The new collaboration strategy: musical chairs with data

How can organisations use their data to make meaningful design decisions that improve their collaboration and productivity? Peter Smit sifts through the tsunami of data to create a simple sequence of data analytics…

Across the world, the largest game of ‘musical chairs’ is currently taking place. As new office towers come online, the spaces previously occupied by their past corporate ‘residents’ are being redesigned and reconfigured for the expectations of new occupants. The design of these spaces will be tailored to meet the objective of making everybody more collaborative and more productive.

The popular trend is to move employees from the traditional assigned office environments to activity-based workspace. In the traditional environment, the average square foot per person is over 150. In the new activity-based spaces, people are assigned a locker and drawer, and move about during the course of a day based on the activity they are engaged in; in these spaces the average square footage per employee is often below 100.

Typical characteristics of the traditional model of work can be described as structured, hierarchical, inflexible, functional and scheduled. Whereas the ‘new way of work’ is: flexible, cross-functional, spontaneous and agile. So, how much progress are we making? Are our people becoming more collaborative and productive? Are newly designed spaces enabling people to make a significant shift on the ‘new ways of work’ spectrum?

Although there are still sceptics, there is strong evidence that these new environments can both work and be effective. As Kate Lister of Global Workplace Analytics wrote in her recent article, The (Not So) Real Truth About Open Offices, ‘based on actual research with thousands of data points, any type of space can be effective if it is well designed and the transition to it is properly managed’.

Musical Chairs with data

Applying Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to data can help create effective spaces. Data is analysed from multiple sources such as: email, instant messaging, web-conferencing, calendar and wifi. The data is anonymised and consolidated under proper governance, and insights are derived.

Collabogence, a Canadian intelligence firm dedicated to helping organisations measure and understand collaboration within organisations, has created a sequence of how organisations can process and understand the data they are collected. With experience managing data on over 50,000 people, Collabogence can measure changes in behaviour, collaborative performance and the impact workplace design implementations have on employees.




The sequence of data tracking

To start, it is important to know and understand the personas occupying the space and how they use it. What is scheduled and planned? What is spontaneous and ad-hoc? How do people use space they are assigned to? How often do ‘guests’ come into the space and at what frequency? Who really works with whom? Which departments are closely tied to each other? This baseline provides the starting point.

From the Baseline, insights are derived which lay the foundation for both the design requirements of the new spaces as well as adjacencies such as who should share space with whom. As transitions are implemented, actual shifts in behaviour can be tracked. Ultimately after 100 days in the new environments the actual impact can be measured. How much did collaboration increase and was there a boost in productivity? Additional insights can be derived from benchmarking the space against other spaces as well as against other organizations. Was the change a result of great design, assigning the right people together in the space, or of effective change management?

Key learnings

The foundation of all this is a number of algorithms which allow for a series of measurements: the strength of a relationship between two people, as well as between groups of differing sizes. These algorithms can provide individual network profiles and scores to give deeper insight to the degree of collaboration within an organisation. The findings reinforce the strategies recommended by Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson and Sujin Jang in their recent Harvard Business Review article Cross-Silo Collaboration. Virtually all top collaborators have networks spanning both functions and spaces. Many organisations task their leadership with breaking down silos. Through data it is now possible to develop very targeted strategies to do so, and then track the actual impact.

‘Top collaborators have networks spanning both functions and spaces…’

From a workplace strategy perspective, the greatest value comes in understanding of the behaviour and space utilisation within different spaces. From this comes the understanding of connections. Who really works with whom and what strategy should be pursued in terms of putting people and groups together? Many organisational cultures still drive space assignment by groups and functions. Leaders still want to have ‘their’ people in their immediate vicinity, irrespective of the fact that certain people may work primarily with people in other departments or functions.

Collabogence’s work with the Scotiabank Workplace Transformation during the course of 2018-19 revealed the impact of proximity with others on the strength of relationships. If people work at a given location, what can be done to maximize the value of having others they work with in their direct proximity? The value a group derives from sharing space with others can be measured, thus enabling the optimization of groups in spaces.

Directly associated with workplace strategy is what we call ‘secondary proximity’ or campus layout or ‘stacking’. Which floors or spaces would benefit of being in the direct vicinity of other floors or spaces? We all know that people are not likely to go downstairs, go to another building and then up to meet with someone else.

Beyond workplace strategy, these data tools bring value across the organisation. HR can identify which leaders foster more collaborative teams and establish whether or not their diversity and inclusion as well as coaching and mentoring programmes are truly effective. IT Ops can see the impact of the implementation of new tools and see the impact of their newly equipped web-conferencing room and huddle spaces.

Greta Thunberg has now coined the phrase ‘flight-shaming’. It will not be long before organisations will be made accountable for their environmental footprint. Our challenge is therefore to reduce commuting (remote work), use less office space (activity-based spaces) and travel less (telepresence), all while being more collaborative and productive. Insights to do this can be derived and progress against the baseline measured.

In the tsunami of data flooding workplace analytics, this year will welcome a new evidence-based decision making which will yield a greater confidence in outcome.

Peter Smit is the founder of Collabogence, a Canadian firm dedicated to helping organisations measure and understand how well they collaborate, and develop and implement strategies to get better
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