As part of our ongoing exploration of the future of the office, we interviewed Chris Swartout of award-winning design firm M Moser.
Chris is on the global and U.S. leadership teams for M Moser and co-leads the New York City practice. He specializes in technology and innovation in architecture and commercial interiors, and he’s worked with companies ranging from Pfizer and Bloomberg to Disney and Microsoft. Since 1999, he’s explored virtual reality as a researcher and “designer technologist,” employing its immersive-environment tools with clients like Citibank.
Kieran Dahl: What’s the biggest impact that technological advancements have had on the workplace?
Chris Swartout: Moore’s law, or, basically, the rate of technology advancing relative to its cost. We just deployed in 2GB high-bandwidth Wi-Fi, mobile power solutions, cloud computing for model sharing, touch-sensitive monitors, USB-C power charging and data transfer, as well biometric security—for 1/10th of the cost of what it would have cost just a year ago.
KD: What does the workplace of the future look like?
CS: This is a common question we get from our clients. The true answer is there’s no one-size-fits-all solution now or in the future. Each individual organization needs a tailored solution to fit the culture, psychology, generation, and workflow of its colleagues and employees. In two words, the future looks ever more “highly customizable.”
KD: What software or apps keep your workplace running smoothly and efficiently?
CS: We just created an internal app that shows events, client meetings, cultural activities, meeting-room booking, and client and internal social-media feeds, so we stay up to date with the way people are communicating in real time. More and more communication is becoming mobile and social.
KD: What are the most important physical products—gadgets, furniture, etc.—in your workplace?
CS: We’re big proponents of VR and AR technology with clients. Combining that with analog model-building really allows clients to see an actual representation, scale-wise, of what they’re collaborating with us on. We’re starting to use social-network analysis and survey tools to look at networks across organizations to make more informed design decisions.
KD: How has the rise of the Internet of Things affected the way you approach office design?
CS: We just finished Honeywell Software’s headquarters in Atlanta, where we’ve been using lighting-sensor IoT technology combined with survey data to understand how the group’s productivity is working in different settings. We can flexibly adjust the designs in real time and on additional floors to better support the types of products they’re developing.
KD: What are your thoughts on the trend of activity-based work?
CS: We rarely, if ever use the "activity based work" definition. We’re developing designs to support “community choice”—individuals and teams should pick the way they most effectively work. It’s rare that any type of work now is siloed, or isn’t integrated work between teams. A wide variety of work settings leads to more efficient workflow and freedom.
KD: What technology trend will define the workplace this year? In five years?
CS: The big topic right now is how machine learning or AI will change the way the work is done. Something that’s more simple—a micro shift or nudge—that could have wide implications in the workplace is wireless power transfer and near-field technology. Our new office in New York City has almost entirely wireless power. The amount of cost savings is staggering, and the ability for people to be ultra-mobile has increased 10x. These small, easily deployable solutions can have wide-sweeping impact.
KD: What element of the current workplace do you think will become obsolete in the near future?
CS: Unhealthy air quality indoors and VOC paints. [VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are unstable chemicals that are released into the air as the paint dries; they’ve been linked to respiratory illnesses and other health problems.]
KD: How would you recommend other companies stay up to date on workplace trends and technology?
CS: Be polymathic. Look into other areas and fields of research to see if what they’re doing applies to things in workplace-technology design. Workplace is the one area that almost all people touch and spend the most time doing. Make sure that when you design, you have people in mind—not just aesthetics.
KD: What’s another company with a workplace—the physical space, the atmosphere, etc.—you admire?
CS: That’s a great question. One of the last wood boat manufacturers in the United States, Wooden Boatworks in Greenport, New York, blends the timeless craftsmanship of wooden boat construction with the atmosphere of being right on the water. With all the technological change that’s happening around us every day, every hour, it’s important to appreciate hand craftsmanship and the community associated with it. There’s something very human about it.