Humans will remain at the heart of the emerging digital workplace

HumanThe speed of technological development over the last 30 years has been pretty mind blowing. Of course, some technologies came and went, for instance you would struggle finding fax machines in your office nowadays or people using Pagers to contact one another.  It’s no wonder that in the early nineties futurologists predicted the death of the office. Technology was shaping the way we worked and was leading us away from office buildings towards a digital workplace. Yet videoconferencing hasn’t destroyed the need for business travel. Team meetings haven’t been abandoned because of messaging services like Yammer, Slack, Lync and Webex. We still do a lot of business face to face over coffee in a meeting room. Although technological advances have greatly improved the way we connect and do business, companies still appear to value human interaction.

Humans are at the heart of everything

Even the most advanced and most impressive technology is as beneficial as employees will make it. What does it matter that we can collaborate remotely, if teams work 33 percent faster and make significantly less errors when located in the same building? (MIT studies by Dr Ben Waber). I believe the coming decade in the workplace field will be fully focused on human beings. The signs are visible today and they are extremely exciting.

The 2014 “Health, Wellbeing and Productivity” study from the World Green Building Council (WGBC) supported and sponsored by JLL, clearly identified links between productivity and lighting, temperature, air-quality, workplace design and noise levels. However, going one step beyond these findings, Dr Paul J. Zak’s new research on neurophysiology of office design opens new doors in thinking about office spaces. His data identifies the kind of work settings that improve employee performance, and how different workspaces affect employee stress levels. Today it is possible to measure brain waves and oxytocin levels in blood to gather unbelievable insights into the human psyche at work.

Ben Waber from MIT and his company Sociometric Solutions bring the communication analysis to a whole new level. With their advanced sensors, they are able to measure the frequency and network of communication, people’s actions, movements and even emotions. The depth and breadth these findings provide is magnificent. Would you believe that placing a coffee point in the right place or decreasing the desk size and distances between workstations can have a much more significant effect on collaboration and knowledge sharing than all the social and file sharing platforms you can name?

The link to human behaviour

Technology will obviously continue its march at an equally or even more impressive pace- just look at where Artificial Intelligence is heading. It seems however, that it will be matched with an insight into human behaviour of an unheard of depth. We finally seem to be reminding ourselves that technological development is not an end in itself. Any IT innovation we introduce into our workplaces has value only as long as it allows us to communicate better,  achieve better results and realise our goals faster. The fact that we can message a person sitting two desks away from us, instead of getting up and talking to them, doesn’t mean that we should.

All of it is great news, actually. Some of the research currently being developed will allow us to design much more supportive, healthy, less stressful and generally more pleasant office environments. And if the office dies in the end, we will need to be sure that whatever replaces it, will make us happier, healthier and more productive. Here’s to the future whatever lies ahead.


Maciej.MarkowskiMaciej Markowski is associate director in the Workplace Consultancy team at JLL, based in the London office. His background spans within workplace field, working for companies like CBRE and DEGW. He has international experience in corporate workplace, and change issues, advising major corporations on their workplace research, strategy, and change management.