As Goes the Work, So Goes the Workplace


These images from the 1960 movie ‘The Apartment” capture the office productivity tools typical of the era. Tech analyst Ben Evans pointed me to them in his article Office, messaging and verbs. One of today’s smart phones could replace all of those desktop machines and many of the machine operators too. Ben’s whole post reinforces a point he has made before: that there is a feedback loop in new technology for business whereby business shapes the tools and then the tools reshape the business.

The world of enterprise work has transformed multiple times in the 55 years since the movie was made. Could a time-traveler from the 1960’s even recognize the way the insurance business is conducted today? In contrast, the workplaces – metro high-rises and their mechanical/electrical/heating/ventilation/lighting infrastructure — exist in much the same form. Some of the rules that instruct the HVAC machines also date to the 1960s, according to a study appearing in the August 3rd journal Nature Climate Change Did anyone 50 years ago think that articles about American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidelines for indoor climate regulation would be top-reads in the pages of the New Yorker and the New York Times? When articles like  Is Your Thermostat Sexist?” and “Chilly At Work; Office Formula Was Devised for Men” unleash a firestorm of interest, you can bet that the pace of change in building infrastructure technology is about to accelerate.  Before delving into how, let’s be clear that the challenge of thoroughly understanding and designing for the thermal dynamics inside an office tower is orders of magnitude more complex than doing the same for the CPU tower of the 80s, 90’s and 00’s, or even the smart phone of today. The principle of “Get fast, easy wins first.” has kept the focus of information technology (IT) innovation on the top of those desks and not the surrounding workplace.  But the vortex is spinning out to include it now.

In their joint article this month in, Tom Shircliff and Rob Murchison of IntelligentBuildings® LLC  point out that the transformation of the connected building is now being driven by the same information technology trends which are transforming work itself: mobility, social media, big data and personalization. And, there is a vanguard of connected building companies already serving up those IT trends to the professions responsible for new construction and retrofitting, building automation and control, as well as facilities operations & maintenance.  Another article in the August collection describes the work of this vanguard and reinforces Ben Evan’s point about the feedback loop between new tools and the business processes that gave birth to them: Greg Shank of Altura Associates ​explains how the design/construction cycle is being reworked to be more data-driven with software tasks and building operational analytics at the core.  In effect, he is describing integrated design. Reporting from within the Electronic Design Automation (EDA) industry in the late 80s to mid 90s, I wrote a lot about integrated design workflows. By that time, the insurance industry corollary to C.C. Baxter would have had a personal computer on or under the desk. To fit more function into a smaller computer footprint every year, the electronics design engineers whose medium is chips and printed circuit boards share data and tools with the software engineers writing the instructions to run on them, and with the mechanical design engineers working on the outer chassis. All this tool and data sharing happens from the earliest stages of product concept through to when there is real hardware and software to test and verify. Greg Shank is advocating something similar here because, as with EDA in previous decades, the tools to support such an integrated design workflow for the buildings professions have just become available. Integrated design and EDA tools enabled the successive waves of increased functionality in smaller packaging that led to today’s smartphone. Integrated design and the type of building analytics platforms Greg Shank described will help us fix the comfort and energy waste problems in new and existing buildings.

I have one more news item out of New York City this week that again demonstrates the feedback loop between workplace design tools and the shape of the workplace itself.  The shared-office provider WeWork has acquired building information management (BIM) consultancy Case. WeWork has differentiated by using the latest building operations tech to design and operate its modern, open floor-plan, energy efficient spaces. It sounds like it has absorbed Case to do the kind of data-driven design and Operations & Maintenance (O&M) described by Greg Shank of Altura.  WeWork has carved a niche by striving to attract small urban tech start-up companies that need flexible property leases and subleases and currently has a valuation of $10 billion.

At Realcomm/Intelligent Buildings Conference last June, the Disney-trained Futurist Bran Ferren said we have to get ready for more radical change in the way buildings are designed and managed.  Much like Ben Evan’s most recent post “The smartphone is the new sun,” his key message was that the most important unit of real estate in the future will be the eight square inches that is required to operate a smart phone. The WeWork story is helping me interpret those words. ‘Yes’ much work can be accomplished today with an entrepreneur’s attitude, a smart phone, the right cloud apps and very little infrastructure.  But, to harken back to the world of work circa 1960 as portrayed in The Apartment, what’s missing is all that off-line human contact and camaraderie that happened when the drones walked away from those desks. WeWork claims that its spaces bring back this. That is powerful stuff. I wonder what Billy Wilder would make of it?

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