NBBJ held its first salon event, Data vs. Delight, in partnership with Bloomberg Beta in San Francisco. The title alludes to the changing dynamics of workplace design with the advent of big data. The question we sought to answer throughout the evening: what role does big data play in workplace design now that there is more of it and it’s easier to process than ever before? And to what degree do designers, who have typically relied on intuition to create space, implement the technology into their practice?
Bloomberg News senior correspondent Peter Burrows moderated a lively discussion with a diverse group of panelists: Evan Wittenberg, chief of people from Box, an online content sharing platform; Scott Chacon, CIO from social coding startup GitHub; social scientist Marina Gorbis from the Institute for the Future; and senior director of HR Britt Sellin from Cloudera. I also had the privilege to join the panel, to lend the perspective of an architect who is designing buildings for several large high-tech companies.
Panelists gave insight into their own workplaces and where they want to take them in the future. Among the questions addressed: Do we even need a physical office, with the advent of new technologies? Should employers track their employees’ movements in buildings? Can the color of an interior wall change the way you think and feel? And indirectly, do we even need architects anymore, since big data can help inform design to a greater degree than ever before? Answers varied, but everyone agreed that design is important both for productivity and serendipity, and place does matter — but its role in empowering the workforce is changing.
Panelists also found common ground on the fact that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all workplace. Box, for example, has an entirely open floor plan and likes its employees to be physically present in the office. GitHub has a range of work spaces and allows its employees to work from anywhere in the world. The Institute for the Future participates in a co-working program where they invite people who are not affiliated with their organization into their offices to work and knowledge-share. And Cloudera recently moved into a new office that underwent renovation. Another commonality: Most of these companies have cool hang-out spaces and work policies that have become synonymous with Silicon Valley, like free food, beer, ping-pong tables and flexible work schedules.
As the event drew to a close, it was obvious to me that workplace design is truly about harnessing data and creating delightful, engaging places to work. For example, data derived from neuroscience research tells us that employees doing creative conceptual thinking should work in rooms with high ceilings, whereas employees who are doing mathematical calculations (like engineers) are more productive in spaces with lower ceilings. At the same time, data doesn’t need to drive every design decision. Sometimes a designer’s intuition about what works leads to environments that are unexpected and hugely successful. Interestingly, we’re starting to see research that tells us comfortable work environments may not be the holy grail — perhaps being slightly out of our comfort zone in the workplace is where the best ideas can happen.In the coming weeks, we’ll post green-room interviews with panelists and participants.