Do wearables hold the key to the multi-sensory workplace?

Designing multi-sensory experiences at work can aid wellbeing and productivity, but a balance is required between architectural form and new wearable technologies

Our existence is enlivened every waking moment by a symphony of stimuli from people, objects, spaces, tasks and nature. This rich array of inputs to the mind and body generates a multi-sensory experience that can enrich the environment for people to live and work in. As in music – with melodies, harmonies and rhythms magically combining in a myriad ways to inspire the mind – so too in multi-sensory design, which weaves a tapestry of experience for people to flourish in.

Our senses are channels that ignite the imagination

The idea of taking into account the senses of a building occupant – how we smell, touch, hear and see things in the environment – has extended our thinking in this area. The senses not only mediate information for the intellect, they are also channels that ignite the imagination. The architecture of space is critical as it sculpts the outline of our reactions: Merleau-Ponty wrote that the task of architecture was to make visible how the world touches us.

In assessing the value of a building, its effect on the physical and mental performance of its occupants should always be given a high priority. This is what might be considered an invisible aesthetic that, together with the visual impact, makes up a total aesthetic.

Polyphony of the senses

Buildings can and should provide a multi-sensory experience for people and uplift their spirits. A walk through a forest is invigorating and healing due to the interaction of all the senses. This array of sensory impressions and the interplay between the senses has been referred to as the ‘polyphony of the senses’. Architecture is an extension of nature into the person-made realm and provides the ground for perception, a basis from which people can learn to understand and enjoy the world.

This interaction between humans and buildings is more complex than we imagine. In addition to simple reactions that we can measure, there are many sensory and psychological reactions that are difficult to understand and quantify – but we must recognise they happen. The environment we design affects our physical, mental and social wellbeing. How do we attempt to deal with this in practice?

Wearables in the workplace

One route to the multi-sensory workplace could be through what we wear. The British Council for Offices has published a report, Wearables in the Workplace, which shows how wearable technology is setting a trend towards more personalised control of the relationship between the occupant and their workplace. In this report, written by Arup and Reading University, the following conclusions were reached:

Technology: Wearables are part of the digital health trend and address a broader goal for technology to be people-centric by enabling increased personalisation. Additionally, they can provide fine-grain, real-time data on a greater number of environmental parameters and health indicators than are typically integrated into current building management systems (BMS).  

Design: As people become more aware of their health, and technology enables mobile working, the fundamental design priorities of the workplace are changing. As the wearables help to quantify both sedentariness and stress, office designs will be required to creatively support active working and invest more in rest and relaxation spaces, collaborative and dining spaces, and strategies that promote a connection to nature.

Metrics: When combined with data from occupant surveys, environmental monitoring and business metrics, the added data stream of biometrics from wearables provides an added dimension to monitoring the impacts of specific workplace interventions. At the individual level, insights can provide personalised guidance on health; aggregated at the company level, insights can help to understand how to make positive adjustments to group behaviours and dynamics.

Research: There will be more research on the relationship between physical environment, behaviour change and organisational culture – these studies will offer great potential for rich insights into operations and behaviour through a deeper analysis of space use, collaboration and social interaction.

A balanced future

As to the future, it is reckoned that over the next five years there will be more wearables woven into clothing, more apps that link with wearables, and generally more connected solutions that can aid business as well as indirectly helping to improve workplace health.

Wearable apps will change the way we work and help bring complex business processes to life in a way that is new, simple, visually compelling and action-oriented. Futurologists speculate about body digital implants but that raises more questions than answers.

Wearables will enable teams to be more connected to the digital world while being more present in the real world. The key will be to enable wearable technology and applications to leverage business data to highlight the right information, at the right time, to drive the right business action. Built-in analytic software will make observing trends and patterns derived from the data simpler for both for the user and the aggregator.

More connected to the digital world, more present in the real world

Wearables for work provide an opportunity to significantly improve productivity, efficiency and even safety. However their introduction needs to be done with sensitivity. As wearable technology becomes more ubiquitous in the workplace, transparency and employee education will go a long way toward resolving these issues.

Finally, technology is not the complete answer: it can enable people to be more aware of their physical and mental states, but it can also be unreliable on occasions and rather rigid in terms of input requirements. Natural systems such as passive architecture are often simpler, more flexible and durable.

A balance between the use of technology and simpler approaches is needed in order to achieve a true multi-sensory experience in the built environment.

Derek Clements-Croome is Professor Emeritus at Reading University in the UK and an expert in attaining and managing healthy and sustainable environments in buildings of all types

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