The modern office: predictive workplaces
According to prediction
22 October 2018
There are 2 key reasons that some of the world's leading companies are moving to predictive workplaces, says Christina Tubb: talent retention and return on investment
As director of a regional sales team for a large multinational corporation, Sally travels extensively, working from the company’s Amsterdam office one week, its Copenhagen office the next, then London or Berlin the week after. When she arrives at an office, Sally already knows she’ll have a workspace suited to her team’s collaborative needs: she’ll be in a central, open space surrounded by huddle rooms, equipped with easy-to-use video conferencing technology. The workplace management software that connects her company’s offices has suggested a place for her to work based on the people with whom she will be collaborating, and her history of being in the middle of the action.
Sam, on the other hand, is a senior accountant. While he also travels frequently between offices, his work demands intense concentration and a quiet environment. When Sam knows he’ll be working at a particular office, he will rely on the same workplace technology as Sally to identify a place where he can get his job done with minimal interruption. The app lets Sam know there is a quiet nook available that allows him to hang a virtual 'Do not disturb' sign. He books the space and feels sure he will be able to finish his audit on time.
'We need to recognise that one of the most important parts of the workplace is treating people [as] individuals, which means giving them the freedom to work in the way that best suits their tasks on a day-to-day basis. Forcing a [uniform] approach on staff is a great way to lose top talent and reduce productivity,' said one vice-president of real estate for a FTSE 100 organisation.
Record low unemployment levels and a growing skills gap are driving employers to focus on improving their overall workplace experience so they can retain top employees and attract potential talent
From introverted accountants to extroverted sales directors, today’s workforce has the leverage to expect a personalised workplace experience. Thanks to the talent crunch that prevails in many parts of the world, employers are now finding ways to differentiate themselves through the workplace environment they create. 'Record low unemployment levels and a growing skills gap are driving employers to focus on improving their overall workplace experience so they can retain top employees and attract potential talent,' observes Rebecca Henderson, CEO of talent management consulting firm Randstad Sourceright, in the firm’s recently published 2018 Talent Trends Report. 'Beating the competition for talent in 2018,' she asserts, 'begins in the workplace.'
More specifically, it begins with digital, data-powered technologies, such as predictive workspace management that gives employees like Sally and Sam a personalised experience regardless of which office they use. As a FTSE 100 organisation’s vice-president of strategy recently put it to me, 'My vision is for any one of our employees to walk into any one of our offices around the world and have a tailored experience where they feel that we’ve anticipated their needs.'
The proof is in the payback
Given today’s talent squeeze, more corporate strategists are realising that attracting and retaining quality people who have distinct needs and working styles requires technology that better connects them to their workspace.
Indeed, that technology has now assumed such strategic importance that it has its own moniker: property technology, or proptech.
The first law of proptech and the predictive workplace is to focus on the user. That means making tech investments with the employee in mind, as corporate tenants today want an office that will appeal to prospective employees. Organisations also want office space that keeps their people engaged and productive, reflecting a shift in strategic emphasis among both employers and the commercial real-estate sector from traditional portfolio right-sizing towards individual employee empowerment.
Maximising the value of real estate will continue to be a high strategic priority. Besides helping organisations win the war for talent by elevating employees’ workplace experience, a wisely selected and well-used predictive workplace system can pay for itself in a number of ways. For example, an office that is equipped with wayfinding technology – sensors, signage and so on – can help Sally and Sam locate the desk or office where they’ll be working and the colleagues with whom they plan to collaborate on a given day. This translates into significant, quantifiable time savings and productivity gains.
By equipping a building with sensors that collect data on how various workspaces are used and tying those to analytics tools to identify trends, a company gains valuable insight into space use by location, person and department. Data and analytics also can help inform office space design and configuration to maximise use, collaboration and real-estate value. That has proven to be the case for one of my company’s clients, a major US-based accounting firm with offices in more than 100 countries.
Seeking a better understanding of space use at its New York city headquarters, the firm invested in software that helped it to collect and analyse data that revealed, among other things, that only 49% of assigned offices were being used, while transient employees were using just 67% of flexible hotel space. With this insight, the company was able to vacate 6 floors and sublet another 3 for a saving of $85m over 5 years. By applying a similar approach to another of its offices, the firm expects to save an additional $97m over the same duration.
The return on investment should also account for the substantial recruiting and hiring costs an organisation stands to avoid as a result of proptech that personalises the workplace and keeps talent engaged.
Introverts or extroverts
Predictive workspace technology gives companies the means to gather anonymised data on people’s activities, such as Skype use at their desk and their encounters with others in the office, as well as their self-declared preferences for technology, desk position and other features. With that data, an organisation can build individual profiles for each employee to shape the predictive experience. Then, by layering this with other data such as meeting satisfaction ratings and historic favourites, these profiles can be developed to allow the organisation to predict and propose solutions to problems it might not even know it has.
What’s more, these profiles can help inform workplace design. For example, by evaluating the similarities between the most commonly booked rooms, organisations can identify what kinds employees prefer and, in turn, provide more of these spaces. This data-driven approach to interior design helps organisations provide more enjoyable and productive spaces for their staff with minimum risk.
Historically, commercial real-estate has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to the workers who use their buildings. Today, however, the organisations that excel at attracting, retaining and engaging talent are those that recognise that individuals need different environments and experiences to thrive at their work. The open configuration may be ideal for extroverts such as Sally; but what about people such as Sam?
'We need space for introverts to put their heads down and concentrate,' one client said to me recently, 'and we need places for extroverts to collaborate. We need cross-departmental teams to come together and resolve problems quickly. At the same time, we can’t expect our employees to spend hours trying to figure out how to make this happen. I want the technology to solve this for them.'
A predictive workplace should proactively provide people with a tailored workspace experience without requiring use of multiple apps. A predictive mobile app would know Sam’s office preference and book his space accordingly, whether he’s in London or Berlin. Sensors inside the office could then automatically check him in when he arrives.
Such a system would also need to recognise nuance in data. Just because Sam booked the boardroom once doesn’t mean he wants to hold all his meetings there, so that digital predictive platform must have the ability to provide a 360-degree view of employees as human beings to ensure this personalisation. Without that frictionless experience, these machine-learning-powered predictive tools can become a nuisance, rather than conveniently enhancing experience as they are designed to do.
As data-reliant as a predictive workplace technology is, data security and privacy are paramount. Thus organisations must also ensure that their predictive systems prioritise the sanctity and anonymity of the data they collect and analyse; if an employee believes their personal information is exposed, compromised or otherwise vulnerable to abuse, they may not want to remain an employee for long.
One way to address privacy concerns is to create and publicise internal policies so employees understand exactly why the organisation is using predictive workplace systems, how the data they collect is being used and not being used, and the safeguards that exist to protect and anonymise their personal data. Once employees understand how these systems work and how they can enrich the workplace experience without jeopardising their personal privacy, they’re likelier to buy into the idea. An organisation might also enable employees to use privacy measures for certain meetings or interactions, such as an app to switch sensors in an office, conference room or desk to privacy mode.
In tight labour markets, predictive workplaces that create personalised experiences differentiate an organisation in the eyes of the talent it seeks to attract and retain. When employees such as Sally and Sam can engage with a workplace on their own terms, they are likelier to remain high-value employees over the long run, thereby giving their organisation an edge in the war for talent.
Christina Tubb is Managing Director, EMEA, at EMS Software