Why companies are looking to data in the return to office life

Workplace data is bringing customised insights into how companies can best keep their employees safe as offices reopen their doors.

April 29, 2020

The use of workplace data has grown in recent years as landlords and companies optimise spaces to provide better workplace experiences.

But in the coming weeks, as offices shut during COVID-19 lockdowns gradually reopen, workplace management teams and landlords will be increasingly looking to data to help make critical changes to their floorplans and services.

“There will be fundamental change in the workplace experience we’ve come to expect,” says Lee Daniels, global product manager for workplace & occupancy strategy and EMEA experience lead at JLL. “Employee safety and wellbeing is now the number one priority for all companies.”

That means introducing and enforcing social distancing measures and rethinking normal practices in communal areas.

“Understanding who is in what space, for how long, and at what time, will be key to creating strategies to manage the flow of people and ensuring office spaces are used correctly,” says Daniels.

Looking at the numbers

This is where data comes in, providing a far more accurate picture than anecdotal observations alone, says Jeff Josephson, senior technology services director at JLL in the U.S.

“To be able to effectively manage, you need to be able to measure,” he says. “Data removes human assumptions that can lead to both time and resources spent solving issues that may not exist.”

Practically, data that monitors occupancy levels is already being collected in many workplace settings, be it through individual swipe cards, network usage logs or meeting room reservation systems.

“These data sets can help create meaningful analytics and inform companies on how to best support social distancing in the workplace,” says Josephson.

Occupancy levels in specific areas can also be tracked and gathered via sensors, which companies can use to better understand their employees’ behaviour and their impact on the overall workplace.

And while all offices have areas in constant use, from bathrooms and informal meeting areas, data can highlight questions specific to a single company.

“Why, for example, are every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon busier in the office?” Josephson says. “Or why doesn’t anyone use this room, while the one across the corridor is always busy? These questions, when answered, can lead to a flattening of the utilization curve and better overall use of the space.”

In the coronavirus recovery phase, such insights could help not only redistribute desks across all available floor space, but also inform how employees should balance coming into the office with remote working.

Equally if the data shows employees are congregating in certain areas, for example at coffee machines or photocopiers, companies could separate equipment or implement different usage policies.

Protecting employee privacy

With technology taking a lead role in managing the coronavirus outbreak and recovery, concerns around personal privacy abound.

“Data may not initially be anonymised from things such as security badges, but it should be if companies are using it to create safer workplaces rather than check up on employees,” Josephson says. “From sensors, it’s more about identifying a human being and no further than that.”

For companies who do not have existing data sets to rely on, policies and targets can be established using benchmarks and recommendations as they get back up and running. In the coming months, however, building their own data sets to customise their response could strengthen their future business continuity planning.

“Because COVID-19 has the potential to become a cyclical phenomenon, emerging again in the winter, it could be beneficial to put a measurement program in place now to ensure readiness,” Josephson says.

“Data collection isn’t just a one-off. By analysing an ongoing data stream, companies can continue to adapt their workplace strategy and design and even rethink their leasing footprint in the longer-term.”

For companies, however, the new normal of the post-COVID-19 workplace requires companies to understand their employees and their space in more depth than ever before.

“Distancing measures will be tolerated in the office in the short-to-medium term,” says Josephson. “But there’s still a very human element to this in that people do not want to sit in half-empty offices with little feeling of collaboration.

“Getting the return to the office just right will be key for employee engagement and wellbeing, and data gathered through multiple sources will be a significant part of that.”