We’ve probably all heard this one.  Someone we know has just moved into a brand new office.  The place is really cool and hip.  It has a great coffee machine, bean bag chairs and even a slide. But they hate it.  It just isn’t reflective of their culture, nor is it reflective of the work they have to do there. So what happened?


As a workplace consultant, I hear this a lot, and it boils down to one thing: bad data.  And bad data equals a bad design.  Bad design can still look gorgeous.  It will have that new office smell.  It might even be featured in the latest listicle of “top ten cool places to work.”  Design follies aren’t always ugly, but they’re not evidence based, and design that lacks evidence won’t be user-focused when it’s built.

My background is a bit odd.  Although I did study design in undergrad and eventually social science for my master’s degree, I took a few pit stops along the way, and one of those pits stops was as a homicide investigator for the department of justice working to exonerate people from Florida’s death row.  One of the things that has struck me since my time as a homicide investigator is the number of similarities in the work I do now as a workplace consultant and that work I did as an investigator.

By breaking down workplace evidence gathering collection into three main parts and using some tips from police investigation techniques, you can be a workplace design Colombo in no time

The scene of the crime

To be able to design for the future, we must first understand what has happened before.  In the same way that police painstakingly collect data at a crime scene, workplace professionals must always be collecting evidence about how people are using a space. A good place to start is with a time utilisation study, or TUS. Sometimes called a space utilisation study, a TUS seeks to understand how people use which spaces at what times.  In the market today are a number of options for doing this such as sensors, swipe cards, and observation.  In my experience, observational data is always best.  Swipe cards are two vague and sensors are binary.  They simply tell you if someone is using the space or not, but observation can tell you what people are doing as well.  This additional element is critical in designing true evidence-based spaces and can be a small window into future behaviour.

There are also some clever ways to collect what is called ethnographic research.  A picture is worth a thousand words, so photographic data collection is really helpful. We use a tool called Phido which allows users to take pictures of their spaces so we know what is and is not working. This helps engage users in the data collection as well, and in becoming researchers themselves, feel they have meaningfully contributed to the outcome of the design.

Motive

It’s not enough to know what people do but it’s critical to also understand why they do it. Without understanding motive, office designs only respond to what people are doing today.  By understanding why people do the things they do, you have a better chance of being able to design for how they may behave in the future.  This is particularly important when we consider the rapid rate of change seen in areas like technology, automation and mobile working.

Understanding the “why” involves collecting evidence from areas like sociology and psychology, but this can be out of people’s comforts zones, so many tend to avoid it.

How best to collect data about behaviour? For starters, avoid focus groups.  These are petri dishes for bias.  Instead stick with professionally written online surveys or good ol’ one to one conversations. 

There are also a few providers in the market doing clever things with predictive behaviour algorithms and people analytics.  This means they are able to gather data about your workplace and then, using analytics tools, predict how your workforce will behave in a new work environment.

Verdict

Now that you know what people are doing and why they’re doing it, it’s time for recommendations and a design. It’s very alluring to want to make assumptions about what we think we will find, and very human to jump to conclusions in our recommendations.  But when charged with creating a new workplace, we need to do all we can to avoid bias in our decision-making and let the evidence do the talking.  Think you’re immune to bias?  That’s likely a bias too.  It’s called the bias blind-spot.  In a US study, 85% of study participants believed they were less biased than the average.

How do you manage bias in decision making? A few ways. Police avoid bias in decision-making by having officers not assigned to the case manage certain elements of the process like setting up a suspect line-up. If you can, assign parts of the workplace evidence gathering to people who aren’t deeply engaged in the overall project or hire external people to do the collection and analysis for you.  This keeps preconceived notions out of the mix.

Also, just like a judge and jury weigh different elements of a case, so should you.  Some evidence is better then others.  Make sure that you aren’t being swayed by the loudest or most powerful voices in the room. Get buy-in from the most senior people charged with the new workplace design to allow the evidence you collect, and not just the opinions of the project team, to drive the eventual design outcome.

What kind of workplace detective will you be?

Evidence-based design is only as good as the evidence itself. If you collect the “what” without the “why”, you can almost be assured that your office design will become outdated before the paint is dry, but even worse, it will not be reflective of your culture. It is within the “why” that we begin to understand culture, and culture trumps design every time. User-focused, culturally aligned and future-proofed design can only happen with the right evidence, collected in the right way, to support it.  So grab your trench coat and channel your inner evidence-based workplace Columbo, and leave the design-folly Clouseau to the other guys.



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If you would like to understand how an evidence based design approach could help improve your current or future building project we’re happy to help.