The evolution of corporate real estate is best described as punctuated equilibrium: slow, steady progress interrupted by intense periods of dramatic change. We are clearly in such a period. The massive shift to remote work during the pandemic has increased pressure on corporate real estate executives. New workplace strategies are quickly being devised and implemented, often with no view into their likely long-term impact. Simultaneous mandates to protect employee health, reduce costs, provide a better employee experience, increase employee retention, boost productivity, and improve innovation can often come into conflict. The question then is, which workplace strategies can support all these mandates simultaneously?
With the switch to remote work, the age of technology has come to an all-time high. The tools we use to collaborate are producing data about how work gets done, which provides clues into what workstyles and collaboration patterns exist within the workforce. This information is pivotal as organizations move forward with their post-pandemic strategies. The return to the office should be a thought-out process that simultaneously addresses the needs of employees and the goals of an organization.
So Much Data, Where Do We Focus?
First, it will be helpful to take stock of what kinds of data is available today. There are of course a variety of collaboration tool data sources that are at our disposal: email, chat, calendars, etc. The metadata that comes out of these systems provides a deep view of an organization’s collaboration network. When we talk about metadata we refer to the information within these tools stripped of its content. We are simply looking at date and time stamps, quantity of email, chat, or events taking place between people. At Humanyze, we go a step further to anonymize this data and group it to protect employee privacy. By analyzing the patterns in this data we can understand the cohesion of teams, exploration between teams, and how siloed a company is. Additionally, organizations get insights into whether employees are getting enough focus time or whether they are being constantly interrupted by meetings or other communication channels. This information is critical as companies consider how to design their workplace strategies to improve existing patterns.
Another type of data is sensor data. As we think of the future of work and the more immediate needs around safe returns to the office, sensor data will play an increasingly important role. Badge entry data, for example, provides information on occupancy, which in our current need can help us understand whether spaces are crowded and safe distance between employees is not possible. Bluetooth proximity and location data can go beyond this and over time help companies estimate face-to-face collaboration networks and room level occupancy. Combining this type of data with collaboration data can go further in ensuring that companies are creating workplaces that are enhancing the employee experience and positively impacting company performance. There certainly are other data sources to draw from, but these classes of data should be viewed as the highest priority for understanding collaboration and workplace needs.
Using Data to Make Decisions
Let’s examine the different workplace questions where this data is most useful. First among these is determining where offices should be located. On the collaboration data side, this should be driven by an understanding of which teams have been negatively impacted the most due to the shift to working from home. Comparing pre and post-pandemic intra-team cohesion levels or inter-team exploration, for example, illuminates where the workplace can be a useful tool for shoring up collaboration gaps. Offices where those teams are located can then be prioritized either for reopening, expansion, or identifying new offices entirely.
Companies can similarly examine where new employees are not being integrated effectively as a prioritization metric. If a particular division is having trouble embedding their new hires in the social network of the company, they will be less effective and more likely to leave in the near future. Pinpointing which regions are most prone to these issues is another factor in planning where facilities should be in the near and long term.
Once locations are chosen questions about facility size naturally arise. This comes both from the number of people at different sites but also which work patterns the company wants to support there. Of particular importance is adjacencies between different teams or divisions. If those have grown weaker with a move to remote work, then placing those groups on the same floor of an office will go a long way towards improving that interface. There may of course also be adjacencies that will be prioritized in the future that do not exist today, and those also need to be matched by physical layout if those teams are communicating effectively in a remote environment.
Meeting usage and type is another factor here. Calendar data in particular can give us a view into how much time people spend in meetings and whether those are large or small. Combining this with collaboration data can help with designing meeting areas that are not only convenient but also appropriate for the groups in the immediate area.
These approaches should also apply when companies are planning a restack. With data in hand, organizations can now play out multiple scenarios using the data to understand how collaboration patterns might change with different adjacencies.
All of this is particularly important as corporate real estate leaders are driving significant strategic bets for the business. Despite all the think pieces and speeches given on the future of work, no one can credibly claim to know what’s actually going to be effective. Data can illuminate promising strategies and improve the likelihood of success when combined with contextual knowledge from the business. As these new strategies are rolled out data can also point out what’s working and what’s not. When problems arise, real estate leaders can quickly react and alter course to another option. While in the past this sort of problem solving may have taken months, real estate leaders now have the data to quickly pivot and adjust. People have shown how resilient they are and how quickly they can change how and where they work when presented with an opportunity. The resiliency of employees along with analytics to catalyze it is the future workplace we were promised.