New Technologies, New Behaviors
Smart devices, unified communications channels, and natural forms of interface are creating new behaviors in the workplace. Studying these behaviors is key to creating physical environments that allow technology to work for people. This requires new conversations to occur among real estate, facility management, information technology, and human resource professionals early in the planning of a facility.
There are few examples of unencumbered use of technology in the office. An outlet is rarely convenient when your device needs charging, and devices always need charging. The dynamite presentation you developed on your new MacBook Air can’t be shared with the roomful of people it was designed for because the room’s display is set up for PCs, and your seventh-grader has the adapter. In the middle of an important video conversation, someone carrying five lattes bumps into the table on which you had precariously propped your tablet in order to attain a comfortable Skyping angle and distance. When it comes to using new technologies, it is certainly easy to feel unsupported.
Over the past decade, changes in technology have had a dramatic impact on the way we work. Mobile devices—smartphones, laptops, and tablets—and powerful social, video, and cloud-collaboration applications and services have made it possible for us to be more productive. But as we adopt these new digital tools and use them in conference rooms, airport terminals, coffee bars, and our own living rooms, we begin to experience a disconnect between the technological innovations and the physical environments in which we attempt to use them.
Organizations—and the human resources (HR), information technology (IT), facilities management (FM), and real estate (RE) professionals they employ—are searching for better ways to connect new technologies and the physical environment. But with change happening at the speed of the internet, and new apps and devices popping up daily, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the current scene, let alone plan for the workplace of the future.
For the past three years, a group of designers, engineers, and researchers, on Herman Miller’s Insight and Exploration (I&E) Team has focused on emerging technologies and how they are changing social behaviors at work. As Ryan Anderson, Director of Future Technology, puts it, “There’s a lot of information out there to filter through. Our goal has been to identify the technology trends that are most relevant to the office and, more importantly, understand the emerging behavioral patterns. Because understanding these new behaviors will allow architects, designers, facility managers, and manufacturers to usher in a new era of workplace design.”
Anderson compares this approach to automakers recognizing the need for cup holders in their vehicles. “It’s about having empathy with the user. An auto designer said, ‘We know people have beverages in their cars, and we know that they can be distracting or unwieldy, so let’s give them a safe place to put their drink.’ The cup holder anticipated a need; we should apply the same approach to technology. We know that people are bringing their personal productivity tools, their mobile devices, to the office, so how can we anticipate and support their needs?”
“The research really begins by understanding which technological trends are creating new behaviors in the workplace,” explains Anderson. “From there we can establish new design principles and solutions.” He and his colleagues have identified three top areas of interest:
1. Smart devices—portable devices such as phones and tablets, and the cloud-based applications that give people unprecedented choice over how, where, and when they work.
2. Unified communication channels—new types of software that enable people to connect with each other in real time and are changing how teams interact.
3. Natural forms of interface—the emergence of touch, voice, and gestural interfaces that are altering the ways people interact with technology in the office.
In early 2011, for the first time in history, smart phones outsold personal computers. *1 In fact, by February of 2012, 88 percent of the U.S. population carried a mobile phone. Between December of 2011 and January of 2012, the number of adults who owned a tablet computer nearly doubled, and tablets will likely outsell laptops within the next five years. *2
This revolutionary rate of consumer technology adoption has had an unexpected effect on the corporate workplace. “People are increasingly using their own devices, like tablets and ultrabooks, for work,” Anderson notes. “These technologies are better at letting people stay connected to their work and families, regardless of their location, and they want to use them at the office.” While some corporate IT teams have embraced this new pluralization of technologies, most have found it to be a challenge.
In response, organizations around the world are ceding power to the people in what is being called the “consumerization” of IT and other corporate services groups. Some companies have established BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) policies, hoping that workers will be more productive when using devices they’ve chosen and with which they are familiar. *3
Meanwhile, cloud services like Skype and Dropbox—originally marketed for personal use—are also making their way into the workplace. People overwhelmed by the amount of information they encounter at work are looking for tools to streamline communications and processes, tools that work on their mobile devices and allow access at any time and in any location. Increasingly, they are finding them online and at “app stores.” “Since this new generation of tools was not created to access or share information using traditional AV outputs, software is becoming the common link between devices,” says Anderson.
The trends driving the increased use of smart devices in the workplace are only expected to gain traction in the near future. Gartner predicts that by 2013, 80 percent of businesses will support a workforce using tablets, requiring them to offer “appliance-level support” and network connectivity. And by 2014, the research company expects that “90 percent of organizations will support corporate applications on personal devices.” *4
“What this means for knowledge workers,” says Anderson, “is unprecedented amounts of choice in where to use their technology.” What it means for workplace professionals is reconsidering how and where work gets done in the office. “The office is one choice,” Anderson says, “and it needs to become relevant in new ways.”
Unified Communication Channels
The proliferation of technological devices and applications in the workplace has had the paradoxical effect of actually creating more barriers to communication, at least in the short-term. With tablets, smartphones, laptops, email, instant messaging, video, and social networks, people have many ways to get in touch with each other. But not all the devices, apps, and services are able to talk with each other.
Not too long ago, the only way to communicate with someone in a different location, within the workplace or outside of it, was to pick up the phone, dial a number, and hope that the person at the other end of the line picked up. “Today, we have a myriad of options for connecting with coworkers,” Anderson says. “We can reach them via desk phone, cell phone, web cam, instant messaging, email, telepresence, or SMS text. We can direct-message them on Twitter or write on their Facebook walls. But I may not know how you prefer to communicate, and if I call your landline when you’re at the coffee shop browsing Facebook on your laptop, you won’t know that I’m trying to get in touch with you.”
Although unified communications technology—systems designed to provide a unified user interface and experience across different devices and media types—has received a lot of attention for many years, new advances from companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Cisco are making significant advances.
“Workplace professionals need to plan for the different ways in which people in a facility will communicate with others at or outside of work using audio, video, and social platforms,” Anderson says. “We need to get used to the fact that interpersonal interactions can happen almost anywhere. We shouldn’t limit virtual participation to something that happens in a dedicated room or booth.”
Anderson maintains that corporate offices designed for work patterns that assume both virtual and face-to-face interaction—and that can adapt to a variety of future possibilities that enable people to extend an activity to those not in the room. Doing so will provide a level of support that workers will not be able to find at the corner coffee shop.
Natural Forms of Interface
For more than a century, our primary mode of interacting with office technology has been some form of the “QWERTY” keyboard. The introduction of mousing devices and graphic user interfaces nearly 30 years ago represented a breakthrough in the way we work with digital information. But in the last five years, technology developers have launched an exceptional number of new interfaces for human/computer interaction.
Natural user interfaces, or NUI, allow people to interact with technology in many of the same ways they interact with people: through speech, gesture, and touch. Apple’s Siri for the iPhone and Android Voice introduced intelligent electronic agents that respond to natural voice commands. New operating systems such as IOS and Windows 8 allow us to access and control software through touch, and technologies such as LeapMotion and Kinect are providing people the chance to control technology through gesture.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates calls NUI “a transformational technology.” Gates goes on to explain: “Until now, we’ve always had to adapt to the limits of technology and conform the way we work with computers to a set of arbitrary conventions and procedures. With NUI, computing devices are adapting to our innate preferences for the first time, and humans will begin to use technology in whatever way is most comfortable and natural for us.” *5
New user interfaces are not only transforming the way we interact with our devices, but also the ways in which we interact with each other. Researchers are finding that “the increased ability for natural expressions of behavior, such as gesture and posture, extend the possibilities for communication and collaboration.” *6
The ways in which these new interfaces are incorporated into the physical environment can also affect human behavior and social interaction. For example, studies show that simply changing the orientation of a shared screen from vertical to horizontal creates significant changes in the social dynamics of control and collaboration. *7
“The ways that people interact with their technologies are changing, creating new behaviors, and making some old behaviors less common,” Anderson says. “It’s important to think about what a workstation or team area might look like when people aren’t just talking to one another, but when they’re talking, touching, and pointing to technological devices.”
Implications for Workplace Design
“These three trends are good places to start thinking about what behaviors should be considered before a new workplace is built,” Anderson says. “It doesn’t make sense to design a facility or even a room around a specific technology that has a questionable life cycle, but emergent behavioral trends are very relevant and less vulnerable to change.” Based on work with a range of organizations, Anderson says he’s already seeing that “FM, RE, IT, and HR professionals are being asked to work together in new ways. We are a useful contributor to that conversation, helping to create facility solutions that are deeply informed by what’s happening technologically.”
Acting as a catalyst for these conversations is increasingly important. Reports on the effects of emerging technology trends on today’s workplace point to a disconnect between flexible work policies being developed by HR departments and technology solutions being implemented by IT. One study concluded that these two groups should be “encouraged to use new workplace collaboration tools to make collective decisions about future workplace policies and technologies.” *8
Real estate management teams should be part of the discussion as well. Organizations experiencing the early stages of these new trends may jump to conclusions about the future role of the physical workplace. “People may walk through a facility, see half the workstations empty, and say, ‘Well, no one’s here anymore. Everybody’s mobile so we don’t need as much space,’” says Anderson. “It’s better to start with the goal of creating more relevant spaces, ones that support new technologies and provide a better experience for workers using new technologies than any other place can.”
One way of doing this is by using pilot spaces as models for observing new patterns of behavior associated with the technologies used by a given team in an organization. Not everyone will use new technologies in the same way, which creates varied demands on the physical workplace. And even when new technologies arrive on the scene, they tend not to entirely replace the old ones—they simply become more specialized and an additive effect results.
“The best thing an organization can do,” says Anderson, “is to broker dialogue among FM, IT, HR, and RE groups, so they better understand how people work differently when using technologies. That way, behavioral changes can drive workplace design, which will ultimately lead to better connections between new technologies and physical spaces.”
New Conversations about Workplace Technology: Questions to Ask
“Creating work settings that support emerging technologies requires new conversations to occur early in the planning of a facility,” Anderson says. He suggests asking the following questions to get the conversation started.
- What devices do employees use on a daily basis, and where do these devices “belong” in the workplace? How are they accommodated in individual and group spaces?
- How do facility-based technologies interact with those that employees bring with them?
- Where does a team spend most of its time, and what technologies do they use there? Were those spaces designed to anticipate those technologies?
- What activities in the physical space require virtual participation? How could a space be optimized for a specific activity (ideation, project alignment) in a way that creates a good experience for those in the room and those joining virtually?
- What technologies are most important to help employees stay in touch? How do different teams communicate using technology in and outside of the workplace?
- What technology tools free employees from working in the office, and what technologies draw them to it?
- Which environments outside of work (libraries, airports, coffee shops, living rooms) are easy places to use technology and which ones aren’t? Why or why not?
- Imagine this scenario: You close your facility for one year and ask employees to only use technology to be productive. Then, you reopen the facility having optimized it for the use of those technologies at work. What would the space be like?
1. Huffington Post, "Smartphones Outsell PCs for the First Time Ever," (accessed October 2012).
2. Kathryn Zickuhr and Aaron Smith, "Digital Differences: The Power of Mobile," (accessed April 2012).
3. Verne Kopytoff, “More Offices Let Workers Choose Their Own Devices,” The New York Times, September 22, 2011.
4. Gartner, Inc., “Gartner Reveals Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2011 and Beyond,” (accessed October 2012).
5. Bill Gates, “The Power of the Natural User Interface,” The Gates Notes, October 28, 2011, (accessed October 2012).
6. Nicola Yuill and Yvonne Rogers, “Mechanisms for Collaboration: A Design and Evaluation Framework of Multi-User Interfaces,” Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), March 2012.
8. Parcell, Robert. “The Workplace of the Future,” (accessed October 2012).