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How quickly things change. The words floating to the top as we interview our speakers and prepare for this year’s Happy Healthy Offices event are softer, more thoughtful and probing than last year’s. Phrases such as “deeply human”, “designing for optimism and trust”. The challenges though are more probing, more courageous: will REITs survive, for instance? What if we no longer want to lease offices but access to “networks” instead (Oh and not technology, but people).

One of the more thoughtful designers you will find in the commercial office space is Kellie Payne of Bates Smart.

Our audience at the Brisbane version of our Happy Healthy Offices event last year was captivated by her sensitive portrayal of how we humans respond to natural biophilic environments. For instance, that dappled light is so much better than regular natural light because it more closely mimics what you get in a forest.

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Payne is reworking her presentation for us now at HHO Sydney on 15 May to focus on the more “deeply human” issues that our working environment challenges us with.

She’s exploring how to design for social and psychological health. Optimism. To do that in an office environment where we are all smooshed up together for ridiculously long periods of time (when you think about it) it’s necessary to create conditions for community and trust to flourish.

“I often call it the cult of workplace,” she told us this week during a briefing, referring to all the research and focus pumped into our workspaces. “Great leaps like the WELL code have all come out of workplace research.”

In her opinion this means workplace thinking is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to designing for community interaction; it’s “basic to human centric design”.

But while the workplace has been leading in terms of design of the physical space to optimise the most productive interactions, and “everyone wants to know about the office of the future,” Payne now wants to move away from the “physical piece to the social piece”.

The pendulum has swung from face to face interactions to digital in the most comprehensive way.

In one generation, shopping has moved from a social experience, where mum, daughter and grandmother would all dress up for a day in town, to craning over a computer and pulling out the credit card.

That digital transition almost perfectly maps, in reverse, the loss of trust between banks and their customers, Payne says.

“There is a causal relationship between trust and data”.

There are ways to change that in the workplace at least – if not the retail space – and build trust instead. We mention the huge family style kitchen and eating area that dominates the centre of a huge office floor in George Street, and she agrees this is exactly what she’s talking about.

In a way – or even directly – it’s business manipulating social arrangements to benefit their productivity, she says. And why engagement scores by employees (in social media or other activities) become key performance indicators.

Millennials particularly need trust to work hard, Payne says.

“Money is not their primary driver. Their drive is to make a difference.”

You only have to look at community interaction and how that impinges on happiness. There is an optimum number of people you can connect with at work and there is a way to design and plan for that.

It might be manipulation but how nice that these days we are trying to manipulate for optimism and social outcomes rather than something a lot more one sided.

Technology is huge whenever you mention buildings, office buildings in particular.

Here there are rising fears of robots taking over our lives. In fact, it’s hard to see how they won’t; give machines self learning, intelligence and it’s not such a leap to imagine we can overlay human emotion onto their programmed responses.

We’ve seen big data wend its way into our health records and potentially affect our insurance premiums and any number of outcomes but what happens when technology starts to understand our moods, turn them into software patterns, and start to predict whether we will perform well today or not?

Human geographer Tica Hessing of Cushman and Wakefield has a lot to say about the emerging field of “emotional tech”. We profiled her recently ahead of her appearance (with The Fifth Estate) at a panel for Total Facilities and were captivated by her insights. She refers to wearable sensors – like a Fitbit – that pick up temperature changes on our skin or changes in our sweat gland, indicating anxiety, stress, depression or happiness.

All very well if you’re a financial trader to understand what mood delivers the best judgement calls, but what happens when the boss gets hold of this information? What about human rights in the digital age?

Kellie Payne says, a bit like our social media, that it’s possibly too late to worry about negative impact such as the boss firing you because the boss probably already knows this and are offering you free counselling services. Besides, some people might work better when they are depressed.

No harm and hopefully a lot of good will come from seriously helping your staff, according to Payne.

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But what if the poor or suboptimal performance isn’t because of your inadequately balanced mental frame of mind but because of invisible silent slimy things oozing around behind the airconditioning plant or wafting around in airy soup of volatile organic compounds or flu?

CETEC’s Adam Garnys is the kind of guy who knows probably way more than he wants to about buildings’ bacterial and sometimes toxic signatures. As a journalist, it’s hard to stop probing him to reveal all the (literally) dirty secrets he’s privy to about our workplaces. Hospitals, he says, keep his colleagues in plenty of work and there are big questions about what your facility manager can do to prevent a big outbreak of flu in your building.

Garny says that at the top of the food chain, premium offices are generally pretty well behaved in the bacterial air quality department and that’s good to know, despite some of the very best struggling to get the ideal environmental rating because of VOCs whose origins are sometimes hard – and expensive – to isolate.

A more important question is the sub premium assets; the B and C grade buildings and how to get better outcomes for the assets who don’t have a big budget to spend on good facility management.

Garnys says there are new and surprising – and unpleasant – discoveries about bacteria and extremely fine particles of airborne pollution indicated as a cause for a broad range of illnesses.

The people running the standards, such as Floth’s Anthony Marklund, need to keep up with the new discoveries in healthy offices and find way to ensure buildings can comply.

On the bigger picture view, HHO will again feature Tone Wheeler from Environa who last year had the audience

absolutely riveted with his fast paced expose of how we got to our modern office building and what’s good and bad about it. His next big provocation is Smart Country Dumb Nation.

We are so totally clever, he says, so good at inventing things such as the best photovoltaics, Bluetooth, and highly sustainable design solutions, so what stops us implementing these things? In the final days before we go to the polls this will be a question worth pondering.

Our investor panel is where the rubber hits the road (oops, we need some new analogies here), where the people with the money explain what they’re doing with their big dollars and why.

Because all the theory, design and agenda items in the world will come to nought unless someone is going to fund them. Closing the loop perhaps on Tone Wheeler’s question.

Again the stories, questions and words coming to the fore are getting more probing. Mirvac’s Paul Edwards for instance, has impressed more than a few people in the industry with his white paper earlier this year about workplace called “The Super-Experience: Designing for Talent in the Digital Workplace”.

Here’s a taste: what if in the not so distant future we don’t need/can’t use real estate investment trusts, or REITs? What if their time comes to a natural end thanks to their tax profile, desire for bulky assets with sticky tenants and long form leases? What if what Uber did to taxis WeWork is doing to offices?

Flexibility and non commitment is key to the Millennials and a growing cohort besides. And one more question Edwards poses: what if we don’t want to pay for an office but a network instead. And by this, he means people, not technology.

That snippet we read about a highly exclusive work “club” that you need a helicopter to get to and where you pay a fortune for the privilege of attending five or six times a year might be an extreme but you see where this might be going.

So many thoughts to explore and ideas to thrash out, but HHO, along with our other events, is where we shape out own future. Come along and make yourself part of the story.

HUGE thanks to our lead sponsor Zenith Interiors and supporting sponsors CETEC and Floth

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