The technology agenda

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Carl Gearing PwC / Dan Moodey Parcour / David Clements FUTURE Designs / Clive Pereira HLW / Elly Kemp Scott Brownrigg / Chris Gibbs BDP / Andy Swann BDG architecture + design / Shane Kelly tp bennett

Is the technology agenda taking over office design?

As many of you will know, Marty McFly headed ‘back to the future’ in the second of the movies three instalments. We’ve already moved past that time – October 2015 – and so we’ve compiled a panel of industry experts to discuss the amazing technological breakthroughs of the past 25 years – and to ask if technology has moved in the directions predicted. We will discuss how technology has transformed our lives, how it has affected our work, our culture and our environment.

As kids we might have dreamed of owning a ‘Hoverboard’ one day, but who would have thought we’d end up coveting the latest phones and that tablets would not just be something we took for a headache? Indeed, it is the ‘invisible’ technology that so often really wows us – as our sponsors’ FUTURE Designs and Parcour show through their innovative products.

We begin by asking our what our panel feels has made the biggest impact in terms of technological breakthroughs.

Carl: I think the biggest impact has been Wi-Fi. You can now just pick up your laptop and walk around. It has chaanged the way you plan a space and also it is fast now – it is automatic. It has changed perceptions of how you work – people aren’t stuck at desks. And this is fairly old tech now!

Chris: Smartphones and tablets mean that we can now work 24/7. You can pick up emails at any time. Rather than leave things until the morning you can deal with a few emails while you’re sat on the sofa watching TV. I’m surprised we didn’t set up a WhatsApp group for this rather than actually sitting around a table! Having that information on and about you all the time is probably the biggest change.

Clive: That’s interesting what Chris says about the WhatsApp group – I think Cloud computing comes into the same mix. It’s interesting that we have all these things and yet culturally we still define the workplace in the same way. We’re still tethered to emails, we still think about plugging into the server in a specific place. You can now do stuff from home – you can be anywhere as opposed to a single location for your work. I think we’re at the start of that evolution. We still check emails all the time, we still plug into the server, but there’s no reason why that needs to be the case. Technology does take a long time, but very soon we’ll be working in a completely different way.

Chris: We now have company specific Apps – I know PwC are at the forefront of this. You can order your coffee at your desk, for example.

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Clive: Technology is fab. We all like to say how our phone now has more memory than the Apollo 11. However, Neil Armstrong did still land on the moon. They did that because they used their brains and they sat down and worked things out! Interestingly, they say that if we were going to land on the moon now, Neil Armstrong would not be the person chosen for that mission because he was not that charismatic person who would appeal to a mass audience – a generation that is connected by the internet. While we all embrace this technology, I think what we’ve got to ask ourselves is what exactly does that technology do to make our lives easier? Do we work harder than we use to? Is it really necessary to work harder than we used to because of this technology?

Chris: Nowadays you have programmes doing a lot of the skills that you would previously expect people to do – so it’s actually diluting the skill base. For example, you used to have people cutting and sticking together little bits of tape to create a new drum loop. Now you can press a few buttons and any old Tom, Dick or Harry can make a dance track. Anyone can be a DJ.

Shane: Looking at what we do though, it’s difficult to create design without having a human touch. Creating a pleasing environment to be in or a common sense approach to planning can’t necessarily be replicated by a computer. This is a really creative profession – and I think creative professions are somewhat protected from technology. There is a real emotive, emotional, human requirement to what we do.

Chris: Thankfully, people still require and like that human touch. Hand drawn sketches still show that touch, for example.

Clive: Technology does allow us to replace some of those procedural functions though – as opposed to those that require any creativity. This allows us to spend more time focusing on the human connections and the creative process. There’s also no replacement for talking to someone. You can send 50 emails that aren’t read – you phone up someone as a human being because it’s a human connection. I think this is also the reason, to a certain degree, why the process is so slow for people to catch up with technology. If you look at aircraft now – they can fly from A to B on their own. They don’t need a pilot!

David: We need a pilot!

Carl: I think you have to look at these things as tools – you use them to the maximum you need to use them to make things quicker and easier. You know that there are things that need to be done by talking to someone or seeing them face-to-face. You have to know the people you’re dealing with and then work with them in a way that you know you’ll get the best out of them – and I’m really conscious of that when I’m delivering a project. The phone and the laptop are tools to do your job. Other people don’t see them in that way and make things really hard for themselves.

Shane: That really reflects in the way a lot of clients approach the design of their workplace today. The tools are there now – your phone, your laptop, they’re everywhere! You can pretty much do your job anywhere. The office, as a result, becomes much more about a place where you can collaborate, you can socialize, you can bounce ideas off people. It might be easier to send an email than to move somewhere in a building to have a face to face conversation and what clients are looking for now is to make those face-to-face conversations happen naturally and reduce that email traffic.

Elly: Do you think then that, because we can work wherever, companies now feel that they need to sort their workplace out because they need people to come back into the office? Everyone’s at home or working wherever they are in the world – but no-one is actually in the office working and collaborating. They suddenly find they have this dead office.

Andy: You do need to create that feeling of belonging – it’s about that destination, it’s about that experience.

Chris: This is why wellness is one of the real buzzwords at the moment – trying to create a reason for people to go back into the office, providing people services they simply don’t have at home, for example.

Carl: At PwC we look to have that collaborative space virtually everywhere. You don’t want people to feel isolated. People like somewhere to come and it’s important that we provide that.

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Elly: I think the whole co-working idea is really interesting – the idea that you’re surrounded by other professionals and although you’re working individually, you’re going to benefit from that environment. It will be interesting to see how far that goes – WeWork has got about one million square foot now! There are certainly advantages for small creative companies.

Andy: I think it is far better to be in an environment with other people where you feel you can collaborate and create – and actually feel like you’re going to work rather than sitting in your pants at the kitchen table!

Elly: It will be interesting to see whether companies who start to grow actually want their own space or want to stay in that kind of environment.

Clive: It’s fantastic to really invigorate a start-up market. You need that alternative perspective to all these things – especially if you’re going to grow. Ultimately you get to this place where you’re dealing with mass – with big organisations and you need that mass to do what it does. Global businesses have a lot of responsibility. It takes a lot of people to do a lot of processes. This is about how that technology helps them circumnavigate all of this. At this moment in time the most used tool is email and linking in and things like that – and its now about whether there’s going to be a jump to allow these to be reduced and to speed things up.

David: We banned internal emails in our business last June. We have people sitting there not talking to one another! We want people to get up and go and talk to each other. When things are positive, emails are ok, but there are times when you have to talk to someone – either pick up the phone or meet with someone face-to-face.

Dan: People use email to hide. So often, the first time you hear something negative is when you’re copied into an email! That’s not good use of technology in the workplace. Unless you step in and take action, things can go downhill very quickly – and so many organisations operate it this way. Actually encouraging people to communicate – to talk – must be one of the more difficult things for designers to achieve when designing workplaces. We’re at a tipping point now where you’ve got the older generation used to the ‘old’ way of working and are struggling with the introduction of technology, and then you have the younger generation who naturally use technology as their first point of communication. There has to be a balance between the two.

Conclusion

Dans hit the nail on the head. There has to be a balance when it comes to the use of technology in the office. It has certainly helped speed up so many processes and tasks, but we still deal with people and that human touch and collaborative, interactive working cannot be replaced (yet!). Oh, and none of our panel owns a hoverboard yet!