architectural rendering of people walking through wood-clad hallway

Workplace as Performative Environment

How companies can unlock the creative potential of their greatest tool—their workplace

Moving through the world today, there is an expectation that our physical places should be as immediate, responsive and adaptive to our needs as the digital tools and virtual realities we have constructed. It’s evident in the way consumer expectations and habits have changed in retail, but also in how companies are looking to develop new ways of working that will allow them to respond to the mounting pressures to deliver engaging products and services to their customers. Companies across every industry are struggling to improve employee engagement and create environments that empower their staff to be creative, collaborative and innovative.

In order to get the most value out of the workplaces of tomorrow, it’s imperative to understand that environments are active tools—not static vessels—that should be designed for the people that work, shop and reside within them. By colliding technologies, data and architecture, we can transform the relationship of how people and space interact.

Technology alone cannot create a responsive environment. To do that we must put the experience first, rethink how architecture and interiors are conceived and planned, and consider how tools, media and data support the overriding experiences we’re trying to achieve. This does not replace architecture’s fundamental elements of light, texture, proportion, movement and function but rather becomes a superimposed layer of story and content within the experience—visceral and performative—enabling the space to move in seamless choreography with its users.

In order to deliver a Performative Environment for employees or users, we see three fundamental focuses:

Integrated Intelligence
Integrated intelligence can increase productivity and collaboration, and improve efficiency and effectiveness by tracking usage and energy consumption. Integrated smart systems provide a pragmatic understanding of how a space is utilized to improve efficiency and effectiveness. Most environments are already full of data streams (geo-location from mobile devices, RFID entry systems and building management systems) that can be leveraged to better understand how an existing space is used—or not used—in terms of efficiency and utilization. This data exhaust (which can be anonymized) informs designers and owners on both the design of new spaces and the immediate improvement of existing spaces. For example, through data tracking, we’re able to understand the utilization and effectiveness of the tools, applications and spaces within a laboratory or workplace to better understand if we had the right idea in the first place.

User Behaviors
User behaviors, preferences and aspirations can be collected to help better anticipate their needs and prototype new experiences. Understanding staff and user behaviors and anticipating their needs is one of the most important tools an employer has to improve the workplace and build a human-centered, creative culture. Through thoughtful consideration, we use behavioral archetypes to help think about how space, tools and social interactions empower all staff and create a culture conducive to collaboration and innovation. This approach puts people, not roles, at the center of the organization and becomes the foundation for all planning and design. Not all engineers, managers or project leads are created equal. For example, in a retail setting, we can leverage mobile applications to sense a myriad of customer interactions including visits, digital activations, social buzz, learning activations, demos and transactions. When designing for organizations and enterprises, we borrow these same approaches to put the needs of the employee at the center of the experience.


Imagery, narrative and information layered into the space personalize experiences and immerse users in the atmosphere, expectations and identity of the place. Ultimately, we are striving to create environments that are sentient, intelligent and part of a continuous and interactive narrative. Beyond tracking, heat maps and mobile applications, the opportunity to develop spaces that are continuously tuned based upon our habits, preferences and needs of the day results in a place that moves with its user. We’re talking about concepts and atmospheres generally reserved for theater and art installations; the intersection of light, sound, story and information. When designing a leading genome research institute, we ensured the space and scientists are connected. As a researcher walks through the space to their table, RFID-activated storyboards recognize the person and share the latest journal updates, project reviews and status. The researcher can quickly scan, accept, save or disregard, allowing them to share ideas with colleagues that don’t get lost in a messenger platform or email thread. Space becomes fluid and performative, an active character in the play.

The richness and promise of architecture is its presence, its marking of time, and its reflection of society and its technological advancements. It drives behavior, for good or bad, as it reinforces our beliefs about ourselves as a community, an organization or institution. Developing performative environments that move with and adapt to its users is the next epoch of design.

Historically, our physical environments have not been adequately designed with the ability to easily adapt—despite our rapidly changing needs. These facilities have handcuffed many organizations and institutions to their future; a future that is already outdated. While many of these places were designed with efficiency and low initial cost as their goal, the investment to renovate or even abandon and build new is an extraordinary and massive undertaking for any organization, not to mention the incredible strain this continuous cycle of construction has put on our global resources. As a result, these ineffectual and static facilities drive staff, students and customers to adapt to the space, rather than the other way around, leading to a negative effect on efficiency, creativity and output. This short-sightedness has created a dystopian landscape of wasted resources and lost human potential. Need proof? Just look at the ineffectual classrooms and office parks that litter our landscapes, and the myriad of underperforming organizations struggling to keep up with the next big thing.

The time is now to embrace the workplace as the most impactful tool a culture has to improve work, learning and engagement. By leveraging technologies and by designing agile spaces, we can create environments that are responsive to the rapidly changing ways of work, anticipate staff needs, and elevate the experience to meet people where they are and where they want to go. This is not just about being more convenient and eliminating the time lost setting up a video conference (although that undoubtedly could save thousands of hours around the world)—it’s about using data to amplify the effectiveness of the entire system and creating deeper and more purposeful experiences.

The key to success is being committed to constant improvement and having a mindset for iteration and discovery, and a desire for breaking away from the status quo. A multi-disciplinary approach to design—one that brings an enterprise’s IT, facilities and experience teams together—creates the opportunity to bring dynamic and responsive environments to life that evolve with the organization and their staffs’ needs. An organization’s readiness is fundamental to the ability to maintain and grow these experiences. Together we develop the tools and measurement criteria to help our clients maximize the value of these efforts to turn the environment into an active, high-performance tool that helps them better serve their staff, customers, and community. As companies invest in a future that is being written, Performative Environments put human capital and creativity at the center of the experience and are integral in shaping the future of work.

Jeffrey Sharpe
Global Lead, Places & Experiences
Jeffrey Sharpe
Jeffrey Sharpe
Global Lead, Places & Experiences

Jeff is an architect, designer, producer, director and writer. His work sits squarely at the intersection of story, purpose, and place and together they form a substantive body of deeply emotive and purposeful experiences. Working across sector, scale and medium, he sets experiences in motion that empower people to do their best work, to be their most creative, and to make a lasting impact on society. He has guided organizations, institutions, and non-profits to better understand how purpose-led, sustainable and intentional design helps them re-envision the boundaries of learning, productivity, brand, and community. Jeff has spoken at TEDx, SxSW and many other conferences on design, sustainable and creative communities, the Future of Work and the Future of Learning; and has received numerous awards and distinctions for architecture and design.

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