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This Expert Thinks Data is Driving a ‘Golden Era of Workplace’

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What makes an effective workplace? What do employees need from their office? And what can be done to improve a poorly performing environment?

To find out, we recently sat down to talk with Melissa Marsh, the Founder and Executive Director of PLASTARC and the Senior Managing Director of Occupant Experience at Savills.

According to Marsh, companies that want to make the most out of their investments in workplace need to use a blend of feedback from workers and observational data about how spaces are actually used. In the conversation below, she discusses why data is so crucial, why it’s valuable to have a diverse range of spaces, and how the rise of knowledge work has shaped modern workplace design.

The realization that physical spaces impacts how humans work is recent. Has there been a historical shift that you’ve seen?

Melissa Marsh:  We are in what I sometimes call a “Golden Era of Workplace Design.” We now have the liberty to focus on the human experience. Some of that comes from the workplace being more of a place for knowledge work rather than industrial work. This has led to less systematized work that happens in locations where physical materials do not take up as much space. In the past, a lot of space planning went into figuring out how to make room for thousands of linear feet of filing cabinets. Now you don’t need that at all. We can spend more of our time planning for people instead of equipment and stuff.

How do we design for people?

Marsh: We design for people by involving people. We can do this through a variety of ways. A lot of these either come practically or metaphorically from urban design, a field that has a long tradition of engaging stakeholders and using participatory design. Urban designers, unlike architects, tend to be trained in methods that involve the public in their work.

I see data — whether that is articulated preference data or trace data about people’s behavior — as a way of including people in the design process. It’s maybe a little bit abstracted. But it can be collected by asking people about their preferences or by seeing what choices they make over time.

There is both “Big Data” and “Little Data”. The Big Data is the information we can collect from, for example, the digital layer or building systems, and the little data comes from the stories, conversations, and interactions with people.

You really need to have both. Without the stories, it’s hard to interpret the Big Data. But without the Big Data, you often don’t have evidence of the actual need for change that you might get from what some disparagingly call “anecdotal data.” 

Are there any best practices that you can recommend for workplace design?

Marsh: Well, yes. There are some “rights” and “wrongs.” There are certain well-being elements to consider: daylight, physical activity, and other factors. From a practical perspective, I think there are some things that are inherently good. I often speak of the “diversity” of a space, meaning that it has many different kinds of settings. These give people both choice and control but also recognize that people have very different needs for spaces. This goes for temperature, lighting, acoustics, and even the color or scent of rooms. We’re all slightly different from a sensory perspective.

So, where do organizations go wrong?

Marsh: One component that organizations often lose track of is how culturally specific this all can be. A solution for one organization might not be a solution for another—even if they might functionally be doing similar things.

Another challenge comes when you have changes in the workplace. How you communicate those changes can directly impact the outcome. You can have two companies that make the exact same change to their physical environment. The first organization can tell its employees one set of reasons and the second can give another—or, worse yet, may not even provide any messaging at all. The perception of that change among the employees of each organization can be categorically different.

How do you test a space to actually know if it is performing and doing what you want it to do?

Marsh: One of the best tests is whether people are in the space and enjoying it. Especially in a contemporary work environment or public sphere, people will physically be in the spaces that they like and that work for them. And people will not be in the spaces that they don’t like, which aren’t comfortable, engaging or desirable. In the ‘attention economy’ this makes workplace pretty powerful.

This might also come back to where we are currently at from a work perspective. Your employer used to be able to tell you where to go to work—to “sit down and shut up.” That’s no longer part of the social contract between the employer and the modern, highly educated employee. Now more than ever, we really can assess a space by its utilization.

Now, what that data gives us is a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. It’s like a Netflix rating. I certainly think that the intensity of use, utilization, and occupancy can be held as a strong indicator for the success of the performance of a space.