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Smart Office Design Starts with Proven Data—And Not Copying Google

It seems that in today’s workplace culture, companies looking to redesign their office space focus on copying big names like the Googles and Amazons of the world. They think that by jumping on current trend bandwagons, whether it’s beer-on-tap or relaxation pods, is enough to keep their workplaces optimized for the modern worker. It makes sense, industry leaders are smart to pay attention to how the most progressive companies are using physical and digital tools to contribute to productivity and personal fulfillment, even retention. Copying successful companies, by extension, makes it seem more likely to lead to success.

I often see companies make major decisions about offices and employees based on the “Google model,” which is what you could call an employee playground meant to inspire collaboration and creativity. However, this setup does not work for every company and could actually negatively impact ROI. 

If you want to meet productivity goals (and design a workspace that supports these goals), you  first need to first determine your business needs. Then, look at the data about how your employees work, and make decisions based on this data—not based solely on what Google’s doing or what’s trendy at the moment. You should understand the key collaborative relationships between employees and between teams, and what physical and digital tools employees need to succeed. It may sound simple, but some departments need to be seated next to each other, while others require isolation to be creative. 

Without clearly articulated goals for collaboration and productivity, an office redesign will hit roadblocks. Your business goals should be organized and qualifiable, which is why making decisions based on data is key to achieving improved work culture and team collaboration. 

Google is a great example of a company that prioritizes innovative workspaces. They incorporate what they call “play” into every workplace with pool tables, legos, and in the past even slides between floors. They also encourage employees to work where they’re comfortable with furniture and workspaces that look like you’re on a beach. While the aesthetic of Google’s offices is designed to encourage creativity and chance meetings between employees, repeating this model just isn’t a smart strategy. 

It’s important to understand that Google has its own company culture, and its offices and corporate policies are made to emphasize and promote that culture. If Google were to move into an open office plan it would be based on proven needs that people collaborate more effectively in this type of setting. It’s also unclear how much Google’s workplace decisions helped, or hindered, their success.

In working with clients across different industries at Humanyze, we’ve found that mistakes in office planning or corporate structure can cost a significant amount of time, money, and productivity. Think about it from the perspective of different cultural backgrounds. A company that has a presence in Japan and the U.S. could design their offices the same way, but the impact on employee collaboration and productivity could drastically differ. The work culture in Japan is typically an open plan with individual seats and in meetings the most senior person will talk more. Whereas in the U.S., there’s a higher likelihood of open office spaces and people getting together regularly over lunch. So, the needs of these two workspaces are going to be different. 

You should start the redesign process by defining your company’s needs, such as “I want the sales and marketing team to interact more” or “I want people to focus more.” The goals themselves will be different for every company, but the need for data in the decision-making process is supported by broad theories and decades of research. In my own research, I’ve found that face-to-face interactions are by far the most important activity in an office, which was found through data analysis in the workplace.

Any commercial real estate professional will know that office buildings are a large investment and it can take years (and added cost) to correct any errors. For example, a company’s data  may show that placing one particular team into individual offices or cubicles will make them more productive than in open seating. In this case and for this company, work (the right work!) will get done.

Defining your goals from the start, that can then be tested through data, will help you make informed decisions by testing the changes your company wants to make about office space. For instance, if you want to put more employees into an office location, but need to determine where certain rooms can be repurposed, you could use data on how your employees best collaborate to eliminate meeting room spaces that aren’t effective for productivity or not being used. This type of hard evidence on how employees collaborate and work, shows and measures the impact of changes to any space. 

This decision-making method can also help you to change your office space with the pace of your business because it sets up the evidence needed to support these changes. When your goals aren’t defined at the beginning and data is not a part of the decision-making process, employees could end up working in a way that’s undesirable, and significantly impact your company’s performance.

It’s important to understand that designing office space is also designing collaboration. On a macro level, data shows which aspects of physical space make-up certain collaboration behaviors. For example, at some companies where there’s open office spaces, it can actually reduce interactions when people feel embarrassed to talk in such a public setting. At other companies, open office spaces can have the opposite effect depending on factors such as industry, business goals, and employee preferences.  

To ensure your decision-making is effective and that the right data is being used:

  • Use a sample size large enough to test the right aspects of your office space, with a minimum of 20 people in a test group
  • If you’re a small company, narrow down the focus of what’s being testing to produce the best results when working with smaller numbers
  • If you’re  a large company, keep measurement and business questions specific because the results can be broken up in many different ways

I’ve worked with a major online travel company to measure how their software developers work and interact with other teams. From the start, the travel company determined it wanted to understand how long it look developers to complete a project and how it varied across the workforce. Because communication data is one of the biggest predictors of how connected diverse teams are, we looked at the travel company’s communication data through email, chat, and the metadata that comes from these communication channels. We also provided employees smart I.D. badges and office sensors that measured which spaces employees interacted in. 

A four-person table would actually reduce productivity by eight percent.

We found that one of the biggest drivers of how teams interacted was in the cafeteria, which was impacted by the size of the lunch tables. People who sat at bigger tables were more productive at achieving milestones because they interacted with people they normally wouldn’t talk with (in the work day) over lunch. Also, the size of the lunch tables dramatically changed how people collaborated: a four-person table would actually reduce productivity by eight percent. At the end of our analysis the travel company decided to install larger lunch tables in the cafeteria to improve collaboration and productivity even more.

Both employees and companies want to have a nice place to work, but when it comes down to it, you have to answer to CFOs and board members who continuously question ROI (and why they should invest in changes such as larger tables or smaller offices). Data can help you explain the positive impact of these changes, so it’s critical to quantify your investment in office design. 

By diving into metrics, you can change the discussion around business decisions to show ROI, even if ROI doesn’t directly change how people work. This helps to tell a story about the behaviors you want to create and what will happen over time to collaboration and productivity. Then, what your company is getting out of an investment can be shown.

Being explicit and quantitative about your approach will allow for data to be used the right way along with PropTech tools that help to measure and analyze how people work best. When you focus on communication networks, your company can see how people interact with each other, so long as it’s collective and not individual data. We’ve found that one of the biggest predictors of organizational outcomes is data at the team level. This is supported through our own research with major organizations and decades of research in the field of social network analysis.

The office is meant for creating human behaviors that drive productivity and business goals. It’s not about what the space does, but what the people in that space do. Having such a human-centered view to office design (over a building-centered view) is the return on investment. If you’re selling room utilization to your board make it about getting the right work getting done, rather than making innovative looking spaces. Remind them that your company is different than Google and therefore probably shouldn’t have office that mirror theirs.

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