On NPR’s Morning Edition this week, Steve Inskeep introduced a story by reporter Yuki Noguchi, describing an effort by software maker Atlassian to collect data to understand and respond to employees’ work habits and needs.
Inskeep said “Some workers are concerned not just with wages, but with work spaces. Many companies have switched to open floor plans — very few offices, lots of open spaces.
Inskeep noted NPR itself has adopted this style of workspace. He said this kind of floor plan does allow collaboration, but prompts complaints that it’s hard to avoid distractions. So Noguchi went on a search: how are companies trying to figure out how to build the ideal workspace?
Open space or offices? What does the data say?
A 2013 survey of US workers by design firm Gensler found that even though office workers are spending more time now on focused work (54% of their time versus 48% five years earlier), 53% of employees say other people disturb them when they try to focus, and more than two-thirds of employees are unhappy with noise levels at work.
Recent research from IPSOS (conducted for venerable office design firm Steelcase) suggests companies that have embraced the open floor plan models — hoping to create spaces that encourage collaboration and efficiency — may need to consider privacy more carefully in their use of space.
Steelcase advises creating an “ecosystem” of varied spaces so that employees can choose different degrees of privacy that fit their work style and the work they need to accomplish. Steelcase said results show “that being able to concentrate, work in teams without being interrupted or choose where to work based on the task are frequently unmet needs.”
Some like it hot, some like it cool
“Many offices have limited options such as individual workstations, private offices, conference rooms and a cafe”, says Bostjan Ljubic of Steelcase, in an article in Workplace Insight. “Some people find it inspiring and creative to work in a crowded, noisy environment whereas others prefer quieter spaces and quite often they want a mix of both. The workplace needs to offer a variety of public and private spaces – for We and I work.”
Writer Drake Bennett in a Bloomberg article last Fall noted Steelcase’s own innovations over decades helped feed a long-term historical trend toward more open offices: “In the century since Steelcase invented a desk for the open plan, the American office has only grown more open. Today, with ‘flat management structure’ and ‘radical transparency,’ even CEOs have put their desks in the bullpen.”
How to measure it — Workplace Data Is Alive
But how can an organization really know what the correct balance looks like?
NPR’s Noguchi visited software maker Atlassian in San Francisco because the company had started with a very open workspace design in a big two-story warehouse — an enormous, old book-printing factory — and has recently realized it’s running out of flexible space and its employees are griping about a lack of private conference rooms.
And the company is aiming to figure out if and how to reconfigure its space — using data.
As we well know, collecting and analyzing data is a good idea, when seeking solutions to complex problems. But how can we collect data about how people feel while working, how focused they are, how productive, how content or how inspired? This is truly a case in which Data is Alive!
Jay Simons, Atlassian’s president, says the company grew quickly to 300 employees, and to solve the puzzle Altassian must go straight to the living embodiment of the company to figure this out — by tracking how employees are using the workspace in the real world, in real time, how often, for how long.
What the heat sensors tell us
“Atlassian installed heat and motion sensors to track when and how often every desk, room and table was used,” said Noguchi. “The result? Desks were used only 20 percent of the workday; conference rooms an average of 40 percent, with peak utilization at mid-morning.”
Employees movements are tracked anonymously; the goal is not to see what each individual is up to, but how the space is used by individuals in general — how often employees gravitate to communal space, how often and for how long they sit independently, how meeting times are spaced. The company will use the data to inform its next planning phase — how many shared tables or individual desks are needed, whether open areas should be converted to private hideaways, how to stagger meeting times.
“If we’re using data to make an environment that people can be more productive in, ultimately that saves us money or helps us make more,” Simon points out.
This data-driven approach to understanding employees’ work needs is gaining steam and is being deployed in a variety of ways.
A young services company called Humanyze uses technology developed at the MIT Media Lab. With consent from employees, they combine wearable sensors, microphones, accelerometers and wireless tags that track where employees go to provide digital data, analytics and insights about how people work to its business customers.
The company’s Sociometric Badge can measure workers’ locations in relation to each other, and can even analyze speech patterns and body movements.
“We tie all these data sources together, and we pair them up with things like performance information, information on turnover,” Humanyze CEO Ben Waber told Noguchi. “And we use that to give feedback both to individuals and to companies so they can actually understand what is making our people more effective.”
“Where do you spend time, who talks to who and those patterns are so critical when it comes to how effective we are and how happy we are at work,” he said.
Steelcase itself also has a track record of using video monitoring to analyze employee work patterns. Noguchi interviewed Christine Congdon, director of research communications at Steelcase, who said it is well worth the time and energy to collect and analyze this data carefully, because it can lead to cost savings through a more efficient use of space, and perhaps most importantly, it can lead to happier, more productive and more committed team members.
Who is John Paulsen? A creator, family man and former small-business leader myself, I feel your pain (and joy) and hope you’ll enjoy the blog. I launched and ran a well-regarded production company in San Francisco with a team of 9 brilliant, hard working people. I learned to manage a wide array of tasks a small business must handle — business strategy, facilities design, HR, payroll, taxes, marketing, all the way down to choosing telecom equipment and spec’ing a server system to help my team collaborate in real-time on dense media projects from multiple production rooms. I’ve partnered with and learned from dozens of small business owners.