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Companies are tracking employee data to design the office of the future

June 27, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC
Employers are now tracking when employees come into the office, and much more.
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Just a few years ago, corporate real estate decision-makers were mostly focused on optimizing cost per square foot and square footage per seat. They knew that every employee would be in the office five days a week, and their goal was to ensure efficient use of space. Today, the push for remote and hybrid work arrangements has shifted that focus: Leaders are now optimizing for attendance and deciphering how to provide accommodations that employees actually need.

“If most of your meetings are three to four people, and most of your conference rooms are eight-to-10 capacity, you’ve ineffectively designed the space for what people are actually using,” says Lenny Beaudoin, executive managing director and global head of workplace and design at CBRE. Until recently, companies hadn’t collected much data to inform their workspace design decisions and adapt to the new way of work. That’s starting to change as more employers track how and when the office is used.

“​​Companies are embracing the latest technologies to inform their hybrid-work strategies,” says Mark Dixon, founder and CEO of commercial real estate company IWG. “They are using extensive data and employee surveys to not only shape their workplace design decisions, but also their broader hybrid policies.”

A new paradigm for real estate strategy

Imagine the experience of a luxury retail store or a fine-dining restaurant. The ambience is inviting. Seating and tables are comfortable. The organization wants to impress you. This appeal is now coming to the office.

Businesses have long had the ability to design inspiring and inviting spaces. But they’ve mostly leveraged it in customer-facing locations instead of offices. Now companies are drawing on office usage data to reorient the workspace in a way that will yield increased engagement and collaboration, and entice employees to meet in person.

Companies are also tracking usage data to gain a clearer understanding of how space is used, such as which amenities employees prefer to use in groups and which days they prefer coming into the office. That requires technological upgrades like asset sensors, which can tell if a desk or workspace is being used; and hoteling software, which allows employees to book hot desks, meeting rooms, and other workspaces and to see which colleagues are in the office—a helpful feature for collaboration.

“The biggest amenity in the return to work for employees is other employees,” Beaudoin says. “So this notion of presence awareness becomes critically important.” About 79% of companies use  badge swipes to track office utilization data; 46% monitor Wi-Fi connections; and 26% use desk or room sensors, according to CBRE data.

“Insights are gathered from multiple sources including employee productivity and environmental data, covering heat, noise, humidity, and power usage to shape the office of the future, while minimizing [a company’s] environmental impact,” Dixon says. Insights can also be gleaned from “electronic lock usage, mobile app geolocation, Bluetooth beacons and geofencing, Wi-Fi connections, internet usage logs, and email and in-app surveys.”

In 2021, Walmart gave its store employees free phones with an an app that allows them to manage their work schedules, take COVID-19 health assessments, and simplify daily tasks through a virtual assistant. The big-box store has since expanded the app to corporate employees, and though it says it does not track employees’ personal information, it’s able to monitor which workspaces they use and who they talk to most often.

As business leaders contemplate their real estate footprint, they’re also taking advantage of an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by scaling back office space, which would contribute to sustainability goals.

“As leases come up, people are trying to see how much of this space they’re actually using, and pull the data so that they can see what they want to do going forward,” Mark Ein, chairman of Kastle Systems, a building security provider, tells Fortune. Kastle’s occupancy data report found that office occupancy is at its highest level since the start of the pandemic, with attendance ticking up again after a spike in February.

Office attendance leads to engagement

It’s no secret that most executives want employees back in the office, even if for a couple of days a week. And though employees have some appetite to go in, they don’t want to be frog-marched in, preferring to use the office for certain kinds of work, such as brainstorm meetings. 

“There’s definitely a lot of business leaders who feel that being in the office in person translates to better collaboration, better development, better problem solving, better results, and a more engaged workforce,” Ein says.

But making time spent in the office worthwhile remains a challenge. Brian Kropp, distinguished vice president of research for Gartner’s HR practice, says typical office perks like free food and commuter benefits “simply aren’t enough to get over that hurdle.” He suggests that business leaders ask themselves how office space can be used to foster meaningful employee connections. 

“The cornerstone of any good strategy here is going to be, what are the social and emotional things that you can do to make it worthwhile for employees to come back to the office,” he says.

Breaking out office usage data by function, tenure, gender, or race can also unveil unique insights, Beaudoin notes. “Looking at utilization data allows you to understand, are people equally participating in coming into the office? Are they having a different experience working remotely? These are really instructive to how they look at talent management over the long term.” Leaders can then customize spaces to meet the needs of an engineering team, for example, which could vary from those of the sales department. But companies have a long way to go on this front.

“​​This notion of recruiting people or magnetizing the office is predicated on providing people more choice and flexibility, and giving them a destination they want to return to because it’s the best place to connect with employees, it’s the best supported, and it’s the best fit for purpose,” Beaudoin says. “Many legacy environments didn’t meet those criteria pre-pandemic.”

Consumerization of the office experience

In many ways, the increased strategic emphasis around office attendance and usage hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. Companies are increasingly looking for ways to appease talent and deploying resources to enhance the employee experience. That’s especially critical when employees are spending the bulk of their workweek at home. A growing number of employers are hiring product leaders to manage the remote-work experience, and they’re optimizing spaces to attract people instead of to drive down property costs.

Ultimately, real estate decision makers and HR leaders will have to collaborate more closely on shared goals. As with hybrid working models, offices are likely to see significant evolution in the coming years because companies today are just scratching the surface of optimization opportunities.

“The information that exists today is already in the hands of organizations,” Beaudoin says. “The question is how they use that to drive an enhanced employee experience, or to regulate that experience more definitively.”

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