Interview with Dr. Christhina Candido: Why we need the right mindset to create effective workplaces

2020-03-26

Along with so many other events around the world, because of Coronavirus, WORKTECH 20 Sydney was cancelled. However, before the event, I had started a conversation with Dr Christhina Candido, Associate Professor, The University of Sydney, who was going to be talking about her research into high-performance workspaces.

Dr Christhina Candido

Christhina is an architect by training, and she holds a PhD in Civil Engineering and in Environmental Science, which explains her interest in the quality of the places where people work.

I initially met Christhina while on a panel together at another event talking about the workspaces of the future, and I enjoyed hearing her perspective. One thing we have in common is that we both are interested in human-centred design (HCD). I find it invaluable in my work, often using co-design techniques, but I asked why she thought it was necessary in the design of physical workspace?

It seems straightforward, but I am always amazed by how often the design of the space does not match what people need and do not provide the desired infrastructure needed to support different ways of working. The best results in terms of satisfaction, productivity and health do come from offices that are designed well, including people during the conception stage and followed-up after construction to address issues.

Christhina also commented that "Technology is a big part of this as occupants' mobility can only happen if the technology is there to support."

Her point is, of course, a critical cross-over point in the digital workplace. However, there is also much debate about how these same technologies that allow us to be mobile and work flexibility, can also harm productivity and well being.

I asked Christhina, does she think tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack have ruined work?

Personally, I benefit from similar tools as they enable me to connect with colleagues but also be more agile in terms of critical information sharing and overall work agility. The other side of this is to enable mobility so I do tend to move around my building and find the best spot to develop my work depending on the task itself and my mood. Finally, having access to this type of technology made working from home or anywhere possible which I also find highly beneficial, especially when it comes to balancing career and family.

Christhina argues strongly that really part of the overarching problem is that we are at a "saturation point of productivity as a goal of the workplace". Having identified a problem with focusing on productivity, this suggests that there are other goals or factors we need to consider in a high-performing workplace. Still, it is interesting to note that this doesn't mean it is merely a case of finding the optimal configuration.

For example, she described the obsession with finding the optimal air conditioning setting for an office, as there are claims that this can lead to better productivity. But the truth is, there will always be people dissatisfied. So instead of searching for optimal conditions that can be applied uniformly, we need to provide people with options based on freedom of choice (which naturally comes with a massive requirement for trust). However, there is still a view in the digital workplace that uniform tools and practices will lead to higher productivity. Yet, through a human-centred design lens, I know that in practice, we are challenged to support a diverse range of work styles and preferences.

In addition to these parallels between choice in our physical workspace and the digital tools we use, there is of course also an acutely biological need to have control over the collaboration and social platforms we employ in the workplace. Christhina advocates for the need to disconnect from time to time:

Our brain is just not able to cope with several tasks going at the same time, and we must have breaks. Breaks during work hours and of course, after.

It is interesting to reflect that the main barrier to an effective workplace, either physical space or the technology that supports it, really comes down to mindset. I agree with Christhina - if you only focus on productivity and creating a consistent experience, we will never achieve a satisfying and high performing workplace.

Another exciting part of my discussion with Christhina was about the adoption of ideas that, to me, appear to have origins in digital or software view of the world. In our office buildings, in particular, a combination of technology and commercial real estate trends, are starting to take the idea of choice to a new level. We discussed how leases are getting shorter and how the concept of employee or workplace experience is manifesting itself in ways where we treat offices as a service, rather than a piece of infrastructure.

The idea of an office-as-a-service has many implications for disrupting the relationship between users and providers of workspaces. It also reflects our growing expectations of flexibility and willingness to support an on-going change process, if it creates something better fit for purpose as we need it.

I think buildings are these wonderful life data ecosystems but we are a long way to go when it comes to actually using the data that is collected to mitigate issues and even further behind when it comes to learning about occupants needs and behaviour.

In the longer term, Christhina sees on-demand and organic workspaces that will continuously evolve to meet needs and preferences, which, in my opinion, sounds awfully like a piece of software!

However, returning to the earlier point about productivity, at the end of the interview Christhina reminded me again that we need to be careful not to turn the data we collect into key performance indicators (KPIs) for people working in smart buildings. Instead, we should use the data to drive the experience, so it feels intuitive. Data is also a great way to bring together the different stakeholders, such as human resources, IT, and facilities, which again reminds me that ultimately, this is all about mindset.

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