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Workplace Anthropology: Making Spaces Work Better For People

Posted October 28, 2016 By Stefanie OConnell

As new technologies and office needs change the nature of the business landscape, work-life balance is evolving to mean “work-life integration.”


The result? A shift in employee expectations, and, in turn, in workplace planning and design. A focus on ergonomic furniture has been supplanted by a focus on collaboration workflows—changing the information that designers need. Harvard Business Review predicted the rise of corporate anthropology in 2007, and we are finally seeing an increased demand for workplace anthropologists in creating the office of tomorrow.

Designers and other workspace specialists are being challenged to think beyond typical human comfort (i.e. furniture and glass walls) and move towards engineering a more robust environment for creativity and productivity. Consequently, the social, cultural, and human insights that anthropologists are trained to uncover are more valuable to both the designer and end-user than ever before.

It’s a challenge that PLASTARC founder Melissa Marsh has made her business. To optimize spaces for today’s businesses, PLASTARC has pioneered a holistic approach to workspace design — one in which the finished product is not so much a space as it is an experience.

In traditional corporate models of architecture and design, occupants have little decision-making power regarding their environments, resulting in spaces that are far from user-friendly. Marsh challenges businesses to change their dimensions for measuring space from square feet and inches, to people, performance and satisfaction.

To better bridge the gap between spaces and their intended occupants, PLASTARC employs workplace anthropologists — experts at the intersection of people science and the built world, such as Claire Rowell.

“My role is to bring greater thoughtfulness to topics of people, culture and environmental psychology as part of the design process,” says Rowell. “In a moment where the workplace has to perform for a greater variety of people in more diverse ways, we have to think in terms of personal lifestyle. Observations have shown us how people are using their space, how they might be hacking or modifying their space to perform better for them.”

Take, for example, an ongoing project with retailer West Elm. In conducting research to inform a line of workplace furniture, PLASTARC identified a mismatch in current office furniture capabilities relative to workers’ needs. Standard office furniture designs on offer were appropriate for static filing and storage use, but were lacking when it came to the flexibility today’s workers require.”People are not necessarily storing files.” says Rowell, “they actually might be storing shoes or housing food containers or addressing other needs that haven’t really been accommodated yet. But the industry is still developing furniture to accommodate 8 1/2 x 11 paper.”

Based on PLASTARC’s research, West Elm added five new products to their workspace line and updated the full collection, focusing on flexibility and choice, with modular seating options, flexible screen panels, integrated power modules, accessories and tools for creating customized areas within a space. The five additions directly derived from PLASTARC’s research included a set of hybrid lamp-tables, a rolling whiteboard that doubles as a partition, a wide-armed chair, a wall-mounted seating bumper, and a height-adjustable work table. “A lot of our thoughtfulness was around the human factor, and we used environmental psychology research to help people retain a sense of place and identity amid a varied and shifting work environment,” says Rowell.

By suggesting an emphasis on ownership and personalization, PLASTARC was able to inform West Elm solutions that support individual working styles. Just as the work space must stay flexible, so must PLASTARC, says Marsh. Indeed, the company’s name is a combination of “plastic” and “architecture.” In order to maintain that flexibility, PLASTARC’s workplace anthropologists focus less on building perfect spaces and more on building better feedback mechanisms. “I think it’s much less about having this immaculate, predictive system, and more about shifting to an engineering approach to architecture and facilities design,” says Marsh.

That approach is based on a combination of big, medium and little data. Big data includes information from building systems such as lighting, HVAC and IOT device tracking, as well as data from social platforms such as Twitter and Foursquare. Medium data draws from surveys and observational studies, and little data from one-on-one interviews and other individual stories and testimony. Workplace Anthropology includes analysis of all of these data points, which, when combined, contribute to a holistic picture of the workplace user experience. It also provides a quantitative lens through which organizational leaders can better understand culture and space from the user’s perspective.

“There’s an exciting opportunity for business to learn from these social research methods – particularly at a time when real estate leaders and facilities managers are being asked to prove more and more the value of each square foot,” says Rowell.

The ultimate measure of success is occupancy. “People vote with their feet,” says Marsh. Which means you can tell a good space from the bad by how many people choose to fill it.


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