The Vancouver headquarters of Bench Accounting, a bookkeeping platform for entrepreneurs and freelancers, has 24 different styles of work station, in addition to the familiar, solitary desk and chair model. Each day, 300 employees spread out across the 50,114-sq.-ft. space. No one has an assigned seat, instead they can opt to lounge by a bio-fuel fireplace, collaborate in a meeting room (which may have a view of a row of 34 bonsai trees), or seclude themselves on a maple-plywood banquet in a quiet, cushion-filled nook. As a testament to the space’s inherent flexibility, a display shelf of stools is stacked near the lobby, ready for use by anyone who might need to grab a seat on the fly.
At first glance, the office, finished in 2017 by the Vancouver offshoot of international design firm Perkins+Will, might seem like a showcase of many of the workplace trends of the last decade or so. Stand-up desks? Check. A pet-friendly policy and lots of sofas and soft rugs so that the space feels more living room, less corporate? Check. Raw, industrial concrete contrasted with woodsy millwork? Check. Hygge-inflected everything? Double check. The only things missing are the foosball table and the slide.
Rather than being a strictly trend-driven project, though, Perkins+Will conceived the space carefully (if quickly — it came together in a blistering seven weeks) based on client-centric insights. Through a series of pre-design interviews with Bench’s staff, the studio learned that “the aspect of choice of how people are working through the space was imperative,” says senior designer Kimberly Baba.
Perkins+Will also collected valuable information throughout and after the design. For example, a post-occupancy survey revealed that inter-employee collaboration — a key goal — either stayed the same or improved among 83 per cent of the staff. “Bench is on the forefront of employee-focused design and wellness,” says Baba. “So we wanted to ensure we learned from creating an office with such an openness to work styles. The data helps Bench understand any successes and misses for any future growth. The data gathered will also really help all of our future work.”
In most major economic sectors — notably tech, but also banking, transportation and even government services — data-driven decision making has achieved Beyoncé-level hype. It promises to not only change, but vastly improve, just about everything. The thinking goes that by pulling insights from large data sets, engineers, investment bankers and computer scientists can make more informed, logical decisions and in turn better apps, products and stock picks. Hunches, whims and guess work are out. Statistics and verifiable facts (sorry, Trump) are in.
Creative industries, though, typically aren’t lumped alongside those driven by cold-hard numbers. The only trend reports many interior designers have historically needed are those found in the pages of Canadian Interiors magazine. Artistic intuition, good taste and a strong sense of aesthetics are impossible to pull out of an Excel spreadsheet. And, in the past, the figures that played a role — size of the working area, the number of occupants, the budget — tended to be easy enough that an advanced mathematics degree wasn’t required.
Now, all that is changing. Data analysis is upending interiors as well. More and more, the most influential design companies are hiring data experts, and opting for studies, surveys and other means of data collection to glean new, innovation-sparking insights. But does this really result in a better built environment?
Janine Grossmann, a principal with Perkins+Will who leads the company’s Toronto and Ottawa interior design practices, thinks so. To her, the way we interact with our buildings is important, either creating healthier, happier, more productive people. Or, you know, not. And the best way to ensure top results isn’t speculation, it’s data. “We use it all the time,” she says. “It’s something that has expanded over the last few years. It has really helped us with our clients. It gives them proof of concept, to make the design defensible to their stakeholders.”
In addition to helping clients, Perkins+Will worked on the renovation of four of their own offices, in New York, Chicago, Seattle and Minneapolis. “We put ourselves through the paces,” says Grossmann, noting how the studio brought on Leesman, a company that benchmarks industry performance, to study the habits of Perkins Will staff. “Leesman measured our employee experience, satisfaction and productivity. What they found is that we were not using our spaces the way we thought we were. 40 per cent of the time, they were not fully utilized.”
That single insight allowed Perkins+Will to shrink their office footprints by 20 per cent (saving lease expenses in the process), and design more flexible desk set-ups for their on-the-go team (they’ve moved to a hoteling model, where no one has an assigned seat). But Grossmann doesn’t see data as a silver bullet solution. “I don’t think that data will eclipse everything else,” she says. “We have to find ways to work with it in tandem with the softer side of things, including brand and culture. When we weave all that together, that’s when we end up with something really meaningful.”
The Toronto offices of Behaviour, a creative agency, feature that harmonious blend. Designed by Toronto-based Qanuk Interiors, the 32,000-sq.-ft. space has a bold, of-the-moment aesthetic. It’s housed in the garret of a converted church, with exposed, century-old ceiling beams soaring over a hyper-vibrant space. Ecclesiastical touches — vintage church pews, quatrefoil patterning on the walls, carpeting that looks like stained glass — are offset by irreverent details, including a wallpaper at the entryway that looks like a garden of flowers exposed to nuclear radiation (the blooms are massive) and a café area that echoes the au courant Memphis revival (electric blues, geometric patterns).
“We really took inspiration from Behaviour’s culture,” says Lindsay Konior, noting the urbane vibe of the 40-odd, mostly young employees. “We wanted to make a space that the staff would really feel at home in, which they could see themselves in. Also, Behaviour’s clients include big companies such as Molson and Telus. When they come here, the impression should be highly creative, a place of new ideas.”
The exuberance, though, is all underpinned by smart insights provided by Behavior’s co-founder, Scott O’Hara. Before the renovation, he calculated that on any given day, about 40 per cent of his staff was absent. “20 to 25 per cent would be at client meetings, 10 per cent would be on vacation or home sick, and 10 per cent would be out at a coffee shop, because they were craving good coffee while they worked,” says O’Hara.
The usage numbers pushed Konior toward a shared desk model, common in many contemporary offices. It also gave her fresh inspiration for the lobby. Instead of an austere, intimidating welcome desk, everyone enters into the café area, manned by a professional barista (one who used to run the coffee program at Soho House) and an Elektra espresso maker. “We only serve about 50 coffees a day, maybe,” says O’Hara, “but the investment is worth it because it makes the staff very happy. It’s a very energetic place where people gravitate to.”
Perhaps counter-intuitively, then, analyzing data can actually spur seemingly spontaneous ingenuity. Recently, Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm, designed the 32,000-sq.-ft. Toronto offices of media relations company Weber Shandwick. “Within our company is the Gensler Research Institute, which seeks to analyze everything, even things that are hard to analyze, like experience and innovation.” says interior designer Annie Bergeron, who led the Weber Shandwick project. So in addition to coming up with industry-specific standards — say, the average size a media company allots to each employee — the institute develops methods for thinking about less tangible information.
“When we engage a client, we have a number of targeted exercises, including surveys, focus groups and questionnaires,” says Bergeron. “But we also just spend a lot of time listening and observing.” With Weber Shandwick, the company self-described as timeless, classic, even conservative. “But as we were meeting with them, we saw this amazing, dynamic culture. They said they were Audrey Hepburn, what we saw was Gwen Stefani. So in the end we asked them on a scale of 0 to Gwen Stefani, how funky are you? Turns out, much more Gwen Stefani than they thought.”
The insight carries through the entire office. Although the base palette is black, white and grey (very Hepburn) a row of CKMY-hued glass partitions separates the meeting rooms from the work stations. When the partitions slide, the colours combine and new tints emerge. “You see greens and purples,” says Bergeron of the LEED Platinum office. “It’s really dynamic, and not at a high cost.”
To Bergeron, gathering and thinking about data is what fuels, as opposed to stifles, imagination. “Data is something that lives, and gets updated, as we do more projects and the work place evolves,” says Bergeron. “It’s not confining: it’s a source of new ideas, and it helps us evolve because those new ideas produce new data in future projects that then goes into our data sets and changes what we currently know.”
The evolution caused by data-driven design might be starkest in an industry whose office vernacular — ultra-conservative corner offices lined with legal tomes and decked in dark woods — seems rigidly traditional: law. However, in 2016, blue-chip firm Miller Thomson moved into a new, 54,000-sq.ft. space in Vancouver that completely defies all conventions. Instead of a hallowed, cloistered library, the books are spread out along a central “street” in the middle of the office, which in turn has little hierarchy (as in, no corner offices).
The overall look is unusual for a law firm, too. 200 employees are spread out on the single floor of a converted Sears department store (replacing five, disjointed floors in a conventional tower), where there is no mahogany wainscoting or heavy leather club chairs. Instead, white oak abounds, creating a beach-y, super casual feel. Being social is encouraged through shared desk spaces, which helps foster both osmotic learning for younger employees, and reverse mentorship so older generations get used to the ways of their millennial counterparts.
According to Bill Dowzer, principal of BVN design studio, which worked with Vancouver’s Studio B on the project, presenting Miller Thomson with solid, data-informed decisions was essential to back-up the design. “Having solid facts and figures is the only way you can sell an idea to a law firm,” he says. “They are very good at interrogating an idea, so the only way that you can take them out of their comfort zone is to support your ideas with something very, very concrete.”
For example, BVT had to show how a more open, flexible office would help attract and retain talent and boost productivity. They not only provided Miller Thompson survey results from similarly innovative law offices, but introduced the firm to other law offices who could vouch for the benefits, including improved recruitments numbers, talent retention and higher productivity.
BVT also paid very close attention to the details. At the outset, they positioned several designers in Miller Thomson’s old offices for a month to study how the lawyers worked. “We knew they wanted to move toward something more collaborative,” says Dowzer. “Which typically means having working spaces for six to eight people. At a law firm, though, we saw that there are a higher number of introverts than normal. And for them, collaboration really means tables for three to four people. That really helped us refine the model.”