In this episode of New Future, we speak to Dr Samantha Hall, the building whisperer and Founder of Spaces Alive, a consultancy that unlocks the human potential of buildings by making them more healthy and usable.
Sam has a PhD in green buildings and a master of science in sustainability. She brings this rigorous background in science and research to her work to get award winning results for her clients.
Sam shares the emerging trends in the design of work and workspaces at both a macro and micro level, from creating regional hubs to accomodate working from home as the new normal to new awareness around the link between building air quality and viral spread. She also shares her top 3 things businesses need to know now about the emerging new future of workplaces.
Kate Raynes-Goldie (KRG): Welcome to the New Future Podcast, where we talk to business leaders, researchers and visionary thinkers about what happens next. I’m Kate Raynes-Goldie.
Kate Razzivinia (KR): And I’m Kate Razzivina.
KRG: On this episode, we’re speaking to Dr. Samantha Hall, the building whisperer and founder of Spaces Alive, which is a consultancy that unlocks the human potential of buildings by making them more healthy and usable. She has a PhD in green buildings and a Master of Science in sustainability. She brings this rigorous background in science and research to her work to get award winning results for clients. Thanks for being on the show, Sam.
Samantha Hall (SH): Thanks for having me, Kate.
KRG: So to kick things off, can you tell us a bit more about your work and some of the projects you’re working on right now?
SH: Yeah, sure. More recently, I’ve been working on higher education, with universities. So really doing a lot of community consultation and getting student feedback across the whole campus and then helping the universities understand where they invest their capital – planning to get the most out of their physical campus. But where I really focus is the human experience. So don’t go and build a building they don’t really need that’s got huge financial and environmental implications. So helping companies and universities really understand what they should be focusing on.
KRG: And can you talk a bit about the current project that you’re working on?
SH: Yeah, I’ve got a couple happening at the moment – recently finished helping with AWS’s master plan, helping the University of Melbourne – we’re doing benchmarking across their campuses which are currently closed due to COVID-19. But that’s been a wonderful project. We’ve had 2,000 students give us feedback, and that’s getting into corporate strategy, they’re developing some student experiences and we were helping with the capital planning. And more recently we’ve been working in the UK with Cranfield University – postgraduate university over there, doing similar work. So “just help me get that on the ground feedback from people about what’s working and not working”. We find organizations often make a lot of assumptions about what they think people want and what they think people need. Whereas we go in, and we actually get this large scale feedback from people, lots of data. So we might get 10,000 data points in one project. And then we we actually decipher all of that and interpret it to the organization.
KRG: So you have some really deep intelligence around how people want to be using buildings versus as you said – we think we know what people want, but actually, we don’t. And so you have that deep intelligence to really get a sense of what people are looking for.
SH: That’s exactly it. And you’ve really got to understand it now. Because I find when we design and plan cities, buildings, we project too much into the future. And people say: well, I want X,Y and Z. I really want this type of cafe or this type of workplace. But when they actually use it, it’s different. How people use this space and how they think they’re going to use a space is quite different. So that’s why it’s really important to be in touch with what people are doing now, to observe people, to really have your finger on the pulse. And that I find is a critical pillar that’s often missing in planning.
KRG: Yes, I have a background in ethnography. And the whole idea of that is that people are very bad in self reporting, you can ask one thing and they’ll say things, but they’re so bad at reporting what they actually do. Being able to get that insight into what people are actually doing is super, super powerful. So with that all in mind, what are you currently seeing in the space around the workplace? And what’s currently happening?
SH: I feel like the first month of COVID there wasn’t a lot of discussion happening out there. I think everyone was just in shock – preparation, getting home, trying to set up at home, what do we do? AndI feel like the tide is changing now and I could see the chatter amongst organizations about – okay, what’s the future strategy? How do we actually deal with this? So a few things that are coming into question. Is this the death of the CBD? Is this the death of the headquarters buildings that we know because people are able to work from home? I don’t think this is binary. I think there are different preferences – me personally, I hate working from home. I don’t do well with it. I had a setup where I had a suburban I mean, Fremantle had a little co-working space, so I didn’t have to travel very far between daycare, work and home. That was perfect for me. As I said, I don’t work well from home. So we’re starting to understand this spectrum as well that some people really thrive in the home environment and others do not. But I think with the workplace, nothing will return to normal. This isn’t like anything else that we’ve seen before. It’s not like people will forget about it in six months, we’re going to see some really fundamental changes and the first one is that people don’t feel safe. And that safety is going to take a very long time to come back until we see the eradication of COVID-19, until we see a vaccine. So being in a crowded space with other people – you know what it’s like to go to the grocery store right now, you feel unsure. And so being in an office sitting next to somebody, it doesn’t feel quite right. Yeah, there is some work coming out about designing bigger offices at the moment. So I can’t remember if it’s Cushman and Wakefield – it was the six foot office, where they’ve designed it so that you don’t interact with people. I’m not sure if anything like that is really going to work. I mean, we go to an office for the human interaction, you don’t go to an office to be separated from people. The other thing we’ve really seen thrown out is this struggle that people have, particularly with kids – this struggle, actually the real life of managing work and a family, and it’s really hard. So because, you know, I’ve got kids on zoom meetings and parents, you know, can’t they’ve got to do drop offs and homeschooling. We’re seeing that these two can’t be separated anymore. So I think we are understanding flexibility is really important, not just for women, but for men as well. So I think that our work hours and our flexibility will change. Whether we go back to a CBD office? I’m not really sure. I think that that is what would have fundamentally changed. I think that’s where we might see the rise of more suburban offices or centers and working from home. I just don’t think we’re going return to that. I mean, the two biggest costs for organizations are staff and property. And they just they spent so much money on on leasing properties. So they are really going to question – do we need this? Is this actually what our organization needs? Or can we accomplish other things? Are we able to put this money elsewhere to help grow? And then I think we’ll see lots of material-like physical changes to buildings – we’re going to see different materials, because we’re understanding more about surface transfer of disease, air quality – the air that we’re breathing and how it transmits through the air and the air conditioning systems and ventilation. So there’s, there’s lots of this change, and I’m seeing a lot of that in the facility management area coming up – that discussion about – okay, well, some of our buildings are actually quite unhealthy. And we can’t get away with this anymore. So I think we have seen a boom in real time monitoring of air quality and practice, which actually affects health not just in offices – in all kinds of buildings. So that you, as a person in this space, you are aware of what you’re interacting with. So I think that’s probably a broad view of how things will change.
KRG: I know Kate has some questions about this.
KR: That’s right. My thinking has been similar. I’m not a property expert in any way. But I was also reading the news in the AFR, for example, that Optus has announced that working from home – they’ve tested it, it works quite well for many people and this is now a permanent feature of their workplace. Now that got me thinking straight away – what does this mean then, in terms of the allocation of staff? Does that mean everyone has to work from the same city? Does someone like Optus have to have a campus in, say, Sydney or in one of the big cities? Can they just allocate their staff into regional areas? Can we really develop the the smaller regional town? To me, it feels like there will be a lot of growth in those regional areas, especially if our government decides to invest into infrastructure as part of recovery from the economic crisis. So what’s your view on the regional areas?
SH: I think, definitely, we can see growth in those areas. But we need to see those employment boosts in those areas. And there’s been a number of projects over the years from the government trying to build up satellite cities and trying to build up the population density in those areas and it just hasn’t really worked. I think we’ll start to understand what kind of work can happen in those centers as well. What I find we haven’t done particularly well is that the design of offices and workplaces tend to move in trends. Somebody does activity based working, which you may have heard of when people you know, it’s hot desking. One organization does that, and everyone copies it because they believe that it’s the most productive solution. And it’s no,t I’ve tested some of these offices, it doesn’t work for everyone. What I think we’ll understand now is companies likeOptus will go – actually this works for us. We can work from home, we can have people in regional centers, they don’t need to be coming into a headquarters. So this call cente methodology and structure, we understand that that can now be decentralized. And that’s what I’m hoping we’ll start to look at work more as the types of work that people do and what they need and what could support them so that we don’t just design in these trends for everybody. Because that doesn’t necessarily work. But I think that would be wonderful to diversify our employment opportunities. So we don’t have people needing to come into a CBD because not everyone can do that.
KR: Yes, exactly. And I think it’ll be great for, say, working parents and for people who need that flexibility at work, I think that will be quite a big advantage for many people. And also, another thought that I had – that’s a question for both Kate and Sam. What about things like VR, I guess it’s all good to work from home, but it’s still important to be interacting with your colleagues. And they may find working in a regional city somewhere, they might not have too many opportunities to actually meet in person with some of their colleagues in other offices. So as we know, Kate is an expert in VR. Is there room to set up VR spaces in buildings or something like that? What’s the future, what’s the high tech solution? We still need to bring people together to come up with new ideas to think creatively.
SH: Maybe kick that off, Kate.
KRG: Yes, I think what’s interesting is right now we’re already seeing interest in the use of VR for the idea of a kind of shared spaces. Because I mean, Zoom is great for having conversations like this. But, you know, the reason we go to conferences, and the reason we gather together is because you can’t replace being able to physically connect with people l, have that serendipitous run in at the networking event – you know, be able to just go and have a casual conversation and build that relationship. And that connection that’s kind of more informal, more casual. And you can’t really do that on Zoom, because it’s like, okay, we’re gonna have a Zoom call. And it’s, you know, about this, and it’s all very formal. And so, what’s happening, especially in the event space, but also for collaboration is being able to actually have shared environments, where you can actually have a space with a number of people in it and you’re thinking about it, like, almost like the third space, which I think is another really important bit around the workplace. And even for educational contexts, having that third place, that idea of somewhere that’s kind of in between work and home and in between formal and informal, where you can go and have those conversations. So recreating that in VR – obviously it’s not as good as the real thing, but it’s better than Zoom. So that’s starting to happen in terms of the event space, I think it’s still pretty early. that technology is kind of at the beginning. It’s very much on the cusp of things, the cusp of being really usable and friendly. But I think longer term what’s going to be interesting is what, for example Microsoft is doing in the mixed reality space. So using what’s called the HoloLens – the HoloLens team, which is basically like a mixed reality or augmented reality tool. They actually meet, they work across the world, and they meet using the HoloLens technology and it allows for you to actually be able to interact with objects that are in different parts of the world or get tours, or augment and make notes on things. So it’s a way to really bring in that shared physicality that you wouldn’t have normally. So I think that if you’re going to be working regionally, and really kind of that natural extension of us being able to work from wherever, I think tools like that are going to be really, really important.
SH: I think we definitely need this because I find the conversations on Zoom are helpful, but it’s nothing compared to being in a room with people. I’ve been monitoring a lot of the conversations happening with students as well, we know that they’re having the tutorials and lectures on Zoom at the moment. I was listening to a really interesting discussion the other day on ABC talking about digital learning – is this it? Is this what universities are now going to be – digital learning? And the conversation was really interesting – that you can’t replace that interpersonal connection that still happens in a room when you suddenly have that idea in a lecture and you ask a question. That interaction opens your mind. You just have a couple of those really amazing connection points. And that’s what I feel like – the technology needs to support our work – but it will never actually replace that human connection. So even if we do have these regional centers, I think that our ability to create this human connection is important, we’re still going to need to bring people together. And I don’t know what the future conferences will look like, maybe we do away with these mega conferences, because people are not going to be comfortable having 2,000 people in a room. It might be that we go back to a more cozy style of meeting where you can have a bit more one-on-one interaction, because sometimes even in those conferences, they’re very motivating, but you don’t, you don’t really get that one-on-one connection with people. So I think we’ll have to work, there will still be that cost of having to bring all of your stuff together and helping create that connection. Otherwise we could face higher attrition costs because people get lonely. You need to have that company, you need to have a way of bringing people together. And I can see it with the students – they are really struggling to motivate themselves to get out of bed to participate, because it’s just not quite the same feeling.
KRG: And what I’m seeing is, as you say, it’s like a mix between – the interest seems to be in – okay, well, maybe we’re not going to have an entirely online conference. But what we want to do is have like a local gathering point of the conference where people can meet in their city, and maybe there’s 50 people that gather. And then they can connect with the rest of them via VR. So that kind of in between where it’s getting the best of – okay, we don’t want to travel, we don’t want to be in big groups. Because maybe we don’t want to contribute to climate change, but we can still have that global connection and have that human connection as well. So it’s kind of figuring that out. But I think, yeah, we’re never going to replace – we have this kind of moral panic around new technologies all the time – like, are we all just never going to talk to each other anymore? And the truth is kind of somewhere in between, right?
SH: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. And we’ve been thrown into this digital world much more rapidly than we thought. And I think we are going to step back from this again. We’ll go okay, what are we going to take from both of these worlds? You know, we obviously can realize that most of us can actually work from home, we can do this, but we miss these elements. So how do we create that middle ground?
KRG: So Sam, are there any things that you’re seeing that are kind of unexpected outcomes of COVID-19 for workplaces? And what might happen next?
SH: We’ve covered quite a lot. I think one thing that people are realizing is how much time they spent getting to work. You know, congestion in our cities, particularly for you, Kate, in Sydney.
SH: You suddenly realize – even my partner, I’ve got an extra two hours in my day because I’m not stuck on public transport. And I think what that’s highlighting is we we in Australia, we don’t do density particularly well. It’s not that all density is bad, density is wonderful. We haven’t designed all of the infrastructure that we need particularly well. Which is why you might get stuck in traffic for a couple hours, and if the train breaks down – well, then that’s it, that’s half your workday gone. So I think that organizations are starting to realize as well how much time is lost or, you knw, the inconvenience to their staff because of that and that they need to actually consider that. If we start to look inside buildings – the impact of buildings on health has definitely shot up. So I’ve always found this has been in the background, it’s starting to get a bit of traction. But now we’re really starting to understand – we’re all in an enclosed space and we’re breathing in this air. It’s actually not good for us. So I think we’re going to see a rise in healthy building certifications and an understanding of how buildings affect our wellbeing. Which is great. That’ll also come into the home environment as well – starting to look at how we set up our homes to be really healthy spaces. I think as well there’s been a lot of discussion about the crossover between health and climate change and we’re seeing cities with poor air quality were having higher cases of of COVID-19. We’re starting to understand these health impacts outside of the buildings and into the greater urban environment. The value of parks, of being able to cycle to work, of having all of this basic infrastructure that supports your your wellbeing – I think that’s really being highlighted now. Just the ability to go and walk in a park, if you’re in an area that doesn’t have any parks, you are at a real disadvantage at the moment.
KRG: So we kind of talked about what’s happening now and what’s happening in the short term. Do you have a vision of what you would really like to see? Like, what should we be doing? If you were kind of making these decisions? What would you be saying we should do? And learning and doing from all of this?
SH: I think this discussion about suburban and regional development is what I would really like to see. I don’t think that we all need to be traveling into a CBD and having headquarter offices in a CBD. It’s kind of silly when you step back and actually look at it. Certain businesses have strong networks within that CBD environment and they need to be interacting with people, but not every business is like that. So I would like to see more suburban co-working spaces and regional co-working spaces. So you know, if you work for Optus, you’re working from home, you don’t have to be at home, you can still go into a central space and be around other people. And I think that that would see the rise of our High Street agan. Because we’re starting to see, you know, with the dropping of retail, we’re seeing suburban areas really drop off, it’s really hard to draw crowds to get the density. The corner store kind of died off, you know, cafes are struggling a little bit. So I think if we can bring that density back into the centers, that’ll be a huge economic boost. And then that’ll support the development of the cycling infrastructure, the public transport, infrastructure, the parks, all the things that we need to actually make a great life, a great local life for us, rather than this crazy sprawl that we have in a lot of Australian cities where we just build out, but we don’t have all of the amenity to support a really great lifestyle. That’s what I would really like to see. I want to see us question the way that we work, the way that we run our lives every day and actually think: does this make sense? Why are we actually doing it like this? And take this opportunity to really diversify, because if we go back to the CBD life again, we’re just doing a bandaid on all of these problems. Whereas this is an amazing opportunity to really rethink how we work.
KR: It’s a beautiful vision. Absolutely, it will happen.
SH: And I think now that we’ve all had the opportunity to actually have our habits changed – it’s like the impossible is now possible. Because we’ve kind of had to do the impossible in the past few weeks. So now is the time that we could actually do this.
SH: I don’t know about both of you, but I’ve noticed my neighborhoods come to life. I’ve met more neighbors than I have before. I’ve had great discussions with people. We have the teddy bear trails so that kids can go on the bear hunts, the rainbows on the sidewalks. It’s really, really heartwarming. And I was listening to a podcast last week and they were talking about the Chicago heat wave, which was in the 90s. And they examined death rates and the suburbs with low human connection have much higher death rates because people didn’t have these connections to ask for help or to reach out. I think it really highlights the importance of this human connection on a local level, and how much we need to revitalize that and really focus on that and how beautiful it is.
KRG: Exactly. And also just seeing everyone free up their time where people don’t have to travel. Everyone’s riding their bikes now. It’s just beautiful to see.
SH: It’s a really healthy lifestyle. I mean, the things that we have to do – it’s not just as simple as getting people to work from suburban centers, we need all of this to support it. We still need gyms and cycleways and access to grocery stores so it’s not just fixing one thing – this is systemic – that we have to actually build that basis with all of this amenity. And that’s what we do pretty poorly at the moment – we don’t center the density with all this supporting amenity, things will be missing. So I know there was a there was a big development in Melbourne where they were promised public transport and grocery stores and that didn’t happen. So you’ve then got people stuck in their cars, trying to travel because they don’t have that supporting infrastructure. So it’s a formula that really has to be put down and understood to create a real density center. Absolutely.
KRG: So to wrap up, Sam, what are the top three things businesses need to know about the new future of the workplace?
SH: I think probably the first thing is really knowing what your own business needs. And you know, we talked earlier about these trends, of people following trends and what otherorganiisations do..I think I think this is the time for introspection and understanding your workforce, what your people a,re saying what they’re doing, and then building a strategy ar,ound that rather than trying to compete with other organizations. I think we can learn from each other. And I think that’s really important. I think being able to collaborate and see what other organizations are doing – we’ve got to change this competition mindset to a collaboration mindset. And I think that’s important. I see that a lot in the building space: “We’re the first workplace to do this, we’re the tallest building, we’ve got the biggest space”. I would love to see, see that shift to be an internal learning and introspection. And understanding the barriers for stuff at the moment is important. So knowing that there’s still going to be this fear that’s around for a while and making sure that communication with staff is really clear and empathetic towards that, and knowing the struggles of homeschooling, or to try to balance all of this work life. And I’ve seen some, particularly in the universities, I’ve seen a lot of angst amongst the staff, they’re really unsure about the future, they’re unsure about job security, so there’s just so much uncertainty, uncertainty. So I think, to get to the next stage, we’ve got to be able to provide a safe environment for people because the mental health implications of this are going to be very long lasting. And I think, finally, I mean, the future is different. I think we just have to embrace it. It’s going to be very differently. We have to let go of what we’ve done in the past and be really open to change and to new ideas to co-creating the future workplace with staff and with those in the organization and just having a really open mindset.
KRG: That’s a great place to leave it off. Thank you so much, Sam. We had a great conversation. I think we have some really great insights into what’s happening, what we need to do, what we need to think about next. And as we approach this kind of new new future, which is exciting and has lots of new opportunities.
SH: Thanks for the discussion. Very interesting.
KRG: So if you want to find out more about this podcast or get in touch, head to creatinganewfuture.com. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a five star review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to this podcast. It really helps us to get the word out there about the new future.