Creating the perfect modern work environment—measuring big data for better outcomes.
Traditional work spaces relied heavily on square footage as the main method for measuring the effectiveness of a workplace. As companies continue to make the shift from pre-COVID office space designs to more modern, data-driven designs, organizations are keeping things like culture, collaboration, engagement, and productivity at the forefront. While they navigate the changes, their main goal is still to demonstrate efficient use of all their workspace.
The new demands are challenging, the investment is pretty costly, and leaders are seeking to reduce the risks of big decisions by leveraging evidence-based productivity data. Modern technology has made the unprecedented journey a bit easier, but the challenge now is to make sense of all the new data in ways that will lead to better employee performance in modern work environments.
Measuring the Work Experience
In the past, measuring productivity data mostly involved tracking output on the work floor. But today’s technology allows metrics to permeate the office environment, with many efforts underway to explore how evidence-based research can help shape a work culture where people are fulfilled and productive.
Data for Workplace Decisions
A considerable part of an employee’s work experience takes place in the workplace. Because of this, researchers are using new technology—such as occupancy sensors and badging systems—to develop workplace metrics that will help us better understand how these spaces are being used and how they might be improved.
This new data has given insight into new workplace design trends that better support teamwork, provide privacy, boost collaboration, and encourage healthy movement—further contributing to organizational goals and employee productivity.
Though new workplace strategies can help optimize an organization’s investment in real estate, they also make real estate optimal for the people who are using it. On average, personnel expenses account for about 80 percent of a company’s budget. Real estate requires just a tenth of that. The real value of workplace measurement is in how it can be used to support people—an organization’s most important asset.
Big Data, Thick Data
For measurement to merit reliable influence over data-drive designs, it needs to be both big and thick. Big data at work is quantitative—voluminous statistics allow for deep processing. Thick data is qualitative—contextual insights providing greater depth than numbers alone.
Including both categories is important. There is a tendency today to favor quantitative data because technology has made it so readily available. The danger is more data does not necessarily equate to greater insight.
By using a variety of big and thick data sources, space planners can more effectively draw conclusions about how a workplace can best support its occupants. Big data shows what is happening, thick data tells why it is happening.
Transparency is Key
Whatever workplace strategies you employ, be sure let employees in on the specifics. Be transparent and let people know they are being observed. The key is to portray measurement as a win-win. This will not only help your organization achieve better results, but also provide value to employees by inspiring a more fulfilling, supportive work experience.
A Step-By-Step Strategy
With so many employee analysis methods available, it can be tough to determine which will be most beneficial. Here’s a simple step-by-step strategy for implementing a program that will reap the greatest value.
- Know what matters most. What are the primary goals for your organization? Productivity, engagement, retention, wellbeing? To get the best return on investment, focus on measuring those things that will have the most impact on your key business drivers.
- Determine desired behaviors. For each business driver identified in step one, determine which behavioral attributes will be evident when it comes together. What will people do? What kind of things will they say?
- Determine how to measure desired behaviors. Consider both quantitative and qualitative methods. For example: to quantify usage of informal meeting areas, occupancy sensors are especially effective. Spontaneous interaction, however, might be measured via qualitative approaches, including surveys, observation and interviews. Know when and how to use each method.
- Prioritize measurement methods. Evaluate the potential measurements identified in the previous step based on the effort they would take and the impact they would have. Interviews are easy to conduct but will probably have limited impact on a company that prefers data-driven decisions.
- Don’t overdo it. Measure as much as necessary, but as little as possible. You want to gather just enough information to demonstrate results and inform improvement.
Extracting Value from Measurement
Without the right interpretation, data can be a burden. For measurements to be effective, you must distinguish the signal from the noise. Providing a significant amount of data won’t do much good because it just looks like noise. It’s best to make sense of the data in order to gain the proper insight so that the results can ultimately improve the overall work experience.
Hierarchy of Data Value
The pyramid below represents the hierarchy of data value. Data itself is the foundation. Insight is at the top. To climb the pyramid, you need to add meaning to the data to get information. Next, you interpret the information and apply it to your organization to get insight.
Here is an example of how this might work:
Level 1: Examine the data. An examination of sensor data reveals that, on average, private offices are occupied just 20% of the time.
Level 2: Add meaning to get information. The fact that executives travel a lot gives the data meaning. This context gives you information. Considering executive travel demands, it is reasonable to assume many private offices will often be underused.
Level 3: Apply information to get actionable insight. Eliminating executive offices may not be a realistic solution, but there’s an alternative that might work. Employees frequently complain about the difficulty in finding small meeting areas. Perhaps they could be told that it’s okay to use private offices as meeting rooms when executives are out of town.
Tips for Managing Metrics
Here are eight tips to keep in mind as you develop a workplace productivity strategy.
- Start at the end. Identify your organization’s core business drivers, then work backward to determine what needs to be measured to help achieve desired outcomes. This approach will help you stay focused on metrics that can make a difference.
- Incorporate multiple points of view. Collect both big and thick data—quantitative and qualitative—to fully understand what is happening in your workplace. Multiple sources of data lead to richer insights. However, data has a cost. Be vigilant against the temptation to collect data just because you can. Collecting data irrelevant to your business goals produces excess noise that makes the signal harder to find.
- Take the numbers with a grain of salt. Be careful about putting too much stock in quantitative data without adding context with qualitative insights. Decisions made prematurely can be counterproductive and costly.
- Make space accountable. If the data indicates space usage is different than what’s expected, don’t assume you need to nudge people toward a preferred behavior. More likely, the space itself needs to change. Employees should not be held accountable to space. The space should be suitable for what employees need.
- Use data to experiment. Data can bring clarity to a possible workplace solution. Workplace change should not be based on hunches or trends. Actionable data helps ensure you invest in the right kind of change. It removes the risk of creating a space that doesn’t work as well as it could.
- Measurement can improve engagement. Qualitative measures like workshops, focus groups, surveys and interviews do more than add insight. They also make employees feel valued. When employees know their opinions matter, they are more likely to keep an open mind about workplace change.
- Productivity isn’t just about results. Be careful about focusing too narrowly on productivity metrics that you lose sight of what motivates people to be productive in the first place. Leaders need to show they care about the complete employee experience, not just how proficiently their people check tasks off a to-do list. Striking a balance between accountability and caring ensures employees know what is expected with a deep desire to succeed.
- Keep improving. Workplace metrics are constantly evolving. Continue collecting data to keep track of your work experience. Data delivers the most value when used on an ongoing basis to fine-tune your work environment.
Incremental Improvement for Greater Value
When workplace metrics rarely ventured beyond square footage, standard operating procedure at most organizations involved major capital investment on a periodic basis.
Today, with higher expectations for the workplace, investments are likely to be more incremental. Organizations can analyze data on an ongoing basis and tweak their modern work environments as needed. As work changes, the workplace can stay current by responding quickly to the people using it.
The data revolution is making it possible for organizations to make workplace decisions faster, more frequently, and with greater confidence than ever before. By making sense of big data at work, organizations can uncover new ways to gain greater value from corporate real estate.
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