Friday, 17 April 2015

#SWDS15 Workplace Design at Swisscom (etc)

Sorry for the delay but here are my additional notes from Fleming's Workplace Design summit.

I’ve already taken you through my panel on HR and workplace design, and shared workplace design case studies from Google, eBay and Airbnb.

We also heard other interesting ideas from Tim Yendell at RBS, Carole Hop at NN (ING) and Henrik Lovgret at Maersk but for me, these missed the emotional aspect of Google, eBay and Airbnb’s case study.

There was some talk about whether it would be possible to extend these latest approaches to a more traditional and particularly large organisation ie whether they would be scaleable.  So my favourite case study of all came from Swisscom, because they showed that you can build a really compelling, human centred workplace design too.  You'd be surprised if Google, eBay and Airbnb didn't have a funky workspace but Swisscom is a traditional business with 20,000 employees.  Their approach is being led by a couple of mavericks but they're involving the main Facilities department too so there is an element of scalability in their approach as well.

Christina Taylor, Head of Human Centred Design,
Karin Hilzinger, Head of Work & Space
Swisscom, Switzerland

Swisscom’s approach to workplace design has emerged out of its experience centred strategy for customers.  Space communicates the company culture so they need a similar employee centred strategy for the workplace.

This focus underpins everything they do and their advice never to forget the why - so whether the need is to improve decision making or project management etc, workplace design is about making tomorrow's work culture visible today.  Which means it has to be about doing something different - rethink, don't repeat!

Christina and Karin introduced us to their:
  • Brain Gym - designed to change the way we interact and learn.  The area included lots of different environments and most interestingly, a 'carpet by numbers' - a picture of an Alpine scene which had been pixelated and then made into carpet squares providing a modernistic representation of the local scenery.

  • Red Room - designed to change the way we make decisions.  This included a hemispherical seating area in the bottom left of the picture, an outside area in which people could observe activity in that zone (or people working in it could close the blinds to keep things confidential) and a more traditional brainstorming area in the bottom right (and at the top of the post.)

  • Project Gym - designed to change the way we work - involving separate areas for silent work, formal and informal desk work, meetings, strategy / decision making, team collaboration and prototyping.  Some of these areas were also divided off, some of them by using what seemed to be cheap if pretty shower curtains.

The reason for this was that, like most big companies, Swisscom are operating under significant financial constraints as well.  Airbnb design and source custom furniture locally and find they can do this at half the price of Herman Miller.  Swisscom extend this much further, engaging in ‘furniture hacking’ - finding ways of make or buy resources on the cheap eg desks previously used by the German army and bought on eBay.

I thought it might also be worth noting some of the other things Swisscom are doing in relation to some of the other key aspects we covered and in particular sound and vision.  Airbnb also talked about this with their strategy of visual transparency and aural translucency - preserving visual access to the space as a whole whilst providing a myriad of opportunities to find acoustic privacy away from ambient noise.  But again I thought Swisscom had the most creative approaches.


Acoustics is again, a human not a buildings issue.  Noise is unwanted sound - i.e. sound level accounts for only 25% of the variance in the way noise is perceived by people.  50% is down to psychological factors.  This depends upon the task and work activity; our perceived control; the context and difficulty of the job; and our personality type (introverts will want less sound than extroverts.)

Dealing with this is about understanding the propagation, reverberance, clarity and sound level of the noise, and the way noise is transmitted, absorped, reflected and diffused.  Airbnb talked about using 2” cotton soft walls - sonically moderated, not dead sound.  There were a couple of examples of couple of examples use of book cases.  Swisscom used toilet rolls and 20 thousand tennis balls (good acoustics but a terrible smell.)

Lighting & Vistas

Light meets functional, biological and emotional needs.

We find the evening sun relaxing, the morning sun makes us energetic and sun shining through trees is pleasant and pleasing.  Dim warm light makes us more likely to solve conflict through collaboration rather than avoidance.  Philips have used these factors to create different human centric lighting scripts changing the light level and spectrum for collaboration and communication, inspiration and creativity.  They can also be used to regulate the body clock.

Airbnb also talked about this in terms of having a call centre in Portland with a light and dark side so they accentuated the differences between the two with the light side becoming more conversational and the darker side more for focused work.

Swisscom had designed a quiet room but people were using it for meetings so they redesigned the space, making it more like a library with old fashioned, dim lamps and it then became a quiet space.

If there aren't any windows you can display a light effect on a panel.  It can also help you see the office in a whole new light - walls and ceiling made out of light to make rooms feel bigger, materials providing light to make it feel like the sun is shining on you or integrated into materials eg the flooring to direct people in a pleasant way.  Other uses include transparent glass which can double as translucent panels to provide flexible partitions or provide interesting views which are dynamic and change over time.  Light can also simulate natural effects eg clouds drifting by above you.

Light is also data and is becoming part of the Internet of things or the Internet of spaces.  For example you can have an app which uses an unique code transmitted by white light to control the lighting around you and make it more relevant for different contexts.  It can also connect with the blind systems to provide an appropriate mix of natural or artificial light.

So light can do a lot but you still need to provide appropriate space.  People like nice wide vistas (Nigel Osland didn't mention it but aren't we supposed to like a view over open water too?)  We don't like people looking over us so we prefer to sit with our backs to the wall (as I had chosen to do during the conference.)  Google, eBay, Airbnb and Swisscom all demonstrated an absence of traditional cubicles, and more natural views and spaces.

Nigel also talked about biophelia.  We need access to nature, and views out to nature.  So Google outdoor space and letting natural daylight into the office.  If there's no possibility of live plants you can use plastic ones instead

Changing the system

I think all the case studies were based upon working with people to help them design their environments.  Airbnb went round Portland with their employees to draw inspiration from the city and also observed what they were doing.  Google spent a week observing people in the workplace and recommends everyone finds an interesting space to sit in for half a day to observe why people drink coffee, why they're not using the expensive coffee machine etc - sit and be surprised!  Swisscom suggested we take a look at the toilets.


So another great event from Fleming Europe - but more HR people need to go along next year.

If you're in HR you will benefit from it, and we can also start to develop the more collaborative approach I referred to in first post!

Photo credit (carpet by numbers): Andy Swann

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