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by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
The rise of the open office concept has been met, of late, with predictions of its fall. Too many distractions, too little personal space and a lack of privacy have hurt happiness and productivity, critics say.
But the open office may not be dead so much as in transition, and it is being shaped by a critical new tool in the design arsenal: data.
Employers, and the design firms they hire, are collecting reams of data about how employees use their workspaces. They’re using seat sensors, infrared cameras, footfall trackers and surveys, while also analysing email traffic patterns, badge swipes and conference room reservation systems. The information is being used to develop office designs that not only optimise the space but also improve the employee experience.
That’s a change from the process that led to the open office explosion, when employers tore down cubicle walls and axed private offices mostly to keep up with the cool technology firms and save money on square footage, without much consideration of the potential pitfalls for workers, said Elizabeth Dukes, co-founder and chief marketing officer at iOffice, a facilities management software firm.
“There has been a mindset shift from leadership to really focus on the people,” Dukes said.
The people focus has become necessary because technology allows employees to work from anywhere, so offices have to be not only attractive, but also “crave-able”, to get people to come in, said Ed Nolan, managing director of workplace strategy at Chicago-based real estate company JLL.
“Employers want a level of vibrancy and buzz in the environment,” Nolan said. The most sophisticated clients are thinking not just about the space but also the work experience, which entails having reliable technology in the right places, comfortable temperatures and conference rooms available when you need them – basic needs that are often not met, he said.
“It’s amazing how many crimes against productivity there are,” Nolan said.
Sensors know best
Gensler’s Chicago office, a pioneer of the open, doorless concept when it moved 12 years ago, is bursting with data as the architecture firm plans a redesign and expansion of its own workspace.
In a messy back room in an unfinished part of the office called the “white space”, where teams with confidential projects sometimes hide away to work, the walls are covered with charts and graphs analysing foot traffic patterns, meeting room use and employee perceptions, as well as renderings of the future office that was designed with those findings in mind.
The goal for Gensler is to organise teams to be more nimble and create a more interactive experience for clients, including a design lab and virtual reality lounge. But its Loop office also is serving as a laboratory of sorts to test possibilities for clients.
“We are breaking down the silos between the data and the design,” said Todd Heiser, co-creative director of the Chicago office. “There has never been a good way for design to say, ‘This is worth something’, and now I think we are very close to being able to actually tell you that if you do this with your space, you’re going to see a better outcome.”
At Gensler, employee survey and observation data were combined with data from infrared cameras in meeting rooms that detect occupancy, footfall trackers along corridors that measure traffic, and analyses of Wi-Fi logins, badge-ins at security and email traffic between employees to create a picture of when and how employees were interacting with each other and the various spaces.
Beautiful but annoying
As it turns out, the company learned, some of the most beautiful parts of the space were either underused or causing headaches.
Take the exposed brick wall that slices through the centre of a sea of white desks, bearing an original logo of the storied department store that occupied the building for more than a century. The data showed it had become a natural gathering place for people who bump into each other on their way to meeting rooms and amenities, a dream result for proponents of open-concept plans hoping to encourage serendipitous encounters – but a nightmare for employees trying to get work done at nearby desks.
“For individual desk spaces it was a real hindrance to satisfaction,” economist Wes LeBlanc, analytics director at Gensler, said as he pointed to a chart with red spots depicting low-satisfaction zones in what he calls the “flyover areas” along the central aisle of the office. In the new design, individual workstations will move away from the brick wall and a “collaboration zone” for quick and impromptu meetings will move in. Doors will be added to huddle rooms, small glass-enclosed nooks that are now partially open, to provide more quiet spaces for heads-down focus work.
The mosaic floor rotunda, formerly the retailer’s shoe department, had the opposite problem: data showed no one used it because the sofas were too low and the room had no electrical outlets. Similarly, seat sensors in the formal chairs in the reception area showed no one sat in those, either.
“If people say open office is dead, I would say lounge furniture in open office is dead,” Heiser said. In the new design, the reception area will feature a long work table where people can pull up a chair, and the rotunda will be a quiet, technology-free space with a long bar where people can work. All lounge furniture will be paired with a table.
The redesign isn’t just about space but process. The data showed that people believed meeting rooms were occupied more often than they actually were, so the company improved the room reservation system. It showed there was never more than 60 per cent of the staff in the office at a given time, and a quarter of those who were there spent minimal time at their assigned desks, so the company is considering making some employees mobile.
“For pretty much every component in the office, we are making micro tweaks to major tweaks in response to the feedback we got,” Heisler said.
Workers are heightist
Some of the findings gleaned from data can seem obvious. You may not need sophisticated tools to know Mondays and Fridays have the fewest employees, or that Tuesdays and Thursdays are busiest for meetings. But quantifiable statistics help leadership commit to change, and help encourage sceptical employees to go along with it, Dukes said.
The rise of data analysis comes alongside the rise of what’s been termed “activity-based working“, which scraps assigned desks for certain groups of employees and instead offers a variety of spaces for different activities – huddle spaces for focused work, collaborative zones for team meetings – as well as the technology and processes that help employees use it.
Siemens, the German industrial manufacturing conglomerate, five years ago started transitioning many of its US offices to that dynamic environment for teams that are highly mobile, such as sales. A quarter of the 3.5 million square metres of office space it has under management in the Americas has adopted the “New Way of Working” concept, said Michael Kruklinski, head of Region Americas for Siemens Real Estate. The aim is for an desk-to-employee ratio at those offices of 1:1.5.
The company is also piloting infrared sensors in the ceilings at three of its US offices, including one in Chicago, to get a firmer handle on the types spaces people gravitate to. The sensors create a heat map, with 90 per cent accuracy, that reveals how many bodies are in an area or room, important for knowing whether a conference room meant for 13 people is hosting a lot of two-person meetings, which could indicate a need for more small meeting rooms.
The data in Chicago revealed that less than two-thirds of employees are in the office at peak times, indicating that there is room to add staff without moving or leasing more space, Kruklinksi said. Also, the sensors found, people gravitated towards high-top tables as well as height-adjustable desks so they can sit or stand.
“You don’t have to make decisions based on anecdotes, we will have six months of data for several sites and will actually make decisions based on this data,” Kruklinksi said. The sensors serve an additional safety purpose, he said, because they reveal what rooms people may be in during an emergency.
Data isn’t everything
The idea of sensors and tracking devices doesn’t sit well with everyone. Firms insist that the data being collected is not attached to specific, named employees – “this is not about how often does Sally go to the bathroom or how many cigarette breaks does Jim take,” Kruklinski said – but the feeling that Big Brother is watching can draw resistance from employees.
Companies have to be transparent and “communicate, communicate, communicate” to employees what they are doing and share results, JLL’s Nolan said.
Another drawback of relying too much on data is that it can be wrong, overwhelming or lack context. Companies must examine various data sources to corroborate the findings and pair them with human conversations and observations to gain a complete picture, experts say.
“The human touch will give you far more data points to work with,” said Meg Osman, executive director of the corporate/commercial practice at design firm CannonDesign.
When CannonDesign created plans for Zurich North America’s new headquarters in Schaumburg, which would be home to 3000 employees, the insurance firm did not want to use sensors or beacons because of privacy concerns, Osman said. But the process was no less data-driven, relying on surveys, focus groups, interviews, observational studies and a test floor where 150 employees spent three months sampling different configurations.
The findings from the test floor resulted in a highly customised, 73,000-square-metre solution for the company, which wanted to introduce social hubs but avoid creating areas that could distract employees, most of whom are doing focused work. And it reduced the risk that it would be a disaster.
“When you’re making a hundreds of millions dollar investment decision, you want to make sure it’s going to work,” said Mark Hirons, design principal at CannonDesign. “This process helps take the pressure off company leaders.”
Prime spots for middle managers
Post-occupancy surveys conducted more than six months after Zurich moved found 83 per cent satisfaction, and it was consistent across all generations, which Osman said is unusual. It also found that middle managers were among the most satisfied, which was notable given that a concern from the start was that dissatisfaction among middle management could trickle down and taint the opinion of their employees.
To guard against that, the design firm paid particular attention to the needs of those managers, seating them by the window to keep them off the main circulation path and near small meeting rooms. It also named them change management ambassadors, engaging them early in the process to get them on board.
Though employee surveys and interviews lack the whiz-bang nature of sensors and other technologies, collecting data through such channels is critical to making employees feel they have input in their futures.
“When we are infringing upon a business, the earlier we can get to employees and make them part of the change, the better it is for the design and the better it is for adoption,” said Swapna Sathyan, director of workplace strategy consulting at CannonDesign.
Building out test floors and measuring the return on investment before making the big investment are at the leading edge of data-driven office design, said Ben Waber, co-founder and chief executive of Humanyze, a Boston-based people analytics software provider. A test can reveal flawed ideas.
Waber described one client, a large manufacturing company that was planning to build a new headquarters with an open-office concept for $500 million. A goal was to create more tightly knit teams.
The company built a test floor in its existing office and outfitted employees with ID badges that have sensors using beacon technology to follow their movements as well as microphones. The microphones don’t pick up words, Waber said, but they do detect volume, and raised voices could indicate stress.
After about a month, the test revealed that interactions between teams increased, thanks to a new cafe where people would gather, but within teams interactions fell 20 per cent.
“What they wanted to do actually failed,” Waber said. “The fact that they spent a small amount of money over a short time to learn that, that’s where it’s interesting.”
The reason for the decline in team cohesion, Waber said, is that teams had designated areas but no assigned seats, so people would spread out and therefore talk less. They redesigned the space to better define teams. By erecting barriers.