“Beep, beep, chirp, chirp, buzz, buzz. Throughout the workplace, these signals of communication – all tethered to technology – sound, notifying workers of calls, emails, and text messages, along with instant messages flashing on computer taskbars. The rapid pace of change in technology impacts the workplace exchange of ideas and information. Whether the communication is taking place by audio or visual means, the complexity of the current workplace requires an understanding of the influencing factors on employee communications. Communication affects employee engagement, productivity, and workplace effectiveness, contributing to overall organizational success, stagnation, or failure.”
The statements above were written in a pre COVID-19 era. That workplace included face-to-face and in-person communication along with secondary exchanges supported by technology. Now, in a world where the majority if not all communication is facilitated by technology, what has changed in the importance of understanding employee communications? Nothing. Now more than ever, words must be intentional and fully understood.
With the extreme focus and demand placed on the capabilities of technology, the individual is still the primary driving force of these interactions. While we are living in a world where global pandemics are no longer a reference to a historical period, we are challenged by continuous technology improvements trying to connect and reconnect the missing human interaction we all desire, which cannot be overlooked. Work styles and organizational change will continue in this accelerating digital age causing a COLLISION of both idea exchange and information overload. As shapers of space, companies and designers must understand the value of all communications and interactions – both theirs and the people they’re designing for.
The ability to communicate with colleagues, whether of a similar generation, similar discipline, or even geographic location, is bedrock in the functioning of an organization. To support and encourage effective communication, it is necessary to understand individual human interactions (in-person or through technology) and the impact the built environment (within a home or corporate office) can have on communications across both physical and digital realms.
The capability to connect, share materials, collaborate and co-create information is primary to the performance of an organization. Effective communication is a process that includes face-to-face interactions, written/graphic material (e.g., paper documents or whiteboards), and digital interface (e.g., phone, computer screen sharing, or teleconferencing). All three methods of communication can be formal or informal, depending on work activity and setting. While face-to-face is the most efficient and effective during these times of uncertainty and without the ability to determine the next phase of human interaction in the physical office environment, we must begin to rely on a blend of communication methods to exchange information so that the employees and the overall organization continue to be productive and effective.
As we created today’s office, we created workplaces that included open work environments to aid members of all generations, disciplines, and organizational placement, to facilitate peer-to-peer learning, and the unspoken communication through the body language and facial expressions of colleagues. This allowed for the understanding of the subtleties of non-verbal behavior and patterns of interactions. These physical environments helped to hone social skills and create connection and belonging for an organization. The visual freedom of limited physical barriers increased organizational agility, allowing for informal conversation where knowledge and understanding could develop between individuals. We pushed for offices to be interactive and collaborative, while also understanding the importance of limiting distractions to employees by offering a diversity of space types and functions.
The world, including the application of environmental design, changed in 2020. What was supposed to have been Leap Year 2020, the WHO’s Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and the International Year of Planet Health by the United Nations, has become the year of fighting COVID-19, of global problem solving, and a worldwide experiment of working-from-home. Organizations in 2020 are now relying on individuals’ homes and mobile technology to create a productive work environment. Technology is moving beyond traditional tools like computers, phones and internet connections, to mobile work tools, cloud-based software, mesh networks and immersive environments – simulations that fill the user’s visual field, giving the sensation of physical presence. Virtual reality software and devices deliver immersion from the individual’s point of view, while immersive rooms bring many viewers into the same simulation and interaction.
These advancements allow for different types of information to be communicated with colleagues and through changing mediums. Mobile devices (laptops, soft phones, cell phones, portable monitors) support the work-everywhere- and- anytime attitude of today’s workforce, work pace, and this worldwide experiment. The ability of cloud-based software has not only reduced the cost and complexity of owning and operating computers and networks but also enabled access to applications and documents anywhere in the world via the Internet, without which this work-from-home experiment could never have started.
While the previous examples of technology support digital communication exchanges, further advances in immersive environments will heighten the ability of communication, and the information that can be quickly exchanged and learned. While today this technology is primarily used for attractions and games or to show movement within a newly planned building, this will impact the design of the space and the overall process providing specific communication tools for everyone involved in the design – client and designer, alike. This technology will ultimately support remote communication and human interaction through virtual experience.
It is critical to remember other elements that can be additional barriers of communication, beyond physical features and technology, including personalities, generational cohort, location, and organizational culture. While preferences will play a role in workplace design along with elevating safety, wellness, and wellbeing, the overall goal of a workplace is to support organizational employees by encouraging the flow of information and knowledge through multiple channels of communication. A holistic approach to communication that supports technology will involve human resource policies and design for the conscious interactions of the end user and will reduce and eliminate barriers that impede communication, whether physical, virtual or perceived.
Communication, no matter the medium, is the internal foundation of an organization with employees as well as the external medium with clients. Advances in communication technology ecosystems now enable the possibility of communication to take place while enhancing collaboration and agility in an organization. We must take a broader perspective when designing and implementing change to support workplace communication through multifaceted approaches to avoid a collision of conflicting ideas.
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