In 1966, English architect Cedric Price pondered, “Technology is the answer, but what is the question?” It is a musing that has lost none of its significance in the 52 years since because technology largely remains a symbol of the intangible – the future, imagination and potential. Very little discourse about the subject is grounded in reality and its necessary practical application. Primarily, what Price understood more than most is that technology does not exist in a vacuum. It is a product of human development, each new advancement intended to make our lives easier.
In that time, technology has also become a critical component of workplace infrastructure.
Back in the 1990s I ran a research programme with a multinational IT company on intelligent buildings. It was expensive, unsophisticated and tough to integrate. Today, however, sensor and processing power is much cheaper, and where suppliers have adopted an open API systems approach, it is easy to integrate data from multiple systems as well as activate new capabilities and actions.
As a result of its subsequent proliferation, there has been a wide and significant push to invest in technology and data, with many anxious not to fall behind the curve. But this leads to an all-too-common problem: organisations adopt certain systems or initiatives out of vanity rather than a genuine consideration of how they will benefit the organisation and its people.
The most important question for anyone investing in building or workplace technology should therefore be ‘What are we trying to achieve?’ I believe that the fundamental reason for any implementation of systems or software should be geared towards giving each individual or community the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, totally unencumbered by anything that has the potential to get in the way. But while the effective application of technology can help to deliver a seamless user experience, it can just as easily inhibit. IT departments should therefore work in partnership with the facilities management function to proactively design the employee experience and put the user at the heart of their thinking.
Our own research at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) has found that people are profoundly impacted by their working environments. An employee’s cognitive performance (concentration, memory, accuracy, problem solving and decision making) depends on physical factors such as nutrition, hydration, air quality, sleep, physical fitness, and posture. Certain technology, like lighting or heating systems, can very easily help to improve the workplace experience in these areas.
Technology can also foster a sense of community by developing social channels that connect people in the workplace that might not have communicated before. Professional workers can use tools like Slack, Teams and Facebook Workplace to share information and files. But the wrong application of technology can disturb the necessary human element of work. Giving people access to technology they do not understand or are not briefed on can alienate those less tech-savvy.
Ultimately, looking ahead to the next 50 years, technology’s hold on our lives and in the workplace will only tighten. Perhaps then if Price were here today he would ask, “Technology is the answer, but how could it free us?”