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Activity awareness

Behavioural observation is about to change the way we measure workplace efficiency. Graham Bird, the head of research & development at workplace consultants Baker Stuart, explains why

When it comes to workplace strategy, knowledge is king. Whether you are looking to enhance productivity, manage churn, accommodate expansion, or simply improve efficiency- understanding how well your workspace currently functions is paramount.

Of course, more and more businesses have become aware of this, and as a result, workplace analytics are influencing major decisions associated with workplace change, with evidence replacing expectation. Up until now, these methods of workplace analysis have been based almost entirely on space utilisation studies, which largely focus on desk occupancy, fixed location usage, vacant space and staff presence.

However, whilst such studies remain a critical element of workplace analytics, they tell you very little about the most important aspect of a business- its people. For example- a traditional workplace analysis will give you an accurate insight into how many people utilise a meeting room over a period of time or how many workers may (or may not) use a designated dining area- but it leaves out the most critical question of all. Why?

We can adjust our environments according to the number of users or frequency of use – but without looking any closer, we won’t ever discover the actual meaning behind such findings.

Traditionally, standard workplace studies are performed by an assessor who evaluates occupancy and utilisation throughout all areas of a building. This is usually executed at regular hourly periods over one or two weeks, before inputting findings into a web based application via a hand-held tablet. The assessor usually records whether it is occupied or unoccupied and may also report that there may be ‘some signs of life’ -such as a laptop plugged in or a coat over a chair.

However, this assessment provides no insight into where each staff member might be- or what they might be doing. It doesn’t answer the critical question- why are they not at their desk? Are they in a meeting, collaborating or in an informal conversation? Perhaps there is a better environment than this desk elsewhere in the building for the task they are currently performing – and if so, why are their possessions on a desk that is not sufficient for their needs?

Activity sampling, however offers an insight into ‘why’ and is achieved through the analysis and assessment of working behaviour. For example, if a worker is participating in a group collaboration, relaxing, working solo, in an informal discussion or a formal meeting- these exact behavioural patterns are then recorded within the precise location at the time that the activity occurs. Once a full detailed study is conducted, all specific activities that have occurred throughout the analysis can be easily reviewed on a map of the building.

Such results can then be used to assess a workplace in its entirety. For example, consider a relatively busy corridor- an environment where activity is ordinarily overlooked. An assessor that observes this space on a single occasion, may find that it is being utilised by someone engaging in a mobile phone call, When the study is complete, the readable map report may quickly demonstrate that this type of behaviour, (in this particular place), is a common occurrence and that throughout the process of observation this happened as many as eight times a day and 27 times in a week. Once this observation has been made, the user can consider questions such as – why is this happening? Are there sufficient environments for private calls? Are privacy areas located in the right place? – and if so, how do we address this to improve productivity in this particular working environment?

Take also the informal gathering of three to four members of staff in the main reception. When the analysis results are reviewed, it may be found that such interactions occur regularly. Why? Well, it may be that there are no suitable meeting environments anywhere near this space. It may also be that the meeting environment designed for such interactions is actually underused, because it is poorly located. It may be that there are two particular departments that rarely communicate- (but should!)- and only get the opportunity to do so when travelling from one environment to another, and meet in passing. So this may lead to the question- is it a good idea to provide an informal space within (or close to) this area to accommodate the needs staff are already demonstrating?

Assessing behaviour will also allow you to consider other questions, such as, why do 78 per cent workers eat at their desk when break-out-zones exists for this purpose? Is it because the area is poorly designed? Is it situated appropriately? Is there a cultural issue in the workplace, that needs addressing?

You may also ask- why does office movement flow in a certain pattern? Could knowledge of this motion be capitalised on through desk arrangement, staff member placement or features such as noticeboards, and company resources? You may even wish focus space management or office design around this established flow of motion. Activity sampling can even allow you to gather data on how well specific communal facilities are utilised, allowing you to assess, for example, why a certain printer may be used constantly- yet the other four are rarely visited.

Access to all of this kind of information would enable you to develop a working environment that best supports staff preferences and needs, allowing you to understand activity, and tap into its true meaning. It will also shed light on what the workplace lacks, where it is failing, and what areas may be over subscribed.

Observing behaviour enables you to understand how staff prefer to work together, interact and communicate- allowing you to enhance and improve these actions by developing the right environments. Take the interactions that occur around shared facilities such as printers or coffee points. Such interactions are often valuable incidental communications – that largely occur in open space and therefore go unnoticed. Activity sampling allows you to consider where, how and why they occur and what the purpose of the interaction is. The findings of these valuable interactions can be the evidence you need to develop and support specific forms of communication- eventually steering the way office design is progressed.

In today’s world, the exploitation of privacy is a common concern and so great care must always be taken to support staff trust. If a behavioural analysis project is not handled correctly with honesty and openness, staff could feel that they are being spied upon. Instead, activity sampling should be conducted with clear communication and consultation. All staff should be fully confident that the act of analysing their behaviour is being conducted with the sole intention of improving productivity and creating an improved workplace environment.

Equally, for employers, the technology we have available to analyse our workplaces must not be abused and used as a method of surveying staff or assessing presentism in individuals. Staff should always be given a guarantee of their anonymity throughout all observations.

Trust will be gained through positive communication and the assurance of confidentiality. Study findings can help to shape the future of our workspaces and can be used to create environments that support agility, promote flexibility, enhance morale, improve communications and interactions- creating bespoke working environments that best support modern working behaviour.

About Sarah OBeirne


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