Monday, 30 March 2015

A Tale of Two Summits

I’m a conference groupie; I enjoy spending time out of the office meeting new people, learning new stuff and drinking new beers. This year I have been fortunate to be invited to either speak at or chair a number of international conferences. My plan is to impart the key points from each conference and so spread the workplace word

I have just returned from chairing the Workplace Trends Spring Summit in central London. The theme was the Healthy Workplace & Active design, which is indeed a trending workplace topic. The conference was clearly over-subscribed and placed considerable strain on the facilities. Acoustics, ventilation, seating arrangements, catering, access and egress all suffered due to the high number of participants. Which, of course, is ironic as the main takeaway of the day was to create workplaces that accommodate basic human needs thus enhancing wellbeing and performance. 

But there is another lesson here – how often do we think we have created the perfect environment for our anticipated occupants only to find at the eleventh hour that the organisation has restructured and the space will be occupied by a different headcount or an entirely different function? Today, workspaces must be flexible and quickly adapt to change i.e. be agile. Moving on, we had a great range of speakers and fascinating topics. I will come back to some of the topics in more detail in later blogs but for now, my highlights are below:

  • Around the world, people still die building offices and die when offices are so poorly designed that they collapse. Fortunately this is not such a problem in the UK but nevertheless the HSE reports 28.2 million working days were lost due to work-related illness and workplace injury cost the UK £14.2 billion in 2012/13 (Marmot). Sitting is the new smoking and if we could get people to do 10 minutes exercise a day we could reduce absenteeism by 20%.
  • Data was a key theme of the day. Whilst we need to measure wellbeing and performance, most employee surveys are not very good at doing this (Juniper). However, it was proposed that big data can be used to analyse and improve wellbeing at work (Helliwell). We also learned that we don’t need 1 million data points to measure desk utilisation (Lees & Fawcett).
  • We need to go back to basics and consider the hygiene factors. For example, simple measures, such as car parking, vending machines, hygiene etiquette, lockers, rest areas and a teat trolley, improved attrition and absenteeism of a call centre (Juniper). And let’s not forget basic ergonomics and training our people how to sit properly to prevent absenteeism (Hanwell) or the often ignored psychoacoustic requirements (Hodsman). Some fundamental office requirements, that are simple and affordable, were proposed for all office workers as the “living wage workplace” (Usher).
  • Agile working also helps decrease sedentary behaviour and thus improves well-being (Lees and Fawcett). Furthermore, well-considered office design and facilities, including active design, green spaces, sports facilities, stairwells and healthy food, such as at Medibank clearly improves wellbeing (Dickens). We even discovered that certain work settings can improve oxytocin levels, which apparently are a direct correlate of happiness (Catchlove). I wonder if you can bottle oxytocin and add it to my pre-morning-tube-journey espresso.

In summary, as we leave recession and austerity measures behind, health and wellbeing is clearly on the agenda. The new focus is on attracting new talent and keeping them healthy and productive.

The Smart Workplace Design Summit in Amsterdam was a different affair. Firstly, the venue facilities were wonderful but the downside was that we were stuck on the outskirts of schiphol in a rather grey Soviet-esque industrial estate. The focus of this summit was more on how to implement agile (smart) working, illustrated through case studies. The smaller audience appeared new to “new ways of working”, despite it being around for 30 years or so. There was a great range of case studies, from staples like RBS and Vodafone through to the relatively new Airbnb, Google and Ebay.

It became apparent that new companies such as Airbnb were starting their agile working programme with a clean slate and no baggage from those incumbent with the company for many many years. Having said that, Swisscom have done a great job at designing a totally quirky and eclectic workspace for their quite traditional employees. Another theme that emerged is that you have to have a strong vision and be prepared to lose your job when promoting agile working. However, if you pull it off you will be highly rewarded. I’ve always considered agile working a high risk high reward strategy, and it seems I am not alone in this thinking.

I presented my own research on how we design for psychological factors to create productive working environments, which I have blogged on and published previously. As a psychologist, I was really pleased see a presentation on neuroscience, which is trending in HR circles at the moment along with topics such as wellness and mindfulness.

Neuroscience is particularly useful in change management when introducing new working environments. In particular, the SCARF Model (defined as a “brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others”) outlines a number of responses triggered by different parts of the brain: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These unconscious (automated) responses certainly need to be overcome in any change programme.

We also learned about the Healthy Mind Platter – the seven daily essential portions of mental activities required to optimise brain coordination and create well-being. These include sleep, exercise, diet, quiet time and even play time. It is claimed that “by engaging every day in each of these servings, you enable your brain to coordinate and balance its activities, which strengthens your brain's internal connections and your connections with other people”. There is evidence to support the benefit of each “portion” and it all seems good common sense but, back to the data theme of Workplace Trends, I would like to see a case study of how it all comes together to improve worker performance.

Like at Workplace Trends, many of the presentations referred to basic requirements such as lighting, acoustics and coffee. I particularly liked Simone Stavenuiter's presentation on how lighting affects mood, motivation and performance; see a full range of related webinars on the Philips website

So next month I am presenting on psychoacoustics at HealthyBuildings in Eindhoven. I haven’t been to a Healthy Buildings conference for almost 20 years so I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully I'll raise my oxytocin levels and be happy and energised. I'll report back.


  1. Check out this Storify by Oliver Baxter of the Smart Workplace Design Summit

  2. Check out this Storify by Su Butcher of the Workplace Trends Summit: