How to Capture Workplace Behavior

The following is an excerpt from IIDA’s annual Industry Roundtable report, Industry Roundtable 23: The Future of Place, Experience, and Worklife. The roundtable took place at BMW Designworks in California. Read the full report here.

Open plan versus closed door; solo versus collaborative; heads up versus heads down; “me” space versus “we” space. How can clients describe exactly what form (or forms) “work” takes in their workplace? And, on the flip side, how can designers wrap their heads around the minutiae, mechanics, and methodologies that undergird productivity in their clients’ physical environments?

Despite that many of today’s workplaces are embedded with sensors that capture abundant information about spatial use, Big Data is no panacea when it comes to assessment and evaluation. “We are capable of developing AI and machine learning, but we haven’t been able to provide any of our data [for those efforts],” says Kyle Hamblin, vice president of Capital One. “There are still privacy hurdles to jump over.” So, they mostly use their eyes and ears. “We do observations, surveys, interviews, and videos. That’s not scalable or efficient, but we get a lot of good information that way.”

Clients look to designers as experts in human behavior to provide deep insights and analysis—not only about what they observe happening in the client’s own organization, but also what they notice and observe in other workspaces. Speaker Julia Feldmeier, journalist and brand anthropologist, draws on her dual background in journalism and consumer research, and suggests ways designers and manufacturers can approach information- gathering during the programming stage and beyond to uncover a deeper truth about what end-users want and need. In our quest to gain the clearest picture of human behaviors in spatial environments, we need to challenge our assumptions, check our biases, and open our minds to all possibilities, no matter how seemingly counterintuitive or irrational.

During interviews, ask people about only what they know. 

Get specific with behaviors and values and ask the right questions. A query like “what do you do at your desk?” is too vague. Try: What is making you happy right now? Where are you most comfortable? Would you rather have things arranged for you or do you prefer having the agency to arrange them yourself? “Let them tell their own story, let it breathe, and really listen to it,” Feldmeier advises.

Don’t always trust what they say! 

Human interview subjects are notoriously unreliable narrators, so take everything with a grain of salt. Interviewees lie all the time, for all kinds of reasons: because they are embarrassed (an effect called social desirability bias) because their actual behaviors don’t align with how they perceive them, or because they’re not in the right mindset or context.

A neutral, flat-faced affect will elicit the most truthful answers. 

Being nonreactive creates an interview environment in which the subject feels that all answers are equally acceptable. Avoid responding with prompts like, “That’s so interesting; tell me more.” Any positive reaction on your part will subconsciously encourage the interviewee

to give you more of that same information rather than the complete picture.

Get out and observe the real world—the one in which your customers work. 

Don’t rely on self- reporting or questionnaires alone, or grilling end- users while they’re sitting around the boardroom table. “Focus groups are artificial situations rife with bias,” Feldmeier explains. “You get peer pressure, subjects wanting to elicit approval, and moderator bias.” Instead, scrutinize firsthand how subjects behave—in the real world, versus a lab or focus group setting, ideally in the same context as the one in which they’ll actually be using the product

or performing the work. Things to make note of during observations:

  • What is common behavior?
  • What is different and interesting?
  • What are a lot of people doing?
  • What are just a few people doing?

Ditch your bias. 

“Assumptions are confining,” says Feldmeier, “and will make you overlook a lot of truths.” As an example, she cites the Mars Company’s decision to start selling Mars bars in the Russian market after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Turns out that ice cream sold like hotcakes during the wintertime…but not at all during the summer months. Execs scratched their heads until they eventually realized that refrigeration was not yet ubiquitous in Russia, and items that needed to be kept cold were only viable in chillier months. Had market researches actually observed how Russians lived at the time, versus making uninformed assumptions based on their own Western lifestyles, they would have discovered this truism much earlier.

Embrace the irrational. 

Don’t lock in on just one data point; instead, “get all your data in a room and see what it tells you,” Feldmeier says. “Let the data points quibble with each other and see what happens: Do they line up? If there’s an outlier, what is that tension?” Those outliers tend to lead to the most innovative ideas and solutions.

Context doesn’t just matter—it’s everything

There is a tendency for research results to become “sanitized” by the time they’re collated and presented to clients or higher-ups in a deck. “The context is stripped away, and the information comes out like bland chicken wings,” says Feldmeier. Better is to approach the complete information like a mosaic: “You can roll up close to see all the vignettes, and then back out to see the big idea without losing sight of what makes it real,” says Feldmeier. “Those vignettes are the things that will make you think about change.”

Follow up. 

Things are always changing; the story is never complete! 

The percentage of time that people are not at their desk is so surprising. The more we provide other types of spaces, that’s where people gravitate.

Kyle Hamblin, Capitol One

A View Towards the Workplace of 2024: IIDA Members Forecast an Office Designed for Enhanced Wellness

The following article was a submission from a team representing IIDA in the May 2020 CoreNet Global Hackathon: COVID-19 Virtual Ideation Experience. The team included commercial interior designers and educators from across the country, as well as staff from IIDA Headquarters. 

The CoreNet Global Hackathon brought together over 1,000 participants from the corporate real estate and design communities to reflect on and develop collective solutions for immediate and future response to the COVID-19 crisis in the workplace. The discussions provide a roadmap for the commercial interior design and real estate industries, to support their clients in returning to a post-COVID-19 workplace.

Authors: Team lead: John Czarnecki, Hon. IIDA, Deputy Director and Senior Vice President, IIDA, Ryan Ben, Student Engagement & Advancement Manager, IIDA, Jane Hallinan, IIDA, Interior Designer, Perkins Eastman, Paul LaBrant, IIDA, Associate Principal, STG Design, Jon Otis, IIDA, Principal, Object Agency; Professor, Pratt Institute, Sandra Tripp, IIDA, Principal, Huntsman Architectural Group, Alissa Wehmueller, IIDA, Principal, Helix Architecture + Design

How will a new workplace be designed for human wellness in 2024, a time (hopefully) well after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic impact and a time (again, hopefully) of U.S. economic recovery? That is the premise that frames this team’s discussion on the future of the workplace. 

As designers—not healthcare or economic experts—we chose to take the long view to a time that may be more settled. In the current moment, in May 2020, responses are largely speculative and based on great uncertainty. This seemingly dystopian time, with COVID-19 remaining and causing economic upheaval, will likely last many months and perhaps well into the next year. As humans, we need to look optimistically ahead towards the more distant future. That is with the understanding that we will have endured, adapted, and learned from a time of both global pandemic and difficult financial conditions for many individuals and businesses. 

One lasting impact of this moment is a heightened consciousness of human wellness in interiors. As designers, we believe that the best design is always sustainable and has wellness in mind—it’s not an additive aspect. With that assumption, how will a new workplace be designed as the innovation hub of an organization, with human wellness at the forefront, in 2024?

Human Behavior and Culture

Before we discuss design and real estate issues within an office, we’ll focus on people. In a post-pandemic world, we believe a heightened awareness of personal responsibility, agency, and necessary mutual trust will drive many decisions in our lives and workplaces. Flexibility will be key, and smart employers will communicate this in action and policy with employees allowed to continue to work remotely when feasible. Employees who do come to the office will have increased personal agency over scheduled work hours. Remote work, flexible hours, and work during non-peak hours are also issues of social equity for all.

For a time, the future workplace will be reflective of the trauma of the pandemic and the economic conditions it has created. To combat this lasting impact, savvy companies will design their offices to reflect stability, safety, and confidence, emphasizing teams and encouraging all forms of collaboration, both digital and in person.

For the employee in such a company, this will engender a higher level of mutual trust and commitment. Individuals will be more mindful of their personal space and cleanliness and the impact that they have on others. Like a thoughtful gym member, employees will be tasked with leaving their desks, meeting rooms, and communal spaces as clean as they found them, wiping down surfaces as they wrap up their time in a space. Rather than relying solely on an evening cleaning service, all office occupants will have shared responsibility for cleanliness and sanitation throughout the day.


Overall square footage per employee decreased in recent decades, driven largely by economic and regional commercial real estate conditions as well as a company’s functional need. While a return-to-work-during-pandemic time in 2020 may require workplaces to limit capacity for a while, we look ahead to a post-pandemic future: Economic pressures for tighter density will likely continue, especially in dense urban cities like New York. With tighter budgets, companies will largely not have the luxury to expend more square footage per employee. The question is: how flexible is the space?

While we do not envision that the amount of square footage per employee will change drastically between now and a post-pandemic time, how designers program and plan a workplace interior will continue to evolve. The impact of forced remote working in 2020—and the resulting regularization of flexibility to work remotely—will encourage organizations to re-evaluate how they allocate real estate, increasing the shift from square footage for individual use to increased square footage for collaborative, shared spaces. Coming to the office to actively collaborate will be a more purposeful decision that will require a different tool kit of policies for a number of companies.

New spaces and adjacencies in a future post-pandemic workplace.

Enhanced Entry Sequence

For new or renovated workplaces where square footage allows, we anticipate the design of an enhanced transitional entry sequence. Analogies: a mudroom in one’s own home where shoes and coats are taken off, or a gym where one changes clothes in a locker room prior to entering the active gym floor area. In an office, an enhanced entry might have ample closets or even lockers for coats, bags, and a change of shoes so that staff can enter the work area without bringing those items far beyond the office entrance. This can also be a place to check temperatures of employees and visitors and, ideally, a well-designed hand-washing station is incorporated here.

Open Collaboration Area

In the past decade, the amount of casual seating has increased as a percentage of both an interior’s square footage and of a project’s budget. That will likely continue. As the workforce will be increasingly accustomed to working anywhere with portable technology, soft seating will remain appealing as both a change of pace from a desk as well as for comfort, aesthetics, and casual small meetings. How does the design of this area, with communal tables, soft seating, and shared spaces, change? 

An open collaboration area will have extended benefit as a strategic buffer zone—seemingly breathing space—designed to be more integrated between desking areas. Touchdown areas for employees needing places to briefly work between meetings, flexible furniture that can be moved and reconfigured to meet changing needs, and stand-up conference areas for quick gatherings will all become regular features. Furniture with easily cleanable finishes/upholsteries will be key. The communal, standing table, which has risen to prominence in the workplace, will be restricted in the immediate near future. But, in a post-pandemic era, human nature will bring us to again gather at communal tables.

Workplace Desking

The open office is not dead. But what changes? While we may see some impulsive overcorrection reactions in the 2020 time of pandemic to build partitions and regress to cubicle-like workstations, these are not long-term solutions for quality workplaces. Cheap, quick fixes are just that, and will not endure. Evidence-based savvy design principles will lead to systematic changes through research that can affect both short-term needs and long-term functionality, without sacrificing good design aesthetics.

The design of furniture components will likely adapt into revised configurations that respect distancing where square footage allows for it and supports various workplace activities. Open workstations and benching will, very likely, continue in the long-term future, and the amount of space between individuals may be increased, again, where square footage allows. Modularity and flexibility will more regularly inform design and engineering of any systematic modifications. The process must include concerted research and development investigating material suitability, resiliency, and maintenance. 

Hoteling and Shared Desking

Hoteling and shared desking—agile workplace seating—will not go away, and may become more prevalent due to a more flexible workforce splitting time between the office and home, and overall real estate density issues. Shared desking will continue in the long-term, coupled with the lasting pandemic impact of heightened personal responsibility for cleanliness after leaving a desk or table. 

Phone/Huddle Rooms

The need for privacy does not go away, but the quick turnaround of people using this small space will adjust. These areas will be outfitted to host small/individual video conferencing, connecting via one’s laptop, tablet, or phone.

Conference Rooms

Although conference room size will not largely change, capacity may be somewhat reduced compared to the current norm. Meetings will more regularly be a blend of in-person attendees with others conferenced-in remotely. In the room, comfortable distancing will potentially remain as conference etiquette, with chairs spaced between three and four feet apart. With the camera becoming more important, additional seating will be to one side of the room opposite the main presentation/monitor/camera wall. Furniture will be flexible to be configured for the needs of the meeting. Rooms will more regularly have integrated sound and video with touchless voice-activated features. The norm of back-to-back meetings in conference room scheduling will be staggered with 15-to-30-minute intervals to allow for cleaning and increased air circulation.


Technology in the workplace continues to advance, of course. The future office will see continued advances, with integrated video technology becoming more regularized. The reasons are many: Because the workforce will include a greater blend of those within an office and those working remotely, and because we have become far more accustomed to video-conferenced meetings. With cues from healthcare interiors, workplaces may also include more touchless door openings as well.

Kitchens and Break Areas

In recent years, the employee kitchen and break area has increased in square footage and has become more open and connected to the workplace as a social hub for both casual conversations as well as nourishment. This space has become an important workplace amenity, signaling to employees that wellness is important to the company. In the short-term, while the pandemic is still with us, companies may restrict the use of these office kitchen areas. But, as we look long-term to a post-pandemic future, we foresee that the desire to have the kitchen as a place for food, drink, and conversation will absolutely continue. Great scrutiny will be placed on the kitchen’s footprint and placement adjacent to the workspaces, though, and attention will be placed on easily cleanable surfaces, pressure-latch opening drawers and cabinets that can be opened without considerable touch, and perhaps two sinks—one designated solely for hand washing. To enhance wellness, healthy choices in foods and beverages will be conscientiously selected. Overall, while potentially dormant or restricted in the immediate future, the kitchen will be an increasingly important amenity and social aspect of the office.

Indoor Air Quality and the Outdoor Workplace

In a building’s design, the quality of air ventilation and filtration systems will be scrutinized more commonly. Premium indoor air quality will be paramount in all new construction, with an increasing desire to provide for individual control of airflow. Building owners will also be pressured to improve existing building systems when possible. Air quality will be viewed increasingly as a human right and equity issue, not solely a checkmark for certification achievements. Designers will also maximize daylight and views, and create connections to nature through materials, plants, and select artwork. With that in mind, our desire to spend time outdoors will drive an investment in functional, comfortable, and accessible outdoor spaces wherever climate and real estate allow. 

Lead photo by: Garrett Rowland. All images courtesy of Huntsman Architectural Group.

For more discourse on the future of design and workplace design, watch IIDA’s Collective D(esign): Episode 6 | The Changing Landscape of Workplace Design, and register for Episode 9 | Design Responds: Community Support and Innovation.