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Should we embrace big data in the workplace?

There’s every chance the title of this article made your skin prickle. It’s hardly surprising. Recent headlines about companies misusing personal information for their own gains is a Big Brother nightmare none of us want to dwell on. While there’s no doubt there’s been an abuse of trust let’s get realistic for a moment and take stock of how much data we continue to willingly give over about ourselves (even in light of recent events).

Every time we use contactless payments, put a location into Google Maps or strap a smart device to our wrist, our activity is being registered somewhere. By and large, many of us are fine with this because it makes our day-to-day life easier. Knowing that it can be used to improve our personal and professional circumstances is why big data should be embraced, rather than feared.

Big Data And An Irresistible User Experience

Most of us are familiar with companies collecting data for marketing purposes. The reason being, the more they know about your habits and how you use their services, the better experience they’ll be able to provide to you. That’s the trade-off.

Any savvy business understands this and so tailors their offerings based on customer activity. Netflix is a prime example. As a web-based service Netflix collects data regarding the streaming and watching habits of users. From this, their ‘trending’ and ‘recommended for you’ lists are complied. Using data in this way even helped shape their decision to release all episodes of a popular show in one hit. Cue our (very satisfying) binge watching.

But it’s not just entertainment companies using big data to drive better user experiences. Telematic technology (aka a black box) feeds back driving data that allows people to pay less on their insurance.

Supermarkets use data, too. Often it’s collected from loyalty cards and can influence business decisions. For example, Sainsbury’s were going to pull a cereal brand from the shelves, until their data revealed that the people buying it were loyal, high-spending customers.

Another example: Waitrose working with a data analytic firm to combine both in store and out of store transaction analytics. The information collected helped Waitrose decide where to open new stores.

In all cases the end goal is the same: to improve the user’s experience and therefore keep them happy. Predictions from the marketing industries are suggesting that customer experience will eventually overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator and the only way to successfully do that is by putting collected user data to good use.

How Big Data Helps In The Workplace

So how can a similar approach to big data help in the workplace? Well, traditional departments like HR and finance are already using data sets to improve the well-being of the workforce. It’s proved useful in situations like hiring, or employee retention — data can back up decisions regarding pay rises, staff benefits and training opportunities that increases the happiness of employees. If experience is to be the key differentiator, it makes sense that companies want to use the information they have as leverage over their competitors to, for example, attract the best talent to their work pool.

Collected data may also help management correct bad decisions. A perfect example is a recent study at a Bank of America (BoA) call centre. Managers at the centre wanted to minimise the amount of chatting and social time to maximise the number of employees on the phones. However, there were discrepancies as to why some teams were handling calls much faster than others.

Using sociometric badges, the study revealed that the most successful employees were doing exactly what their managers didn’t want: a lot of chatting with colleagues. However unlikely, the data stood up to scrutiny and as a result BoA rolled out team-wide coffee breaks to promote social interaction. The reported result was a whopping $15m increase in annual productivity.

A Position Of Trust

Collecting workplace big data to effect positive change is the ideal. But of course, tracking and monitoring the movement of employees to gather data requires trust.

Carolyn Axtell, senior lecturer in work psychology at the University of Sheffield, recently wrote for The Conversation about the pros and cons of using big data in the workplace. For it to be used to create a “workplace utopia” she said:

“Using big data for monitoring well-being could have positive effects if conducted in a culture of care and trust, where employees and the organisation co-own and co-design the data collection effort, analysis and resulting actions. Within such a scenario, there would be an exercise of joint responsibility between the organisation and employees for well-being…Employees would be able to influence the principles, goals and best practice guidelines, and to agree what data would be gathered and how it would be used.”

The BoA example demonstrates that using data to effect positive changes to working conditions is good for the company and staff alike. But employees may initially feel suspicious of smart technology used to log their working habits. As Axtell argues the flipside, “employees might fear that data will be used to get rid of them.” With more company devices connected to the Internet of Things it’s possible to paint a very detailed picture of an employee. There can be greater insight gained than simply seeing how many times their office access card was used for loo breaks. As a result, it’s natural for the workforce to worry that managerial staff will have the ability to make data-backed decisions regarding individual members of staff. Apart from garnering a relationship of trust, there’s no easy answer to this.

It’s worth highlighting that businesses are entitled to keep a record of hours worked, without the permission of an employee. More sensitive information like biometrics, race and ethnicity, and health and medical information, can only be kept if a staff member agrees. Playing by the somewhat unwritten, but widely respected, rules of data collection, it’s only worthwhile collecting data that’s useful for effecting change. What a company or specific department may need in order to do that will be up to the individual business.

Side Thought: Is Workplace Data Collection Really A New Thing?

Granted, technology is giving us new ways of collecting data, but the act of compiling information about employees is far from revolutionary. Even Propst’s development of the modern work cubicle in the 1960s came into being thanks, in some part, to observational data collected by studying people in the workplace.

The Relationship Between Big Data And Office Design

How big data is being used in the workplace is changing. It’s no longer reserved for traditional departments, like finance and HR. More and more architects, designers and facility managers within the commercial building industry are acknowledging its usefulness. For architects and designers, using data sets is a way to prove that certain ideas, styles and designs will work to maximise employee productivity.

Speaking to curbed.com in 2016, Marc Syp of NBBJ Architects, somewhat cynically, explained,

“Architects love waving their hands around about delivering a great experience.”

However, embracing available workplace data allows architects to put their money where their mouth is.

“With big data, we can show how a certain design will be definitively, measurably better. It’s not designing things, but it’s helping you prove things, helping you design for people and really focus on your goals,”

said Syp.

Collecting relevant data for office design may mean using sensors and heatmaps to track employee movement around an office space. The individual isn’t caught on camera, so there’s no way of knowing which staffers are moving where. But this exercise is useful for designers because it allows them to see which parts of the office are being engaged with, when and how.

Creating human-centric offices using data is a large driving force behind many of the designs for global coworking space, WeWork. It’s also been embraced by London-based architect firm Zaha Hadid Architects who have a dedicated Analytics and Insight unit.

These design methods were unimaginable even just a few years ago. But the benefits allow designers and architects to really drill down and see what works. Successful design elements can be refined and rolled out on a larger scale. So, not only is overall user happiness increased by creating beautiful, practical workspaces, but it cuts the risk of spending budget on aspects that bring little to the party.

Knowing what’s possible has led to a client expectation that design decisions are backed up by data. The use of smart office technology is transforming offices into smart buildings that better understand the workforce and consumers.

It’s why flexible spaces and furniture that grows with a business is so important. And why, as a designer, you may be looking for ways to change the office layout to better facilitate those who use it. For example, the employee who’s sat away from the team they speak to most, so needs to pick up and move. Or staff who complete their best work while sat on the sofa, but management still thinks desks are mandatory.

The growing homey office trend is acknowledgement that we’re individuals and everyone works slightly differently. Companies that provide designers and architects with personal data regarding the working habits of their employees could improve the work environment for all. Not only does it help the designers and architects, but it allows facility managers to adapt how their building is being used, providing the customer with that all-important user experience that’s at the heart of why workplaces are embracing big data.

Is big data influencing your workplace?

As this is a rising trend, especially within the office design space, we’d like to hear your experiences of it. If you’re a commercial space architect or designer have you used data sets to influence work models? Perhaps you’re an employee at a company who uses smart-enabled modern office furniture and you can see the positive (or negative) effects it’s had on your work life? Let us know your thoughts by messaging us on LinkedIn or tweet us.