Despite these risks, people-centered workplaces are becoming the expectation of new talent entering the workforce. Ignoring this trend is a risk to building owners and employers alike, while those that embrace it will reap the rewards of attracting and retaining tenants and talent, respectively. The differentiation afforded by a green building certification has lost some of its luster, but a verifiable commitment to the health, well-being and happiness of building occupants has a strong appeal, and significant business benefits.