Swiss style: Basel looks at behaviour to design the next workspace wave

Where does behaviour fit in breakthrough office design? The inaugural WORKTECH Basel conference explored the workplace through an alternative lens to help shape desired cultures and behaviour in an organisation

It can sometimes be too easy to pigeonhole entire nations into distinct workplace stereotypes: the German are efficient, the British are unproductive, the French enjoy long lunches with copious amounts of cheese and wine, and so on. The Swiss, on the other hand, are harder to pin down, as we heard at the inaugural WORKTECH Basel conference held on 8 November 2018 at Launchlabs.

A panel of five experts including Christophe Rogge of Roche, Karsten Schmitt of UBS, Gabrielle Keurleber of Novartis, Veronique Neiss of the United Nations Office at Geneva and Philip Tidd of Gensler discussed the diverse nature of the Swiss workplace. Switzerland is split into four distinct regions which are independent in culture and influenced differently by leadership, and this transcends into the culture of its workplaces. This places more emphasis on designing workspaces which are tailored to an organisation’s individual culture rather than implementing a generic workspace formula.

Intelligent design

Ulrich Bloom of Zaha Hadid Architects explained that ‘designing without data is like driving a car blindfolded. It’s dangerous, irresponsible and not practical’. This same theory can be applied to designing without having a good understanding a company’s culture. Both elements were discussed in detail by speakers at WORKTECH Basel.

Bloom explained how Zaha Hadid Architects has created an algorithm to measure visual contact between employees in the workplace; this gathers intelligence on employee interaction and can help organisations understand where to place employees to maximise natural networks. In time this system will start to learn individual seating preferences and suggest ideal seating positions to respond to those needs.

Claire Penny of IBM supported the call for the use of AI in design to create smart, responsive buildings. She explained that smart buildings are often coupled with great design, and great design can be largely assisted with AI. With a projection of $30 billion USD investment in the AI market by 2022, this is a trend that designers should know all about. Christophe Rogge of Roche also made the point that responsive environments can only be created if organisations invest in the tools to properly measure the workspace to enable data-driven decisions.

People and place

Good workplace design does not just result from an abundance of data, it also needs to bow to culture. Key Kawamura of Studio Banana used the philosophy ‘velvet gloves, punching impact’. This references that organisations should adopt design that fits their culture like a glove, yet has a significant impact on their employees.

Connection to space is an emotional response. Michel de Haan and Salla Lardot of real estate consultants Drees & Sommer explained that buildings need to evoke positive emotions and create desire. The ‘vibe’ of a company depends on the emotional attraction employee have to that space.

Innovation design is not just reserved for the agile workers within the company. Stefen Camenzind of Evolution Design shared that there are typically 42 per cent of ‘anchor people’ in the workplace, so they should be given the same freedom and choice that agile workers get to respond to their social and emotional needs. Camenzind coined this new inclusive design ANBW (Activity and Needs Based Working).

Andreas Ebre of conference hosts, Launchlabs, supported this by saying that for people’s needs to be reflected in the workplace design, there needs to be a balance and variety to encourage knowledge flow, from innovation space to collaboration and reflection spaces.

Changing behaviours

Behaviour and space can often spark a ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg?’ debate. Winston Churchill famously said ‘we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’, but others believe that you cannot design behaviour. Gina Dederer of AECOM qualified her position by saying that while behaviour cannot be designed, spaces can be designed to enable a desired behaviour. Spaces which are designed to promote chance encounters, for example, can encourage more collaborative behaviour.

On the other hand, Anne Wernand of Mapiq pointed out that humans are creatures of habit. As a result, stubborn behaviours are not easily changed despite the new spaces people are placed in. Often people come to work, mark out their territory, get on with their work for the day and then go home. This is where the role of data comes back into play, educating employees on the benefits of movement throughout the office by using tangible statistics to effect change.

Meal-time collaboration

The office eaterie has become a place for team building and collaboration in the workplace in recent times. Marco Meier of SV Group explains how the company worked with Studio Banana to create the Caravan Working Café, which launched in February 2018. This transforms the ordinary workplace canteen into a flexible and collaborative environment.

Meier presented seven key learnings from the project, which was implemented in three SV operations in Zurich: finding space in both peak and off-peak hours can be an issue; the environment should feel warm and inviting; striking the right balance between open space and reflective space is important, as is creating a diverse range of meeting space; good coffee is key; change management strategies need to be implemented; and it makes a cool place for events.

Kelly Robinson of Soundcloud and Headspace also supported the idea of returning to the meal table to increase human connectivity. She explained that as humans we are becoming more conscious of the need to make a positive impact on the world around us, especially the millennials who currently make up a significant proportion of the workforce

Connecting to community

Susi Mayer and James Grose of BVN explained that in an era of rapid urbanisation, skyscrapers are often represented as staples of power, privacy and hierarchy. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Skyscrapers can be flattened (metaphorically) and integrated into the wider community, as in the case study of property company GPT in New York. BVN created an app called ‘Community’ which helped transform the visitor and employee experience, while also paying close attention to the visceral qualities of experience that people crave in the workplace.

‘Hierarchical towers can be turned into beacons of community…’

A people-centred approach can also improve employee engagement. According to a recent Gallup survey, only eight per cent of employees report themselves as engaged. More alarmingly, 15 per cent of employees are actively disengaged and likely to sabotage work. Philip Ross of UnWork used the new 22 Bishopsgate building in the City of London to illustrate that community can be used as a bridge to help engagement and collaboration.

There are more than 50 floors in this development, and 20 per cent of them are dedicated to the community of tenants within the building. This volume of shared amenities means that employees have more options than a single company can offer and have more opportunities to collaboration externally.

Ultimately, WORKTECH Basel reinforced the idea that new ideas in place, design and technology to mould the future of work will slowed or side-lined if we don’t keep human behaviour as a primary focus. The Swiss might be hard to pin down, but a people-centric approach is where they’re pinning their money right now.

View the WORKTECH Basel review site here.
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