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How Technology and Design Can Build the Efficient Office of the Future

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What does the office of the future look like? Whether you’re talking about law firms, tech giants or property companies, the way we plan, design and use our workplaces is undeniably changing. Rising trends in remote teams and activity-based workplaces have changed the proposition of how spaces are interacted with, but while some may see these changes as a negative disruption, the reality is that they represent good things for businesses and the space planners that work within them.

A deeper transformation than simply the way offices are laid out is the way data is used to inform office use and optimization. Today, it is possible to tailor spaces in response to data inputs relating to anything from hot-desking trends and occupancy levels to conference room utilization throughout the day. These indicators can be instrumental in allowing managers to support their teams with the tools and spaces they need to get work done, whether that means buckling down for focus work or meeting to collaborate on in-depth team projects.

Indeed, blindly providing office space is the method of yesterday. Setting up an office with a variety of desks, meeting spaces and common areas based only on likely-outdated space-per-user metrics that try to prescribe productivity is in many ways as outdated as the endless cubicle farms of the 20th century. Similarly, sitting back and letting employees reserve spaces for themselves with no guidance can lead to conflicting meetings and opposing priorities. So what should space managers do to keep everyone nimble, responsive and productive?

In this report we’ll explore the impacts of technology and design on office efficiency. How should workspaces be set up: permanent, on-demand, or otherwise? What should be done with conference rooms and collaboration spaces to ensure they don’t sit empty, wasting resources? And what will the office look like once COVID-19 is behind us? We’ll explore these themes and more through original research and several in-depth case interviews.

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Executive Letter

Dear Reader,

We’re in the midst of a great shake-up in the way workplaces are used, as the very meaning of the term ‘workplace’ begins to shift.

Flexible working has been on the rise for years, as smart people and organizations reap the benefits of embracing new technology to work from anywhere. Yet in 2020 we took a giant leap into the unknown, as the pandemic forced us to embark on a grand remote working pilot, almost overnight.

John T. Anderson, CEO, Smartway2
janderson@smartway2.com

Much about the future remains uncertain, but there are a few things we know for sure: For the vast majority of organizations with offices, it no longer makes socioeconomic sense to maintain a rigid approach to managing spaces, nor the people and things within them.

Those who make ‘flexibility’ the key word in all of this—who boldly re-think the way real estate is optimized and how spaces are configured—have the opportunity to deliver an outstanding employee experience that serves as a competitive advantage, while boosting collaboration and productivity.

All this is made possible by taking a data-driven approach to space utilization, using next-generation scheduling technology and analytics to not only reduce real estate costs, but impact the highest value ‘people’ challenges, like talent attraction and retention. Your systems should predict the needs of your users, by understanding their preferences and automating their ability to access whatever they need, whenever they need it – including colleagues, spaces, equipment and services – in order to do their best work.

That’s why we feel very fortunate to have engineered Smartway2 from the ground up with flexibility as not just a focus, but an obsession. As a result we have a unique ‘rules engine’ that enables the platform to be configured to almost any workflow you can imagine.

We had no idea at the time that this level of flexibility would enable us to help organizations protect their people when they return to work amidst a global pandemic, through social distancing, contact tracing and improved sanitation procedures.

In the longer-term, the expectations of forward-thinking organizations and talented individuals are going to keep on rising, as they demand ever-greater flexibility in order to thrive in a fast-changing world. The workplace is no longer somewhere you simply have to go – it’s a place where people want to go, when they feel it’s the best place to achieve a certain goal, whether that goal is to collaborate with colleagues across the globe, socialize and build relationships, or be inspired to invent something new.

Modern Workplace Design

Recent years have seen a growing shift towards activity-based workplaces. These are spaces that attempt to give everyone the space and resources they need to do the work that they’re in the middle of, at that time in particular. In terms of design, these offices often devote more space to shared areas like breakout rooms, lounge-style workspaces and collaboration spaces than in other types of offices. However, there are clear differences in office design between different company sizes and industries.

Industry

Different industries require employees to perform different types of work with different levels of collaboration, and this reflects in the way they design their workspaces. Density, for one thing, is highly dependent on firm type. Law firms are renowned for their emphasis on private workspaces, but beyond them, a number of other differences are notable as well. The densest type of office on average is in the communications, financial services, non-profit and public sector industries, while the least offices are by far professional services providers. This could imply a particular emphasis on collaborative, client-based work at professional services businesses necessitating more space per employee.

The risk of prescribing space uses

Despite the information presented in this section, falling into the trap of relying on benchmarking too heavily in designing and outfitting offices is a mistake that should be avoided. Even amongst professional services firms, or major consumer goods companies, or any other classification that would seem to predict density and workplace arrangement, industries from company to company simply show far too much variety and diversity of function to “design by the numbers.”

Indeed, one particularly underrepresented design consideration is the needs of individual people, not just their roles. Different job descriptions, levels of seniority and functions all have different associated space uses, to be sure. In a financial services company, higher-level bankers tend to need private spaces to regularly take phone calls and confer with clients, while the pool of analysts and associates need to be more exposed and centrally-located in order to communicate well with their coworkers and managers. But this misses a big part of the picture.

The way individual people wind up using a space is even more important than the projected preferences given by their roles and seniority levels. Going back to the example of the financial company, perhaps a given team typically takes calls as a team, meaning that private, individual offices are less useful. Or maybe the team’s admin receives work from one or two designated associates, meaning that their occupying a central, well-connected location is less important. Blindly prescribing standardized office spaces to different people (bullpen for the analyst, cubicle for the associate, office for the partner) might be the way most companies do it these days, but it’s far from the wisest choice.

In fact, most workers specifically look for flexibility in the workspaces. According to Capital One’s 2019 Work Environment Survey, almost three quarters of employees look for flexible workplace design, while 65% assert that they reach higher productivity levels when they can move between different locations while working. What’s more, 77% of respondents said they perform better when they have access to collaboration spaces while 88% said they perform better when they have focus areas. This is not an either-or scenario. Instead, it points to the need for different types of space, accessible on demand, for office workers.

The Role of Predictive Analytics

With that in mind, the quality of any workplace will increasingly depend on managers that are able to understand exactly what type of space each of his or her workers needs, at any given time. The lynchpin of this capability will be predictive analytics tools that allow managers to understand employee workspace needs, even before they arise. Predictive space analytics tools can collect information from a range of sources, such as room reservations and data from cameras and sensors, to provide actionable data on every space within an office. There are two direct benefits of predictive analytics tools in the workplace.

Improving management efficiency

First of all, these tools allow managers to promote productivity in ways that would otherwise be difficult to identify. For instance, predictive analytics could inform a manager that design professionals tend to have conference room meetings that run long on Fridays, and end up conflicting with the sales team’s meeting in the subsequent slot. With that information, managers would be able to speak with design team leads and address whether they should increase their meeting time slot by 30 minutes across the board. Or as another example, perhaps a group of three employees routinely meet up in a collaboration space, despite one of them having a sales role, one of them having a support role and one of them having a programming role. With this information, managers could consider a new seating arrangement that puts these employees closer together, perhaps based around cross-functional teams and not strict divisions by role.

Predictive analytics is not only about seating arrangements, though. In workplaces where some resources like equipment or visualization tools are shared between multiple teams, analytics platforms can help ensure that the right people have access to the right things when they need them. Say a team needs to use the meeting room with the extra-large projector screen for their visually-oriented work, but their meeting goes long. Perhaps they end up taking an extra hour talking about planning or logistics issues that don’t use the project anymore. It’s important that these professionals have the ability to work face to face, but for that last part of the meeting they don’t need to monopolize the projector. Predictive analytics tools could help managers understand where time is being wasted, and help shift resources to the people that need them the most.

Predictive analytics can also help employee teams right-size their meeting rooms. Despite the fact that 53% of meeting rooms are meant for meetings of seven or more people, around 73% of meetings only involve between two and four people. Predictive analytics tools can help even out this mismatch, by suggesting alternate, more appropriate rooms for small meetings, and keeping bigger spaces open for when bigger teams need to jump into them.
These benefits accrete over time. As spaces become reorganized around who needs to meet with whom, how much time they need, and the resources and spaces they need to do their jobs, overall efficiency will improve, not only for managers and space planners responsible for allocating resources, but for the workers themselves, too.

Reducing employee hassles

Predictive analytics also reduces the daily hassles faced by employees. When scheduling matters like those described above happen behind the scenes, employees are able to keep much more bandwidth for their actual work tasks and project goals. Consider the impact of removing meeting room hassles for employees. When employees no longer have to worry about checking with other teams for space, and no longer have to contend with other teams who jumped into a room unexpectedly, without reserving the space in the booking system, that much extra time is opened up in an eight-hour workday.

Similarly, employees who find themselves walking all over the office to meet with frequent-collaborator colleagues, or to the only conference rooms that are available, will be able to spend that much more time working on heads-down work projects. This might be a minor issue with small offices but with big businesses, the type that occupy corporate campuses, simply getting from place to place can be a major time sink. By giving workers what they need, when they need it, and doing so efficiently, predictive analytics tools can save employees vast amounts of time that would be better spent generating value for the organization.

The Future of Efficient Offices

Moving forward, office managers will strive to use data to refine these spatial choices. Data can reveal the truth between what a role would suggest and what individuals actually want, while limiting wasted space.

COVID-19 adaptations

As of the time of writing, offices everywhere are making deep adaptations as they bring some or all of their employees back to the physical workplace. Plexiglass barriers are being installed between workspaces, corridors transformed into one-way passages and densities reduced at properties that use hot-desking arrangements. But how much of this will last, and what long-term adaptations are likely to stick around?

According to the chief quality officer of primary care provider One Medical Dr. Rajneesh Behal, “A core message is, do not expect your risk goes down to zero.” This may be most relevant now, while COVID-19 is still a dire threat, but moving forward it will be an important lesson to keep in mind as we find ourselves left with the legacy of a pandemic. Space managers may want to reduce the risk of a future infectious disease as much as possible, but even the best of efforts will not be able to keep the risk at a negligible level. Such is the nature of having numerous people with different lives before and after the workday together in the same building.

What technologies and uses indicate the way forward for offices? Disruptive adaptations like one-way hallways are unlikely to stick around, but other approaches will probably become a new normal. Touch-free adaptations for doors, shared devices and elevators will probably stay, since they only make life easier for everyone. And density will probably remain on a downward trend. Offices that offer hot-desking and activity-based layouts with an emphasis on offering the right place at the right time will be in a position to keep density down most easily. The apps and systems that allow employees to reserve a conference room, breakout space or hot desk can simply be restricted. If 100 hot-desk spots are typically available, that can be pared down to 50, spread throughout the property. And of course, offices also have the choice to send more people to remote arrangements. Office reservation tools are even more important in this context, as office spaces need to be made able to handle periodic occupancy surges when more remote workers come on-site for meetings.

Conclusion

The future of offices is agile and active, but more than anything it is on-demand. Real estate costs represent a huge overhead expense for most businesses, and allowing them to take only the space they really need will increasingly become a priority for space planners and office owners in the future. The solution involves flexible design as well as the technology to make it adaptable and responsive to changing needs from both individuals and teams. It also takes the right approach to data use and predictive spatial analytics. When managers have visibility into the way spaces are used, who is using them, and for what purpose, wasted time, hassles and lost productivity are all reduced at the same time.

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