The art of managing space in the workplace

 —  Article by JLL Staff Reporter
Manager in discussion with coworker in an open plan office space
Image credit: Shutterstock

From smart lighting to chair sensors and wearable tech, we are now living in a new age of overflowing workplace data.

New sources of information about how our workplaces are performing are a boon to professionals trying to determine the right amount, type and configuration of space will keep employees, CEOs and managers happy—all at once. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. All too often, we are buried in superfluous information, or have paid for technologies that seemed useful, but don’t move the strategic needle.

“Investments in workplace monitoring technologies should help achieve business objectives, provide actionable information, or achieve projected cost savings,” says Phil Kirschner, Senior Vice President, Workplace Strategy Americas, JLL. “It’s important to invest in the right technology, at the right time, and at the scale that makes sense given your company’s place in the workplace strategy lifecycle.”

Sensor overdrive

Many companies struggle to advance their data-driven workplace utilization strategies because they lack required analytics talent. A recent Forrester study commissioned by JLL found that corporate real estate teams are having trouble matching aspirations to reality when it comes to data-centric strategies, simply because of the shortage of data scientists to collect and apply the data.

“Don’t invest in data that you don’t know what to do with, can’t properly maintain or respond to,” says Kirschner. “Be thoughtful about your implementation choices and be sure you can actually use the level of information you’re gathering.”

Right time, right utilization approach

In contrast to over-reaching on technology systems, Kirschner cites the chief financial officer of a financial services organization who challenged a team of corporate real estate, IT and HR professionals to create a mobile working strategy. Rather than starting with a technology-driven, data-gathering process, the project team turned to more old-fashioned methods of workplace observation.

Working with a workplace strategy consultancy, the team conducted “walk around” studies in the company’s conventional office layout to see how staff members were working. After piloting the mobility strategy with a few small employee groups, the team conducted a second walk-around study to personally observe and document the anthropology of the new workplace. Positive results from that post-occupancy study helped propel the mobility program from first pilot to multiple large projects.

Within a few years, thousands of employees were able to choose and shift their workplace throughout the day, which created a new requirement for ongoing, real-time monitoring of how workstations were used. To avoid having to buy and manage thousands of sensors, the company leveraged computer login information and commercially available data visualization tools to model desk popularity, group mobility trends, daily user mobility and other directly relevant data points. The approach scaled with the mobility program and proved to be substantially cheaper than sensor-based studies.

At another company, the corporate real estate team needed evidence to justify its recommendation to shrink the client conference center when the company was relocating its headquarters facility. The team assumed a sensor study would be required to track the exact number of attendees per meeting—until it realized that the room reservation system data alone could support a business case to reduce the number of conference rooms by 25 percent. Additional spend for more research to push for further savings was not justifiable because the local CEO would never have agreed to a 50 percent reduction in conference space overnight.

Asking the right questions

What’s the common thread among these organizations? A simple, commonsense approach to gathering information that leverages technology without over-investment.

“Before investing in any workplace utilization technologies, companies must be realistic about their objectives and ask the right questions about what their organization wants and needs,” says Kirschner. “What problem are they trying to solve and what type of information would help decision-making?

“Then, consider how the project team will gather, aggregate and report the data, and how it will be transformed into actionable insights. This objectives-based approach leads to sustainable workplace utilization strategies.”

In the end, space utilization is an art, not a science, requiring judgment calls about balancing efficiency against providing the right kinds of workspaces for the work being performed. Sensors may be good at gathering data—but if you want to understand workplace culture, don’t underestimate the power of traditional observation studies.

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