Data and the shift to mobile workforces

Unprecedented access to workplace data is transforming the way businesses understand, manage and redesign office space. Christine Maurer, product manager for commercial and corporate real estate applications at Gensler, explains how.

How is access to data changing the workplace paradigm?

Gensler helps organisations make more informed decisions on how to configure their real estate, but the availability of new data has enabled us to evolve our service to look more closely at the utilisation and activity of different spaces.

Our iPad app Observe records specific data on workplace utilisation over two-to-four-week period, looking at factors such as whether people are collaborating with each other, talking on the phone, working at their computer or using other technology in the conference room.

That kind of information, taken alongside information gathered on the amount of space in their portfolio, the types of space and the amount of people that occupy the space, can really improve understanding of how the workplace is functioning.

As an additional layer, we can create a Workplace Performance Index (WPI), based on a survey of employee sentiment and engagement, looking at things like how far they travel to work each day, their perception of air quality and natural light, and whether they feel they have adequate amenities and facilities to do their job effectively.

How is that data used?

Heads of real estate and facilities managers use it to inform decision making on whether they need more, or less, space, or to redesign spaces to meet employee needs.

There is a major advantage to using real data to plan workplace decisions, for example you can prove you don’t have enough desks, or that an additional conference room is required, rather than simply guessing.

There have also been cases where organisations have saved millions of dollars a year by simply consolidating their space, based on data we collected, instead of expanding.

There’s a lot of buzz around building sensors and the Internet of Things – what’s your take on it?

I have been involved in research experimenting with smart sensors in the workplace and looking at how to leverage the technologies to bring value to clients and inform our design decisions. 

We see sensors as another layer of data and another way to manage and track space utilisation.

We have looked at infrared, motion, and bluetooth sensors, we also ran a pilot with a special camera sensor that takes photos of a space at set intervals to record the number of people. The device exploits an algorithm that enables it to learn to distinguish between people and items of furniture in the space.

Is that research being translated into real-life applications?

Yes, Gensler’s New York offices now incorporate sensors that detect if spaces are being used. Some clients with “free address” work environments, where employees can work anywhere and everywhere, have sensors installed under every desk to detect if a person is sat there or not. Kiosks at the entrance to the workplace show which desks are free to use.

What does data reveal about the changing nature of work?

We’re seeing a shift towards a distributed workforce. Mobility is big, and a lot of organisations are moving towards “free addressing” to enable people to sit next to the people they need for a particular task on a particular day or just to sit where they want to.

This is a real a win-win because it both improves space utilisation for the organisation and frees up employees from being tied to the same desk every day.

There is a greater focus on increasing collaboration, with a lot more smaller huddle room-type conference rooms, and on having a variety of different spaces that can accommodate a range of working styles.

It all comes back to the idea of choice – our research has shown time and again that employee satisfaction is completely related to their ability to have choice regarding where they are able to work in the workplace.

Unparalleled access to data has serious implications for personal privacy, will that hold back technological progress?

The arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation means we are under a lot more scrutiny in terms of how we deal with individuals’ data. It will be interesting to see what happens, I feel a time will come when occupants see the benefit of permitting access to some of their their data and that will outweigh the perceived privacy issues.

It’s a similar process to what has happened regarding online applications and apps that harvest user data.

Gensler does not currently collect super-sensitive personal information. We are looking at developing a system of wayfinding for the workplace that would harvest occupants’ location data from smart phones.

The platform would enable any employee to find the specific location of another employee in the workplace, or locate specific spaces, such as a conference room able to hold 20 people, at the click of a button.

This could be seen as crossing a line but it’s really a matter of what individuals are willing to give up about themselves and taking care not to impede on peoples’ privacy without their consent.

What’s over the horizon technology-wise?

AI and machine learning are talked about a lot, and the increasing availability of data will make workplaces a lot smarter – they will adapt to the individual’s needs for the day. Arrive at work and your workspace will know what you need, your preference for lighting, and for heat, if you have a meeting in a conference room it will set itself up for you.

The sensored workplace is pretty much already here, that gives us the basis from which to get all tools and systems to work together to create the best possible experience for the occupant. 

Simultaneously, the data we get back we can exploit to make better real estate decisions and improve workplace design.

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