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Workplace Innovation Summit 2019: Weaving the human element into technology

workplace, workspace
Katie Cavanaugh
Published on

We recently sent a group of Robinauts to the Design Museum Foundation’s Workplace Innovation Summit 2019 to soak up the latest on innovation in the workplace from the best and brightest in the industry.

From combating bias to leveraging AI and VR in workplace design and operations, speakers covered a large array of topics at the Design Museum Foundation’s event at the Microsoft NERD (New England Research & Design) Center. Listening to these speakers, it became clear that weaving the human element into workplace technology, design, and culture is paramount heading into the new year. Here are the 7 main themes from the event: 

  1. An employee-first design in practice: The Microsoft NERD Center
  2. The importance of bringing daylight indoors
  3. Harnessing virtual and augmented reality-powered design
  4. Digital technology and the 5 dimensions of well-being in the workplace
  5. Diversity and inclusion as more than a box to check
  6. AI as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and what that means for people
  7. Why remote work is here to stay

Human-Centric Design 

An office is meant to bring together an organization’s two most valuable assets: its real estate and its people. Several speakers spoke specifically about creating a workplace environment that puts its peoples’ comfort and productivity first.

1. A look into the Microsoft NERD (New England Research & Design) Center

The day kicked off with Victor Vizgaitis, Principal at design firm Sasaki, talking about the space we gathered in for the day: the Microsoft NERD Center. A gorgeous setting, the thoughtfulness behind the redesign project speaks for itself.

Workplace Innovation Summit 2019 held at the Microsoft NERD center
Inviting Lobby at the Microsoft New England Research and Design Center

While many would assume tech is at the forefront of any Microsoft office, the NERD Center was designed with employees in mind first and foremost. When you walk into the office, you see a custom commissioned piece of wall art, warm colors, and soft seating -- rather than flashy screens tacked up on every wall. Victor explained how this type of inviting space is where real innovative thinking comes from because it incites interaction and collaboration.

This echoes Microsoft’s mission to be seen as not just a tech company but rather as a company whose tech enables creative problem-solving. Victor repeatedly emphasized how important it is for workplace technology in general -- at Microsoft or elsewhere -- to act as a tool for innovation instead of a shiny toy we’re too often at the mercy of. (You know, like when you’re in a meeting and no one knows how to share their screen so you’re forced to crowd around a single laptop instead).

2. In support of daylight

With research showing daylight and views to nature being the #1 most desired amenity by employees, it’s no wonder there's an organization refining corporate windows around the United States and beyond. Gallen Burrel, Managing Director of Lighting Design at View, spoke about how and why their business specializes in smart window technology.

dynamic windows at the workplace innovation summit 2019
View's dynamic windows keep daylight at a healthy level while maintaining views to the outdoors

Even though humans spend 90% of their time indoors, we still crave a connection to nature. Beyond an innate inclination, proper access to daylight also helps stimulate employee productivity by decreasing eye strain, headaches, and drowsiness. Not only are dynamic windows a cost and energy-saving measure, but they pivot off of the central theme of the day: creating spaces that people want to be and can get their best work done in.

3. Picture this: Virtual and augmented reality-powered design

Perkins + Will Associates Leo Liu Xi and Ji Park let us walk a day in their shoes by diving straight into their world of augmented and virtual reality-powered design projects. Using AR and VR in architectural design means that designers can place themselves right in the space they’re trying to create. Want to see how high that countertop feels compared to people of different heights?

Put on the glasses, ask a few people to go stand by the conceptualized counter, and see how well it would fit the needs of people who are going to use it day in and day out. Or, if a design associate is looking for client feedback they can literally show them what their new space will look like instead of crowding around a blueprint or 3D model.

Creating a space that people can move in and out of before it’s even been built will be a huge win for creating human-centric workplaces.

4. The 5 Dimensions of Well-Being in the Workplace

With the rise of employee burnout threatening to affect organizations everywhere, Mari Ryan of AdvancingWellness spoke about the factors that companies should be aware of in order to foster an environment that supports employee well-being. Mari explained that not only is investing in employee wellness the right thing to do, but the returns of this investment are inarguable.

To achieve business goals, we must achieve sustainable business results. We can only do this with healthy, engaged people. — Mari Ryan, AdvancingWellness

Mari went on to lay out the 5, well 6 if you include her personal addition of “environment”, tenants of individual wellness: energy, money, purpose, community, environment, and connection. Each of those factors has a large positive or negative effect on employees so it’s in every employer’s interest to address each energetically. Whether it’s achieving WELL or LEED certifications, or offering flexible schedules, there are a few tactics organizations can use to advance well-being.

However, it’s important to note that when it comes to well-being, the rapid pace of technological change creates an added level of complexity for how employees interact with their workplace. Mari proposed the question: what does employee well-being look like in a tech-saturated world? Does integrating tech into the workplace help or hinder employees’ ability to advance the six tenants of their wellness?

Ultimately, more experts believe the interwoven nature of technology in our daily lives and workplace will cause more good than harm, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.

Addressing Bias in the Workplace

Human-centric innovation means more than factoring a few opinions into workplace design. To truly weave a human thread into the future of work, we have to make sure we’re bringing along all of our employees and broadening the types of people included in workplace projects. 

5. Diversity and inclusion as more than a box to check

With three speakers -- David Delmar Senties Founder and Executive Director of Resilient Coders, Yulkendy Valdez Co-Founder and CEO of Forefront, and Jose Ramos, Co-Founder of Mindfulness and Leadership at MIT -- speaking on the theme of bias in workplace culture, it was extremely evident how important a theme it is. 

David spoke about economic equality for minority populations, particularly in Boston, and the importance of creating a structure for introducing them into the workforce. Resilient Coders aims to do this by training underprivileged young adults with the skills they need to be successful coders in a professional setting. Similarly, Jose spoke about sponsorship as essential to providing minority students with the opportunity to be considered for programs and positions they historically have not participated in. He highlighted the importance of how organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and Hack Diversity pair children with mentors who can act as positive role models they likely wouldn’t have in their lives otherwise.

diversity at the workplace design innovation summit
Speakers spoke about the importance of having a diverse group of people in the room

Finally, Yulkendy spoke about the importance of combatting unintentional bias in the workplace and proactively bringing diversity into every room. Yulkendy notes, “Technology is nothing without its people. We built technology and spaces for people to thrive”. This means when it comes to the advent of new technology we need to make sure that it’s not gendered or racialized, for example. It needs to be made by and for all types of people. As Yulkendy put it, “Design that is not achieved by or for the communities that make up the U.S. is inequitable”.

“Technology is nothing without its people. We built technology and spaces for people to thrive” Yulkendy Valdez, Forefront 

The main takeaway from these three powerful speakers: we need to do more, and we need to do more now. There’s no excuse for workplaces that aren’t diverse or inclusive if we’re making the effort to confront bias head-on.

6. AI as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and what that means for people

In the realm of bias, Mernoosh Sameki, Technical Program Manager at Microsoft, spoke about the importance of prioritizing humanity as automation and AI becomes more prevalent in our daily lives. From dating apps to requesting an Uber or Lyft, to eerily accurate online shopping suggestions, AI, machine learning, and automation have become woven into the fabric of our lives and will continue to do so. Some examples of AI used regularly in society, however, hold higher consequences than a Lyft driver showing up in 6 minutes instead of 4. 

Mernoosh explained that 9/10 organizations worldwide have encountered ethical issues from the use of AI. One example is a technology that calculates the likelihood of a person to have committed a crime based on their face. Findings from this skewed towards far harsher predictions for a black man than a white man despite the white man having a more treacherous criminal history.

What do these findings mean? Mernoosh’s talk really drove home the importance of having all types of people present when creating AI and technology as a whole so that bias isn’t baked into them.

7. Why remote work is here to stay

The final talk relating to bias was given by Laurel Farrer -- CEO and Founder of Distribute Consulting. Typically, when the diversity and inclusion question comes up at work, most people wouldn’t consider remote employees a core aspect of that discussion.

remote work at the workplace innovation summit 2019
Remote work is a trend more organizations should get behind

Despite 56% of workers in the US working from home at least once or twice a week and remote employees being 60% more productive off-site than onsite, distributed employees and teams are still an under-represented community within the workplace.

They are often blocked from resources and information they need to get their jobs done well and instead experience career stagnation and isolation.

With benefits including increased productivity, improved work/life balance, positive environmental impacts from fewer people commuting, and higher rates of employee retention, remote workers is a trend more organizations need to get behind. The most important factor to consider when it comes to remote work is how it can be a key tool to introduce equality in the workplace.

By tapping into the remote workforce, organizations can hire the best person for the job -- not just the person who happens to be within commuting distance. Not only does remote work provide the flexibility employees want in their life, but using it as a hiring tool levels the playing field for minorities who may not happen to be located down “most expensive street in one of American’s most expensive cities” lane. 

Whether it’s removing bias from AI technology, designing windows that encourage daydreaming, or reaping the benefits of remote work, the clear theme from the 2019 Workplace Innovation Summit is that it’s essential to weave the human element into workplace design and technology as we looked towards the future.

Two people walking and talking in an office

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