Optimizing the workforce and workplace experience in an age of disruption

Executive overview: Planning for the future of physical workplaces

It may appear to be an odd time to talk about “workplaces” given the work disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Early research suggests that in North America the number of people who work from home at least two days per week is likely to increase by 500 to 700 percent.i Accenture has described the “new normal” of enabling remote work and access to networks and applications as the “elastic digital workplace”, with capabilities such as flexible collaboration, seamless networking, and adaptive security.

Nevertheless, physical facilities and their technology enablers should not be thought of as ancient history. Given sufficient safety precautions, people will begin coming back to offices. So, this is actually excellent timing to think about how your organization will more effectively use technology and workspaces to support the new working models that will appear in the post-COVID-19 world.

For example, with more flexible work arrangements comes the ability to increase occupancy ratios and decrease floorspace through adoption of activity-based work environments. The type of work performed in the office is also likely to change emphasis from focused work (which can be performed away from the office) to collaborative work that requires time physically spent with co-workers.

Executing this change successfully in terms of employee experience and floorspace reduction (and cost savings) requires user-friendly supporting technology. This technology will go along with the processes and systems that can enable efficiency in the use of people’s time as well as the use of space. Space reservation systems for rooms and workspaces with real-time occupancy sensing will enable activity-based workers (those who choose from a variety of settings according to the nature of what they are doing) to secure space before arriving to the office, as well as release space automatically if it is not claimed.

The same technology can also help enforce revised maximum-room-occupancy limits that will likely come from new social distancing requirements. A highly functional meeting space for collaboration will require technology that enables the real-time integration of both in-person and virtual work—that is, those in the office as well as those at home. Wayfinding systems for both people and places can help support activity-based work style and act as a platform for contact tracing of both people and places. Health and safety will be a top priority. New policies are likely to be drafted and technologies will be used to help implement them.

In general, an imperative for companies is to go beyond merely tactical thinking—addressing only immediate workplace needs. Instead, they should make changes that not only address current issues, but future ones providing long-term improvements to the workplace.

Moving beyond a technology-centric mindset

Abundant examples of innovation in the area of workplace optimization and performance support exist, such as wearable technologies and increasingly sophisticated conferencing and collaboration tools. But generally, such innovations have been developed in silos as primarily technological achievements. For example, if your preoccupation is “making video conferencing better”, you miss the bigger picture: how to make the entire process of conducting a meeting easier from planning through execution. Companies need to optimize the workforce experience, not just the tools.

What is really needed is a more holistic approach to creating an intelligent workplace—one with technologies that work the way people work. Such a workplace integrates technologies focused on people and how they work, such as sensors, cameras, scheduling and reservation systems, digital signage, connected lighting, and audio and video conferencing systems. Whether it’s building a new, state-of-the art office, renovating an existing floor, solving meeting room availability problems, or collecting accurate data on floor space utilization, an intelligent workplace can enhance the experience of workers and guests, all while improving operations.

Why care about an intelligent workplace?

The intelligent workplace has the power to improve multiple measures of performance, from tangible benefits like productivity or real estate utilization to intangible ones such as employee satisfaction and engagement.

Increasing productivity

Did you know that on average workers spend about one hour each week just trying to find and book a workspace and then locate colleagues?ii Looking across an office or campus with hundreds or thousands of employees, those 50 hours per year per employee are a productivity drain.

In-person meetings can be even more frustrating and time-consuming considering planning, execution, and follow-ups. A common complaint of employees is about tools and technologies not functioning properly in shared spaces when they are needed. This situation has deteriorated to the point that it is almost expected to have issues with the cables, projector, various remote controls, and the audio/video feed.

In the intelligent workplace, all aspects of the environment can be monitored and optimized to increase the productivity of people and teams. Status of a space can be reported in real time across all management planes, and rooms can be remotely manageable by support staff. Adjustments can be made on the fly, for example, situations where rooms have been hoarded by people or groups “just in case they need it”, or where only two people are using a conference room designed for sixteen resulting in nine people being crammed into a room designed for six. Alerts can be generated so issues can be addressed in real time. Problems with any particular space can be displayed to facilities or IT on dashboards and mobile devices, helping them to take action in a timely manner.

Of all the money organizations spend on operating a workplace, the biggest cost is people’s time. By starting with the people—who they are and what they are doing within their workspace—systems and technologies can be integrated around them to help, rather than hinder, their daily workflows. Employees can be more engaged and productive, all while enabling organizations to obtain previously inaccessible data and insights, to make informed decisions now and for the future.

Enhancing the worker experience

A related point is the improvement of the employee or worker experience—supporting better work performance while increasing retention of an organization’s best people. Research has found that companies that provide good employee experience outperform the S&P 500 by 122 percent.iii Organizations with highly engaged workforces are 21 percent more profitable than their peers.iv

Considering these business benefits, leading organizations are seeking ways to improve the experience of their people in the workplace, all while enabling them to be more productive. The intelligent workplace integrates technologies that are on-demand, accessible, integrated, adaptable and, most importantly, designed such that the user’s experience in the space is the primary focal point. The ultimate goal is to automate as much of the experience for workers as possible so they can focus on what they came to the space to do.

Intelligent technologies and the guest experience

The intelligent workplace also improves the experience for those visiting an office. The goal is to streamline the end-to-end process of inviting a guest to the office, authorizing access to the building, ushering the person to the right location, and addressing other typical challenges for both guest and host, until they are sitting together having a productive conversation. The typical company may waste thousands of hours in this process every year, while creating a frustrating experience for both guests and hosts.

Improving space utilization

An intelligent workplace empowers decision-makers and facilities planners with valuable insights to operate more efficiently, optimize available space, and plan future requirements—all of which can reduce costs significantly.

One study examined more than 10,000 hours of meetings across 60 spaces. The report highlighted insufficient inventory of medium rooms (five to seven persons) and small rooms (two to four persons) and noted that rooms were often being used beyond capacity. Only 6 percent of all meetings had more than ten attendees.v Another study found that over 34 percent of all spaces that are reserved for meetings go unused. (Teem, n.d.)vi

In the intelligent workplace, room reservation systems work in concert with systems for check-in, occupancy capacity, and people-counting to provide real-time data on space usage and activity. The combination of these technologies enables ongoing analysis of space usage, while also increasing availability of space by removing ghost meetings, where space is reserved but not used, or not used for as long as planned. Companies can also access historical data on actual occupancy numbers, technologies used, utilization duration, and other data points to help operators understand actual activity and to plan for both short-term and long-term changes. In more advanced environments, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence can be employed to accurately forecast utilization into the future.

This optimization leads to tangible financial benefits for organizations. Research from Senion showed that in an office of only 3,000 employees, organizations in the US are overpaying for unused space to the tune of $4 million to $8 million per year.vii

Becoming smarter with your workplace

How can executives plot a comprehensive and cost-effective journey to an intelligent workplace? Here are some steps to consider:

Analyze the needs and goals of different types of people in the workplace—employees, guests, security staff, operations, etc. Find out what they wish they could do or know in an ideal world.

Then:

  1. Map out their typical day, the tasks they perform, and resources they use throughout the workplace. Understand exactly what they do, from when they arrive each day till after they leave. Whether it is traveling to the office, grabbing a coffee on the way to their desk, finding a workspace or meeting with their team to discuss sales forecasts, and get to know what steps they go through to complete each of these activities.
  2. Identify points of friction, frustration, and unproductive time consumption. Now that you have a journey map of their day, what things are taking much longer than anticipated or commonly causing frustrations or delays? Maybe it is the length of the coffee line in the morning, or finding a place to have a meeting, or that often the right connections to connect their laptop to the display in the room are not available. The more people you speak with, the more common themes will surface.
  3. Choose technologies (or enhance existing ones) based on their ability to address these points of need. Sometimes, the integration or upgrading of existing systems can address many common challenges. Analysis of remaining deficits can guide new technology investments. A strong solution should always benefit both the worker and the workplace operator.
  4. Prioritize investments based on business impact. The more important issues you address, the larger your impact and the greater your focus can be on improving the workforce experience while also improving efficiency. For example, deploying sensors to intelligently manage meeting room availability not only increases employee satisfaction with increased availability of space, but also helps optimize future IT and real estate spend by knowing exactly how spaces are being used.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders and gather their input to refine the overall vision and gain buy-in. Key to your success is painting a compelling picture of the future and how it will benefit all involved with less individual effort. Some of the highest-impact areas can be addressed quickly and effectively. Once you have shown success, use these to drive buy-in on additional enhancements.

Seeing through the lens of the workplace experience

Powered by integrated technology, the intelligent workplace optimizes the most common workplace activities for its occupants and assists them in using spaces more effectively, while providing facilities managers with granular insights into how spaces are being utilized and by whom.

This people-centric approach takes tasks like accessing the building, finding the right place to work, getting location-relevant information on services, and instantly reporting a problem encountered during the day, and wraps them in an intuitive layer of non-intrusive technology. In all cases, the guiding mindset is improving the experience of workers, guests and other stakeholders, along with giving workplace operators a rich set of data and tools to streamline office operations in real time and plan for the future.

iWork-at-Home After Covid-19—Our Forecast,” Global Workplace Analytics, 2020.

ii 4 in 10 us office workers waste 60 minutes every week searching for desks, conference rooms, colleagues

iii Quoted in, “4 Statistics that Show Why Taking Care of Your Employees is Worth the Money,” “We the Talent,” Talentsoft, 2018.

iv Ibid.

vWorkplace Utilization Index: Mid-Year 2019,” Density, 2019.

vi Reclaiming your conference room by banishing ghost zombie and other now show meetings

viiOffice Workplace Survey 2017,” Senion, 2017.

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