Beyond The Red Dots: Creating Space That Works

In analyzing workplace performance data, facility executives may not want to focus primarily on how many seats are occupied — but rather on why some are not.

By Eleanor Forster

Place is taking center stage in the workplace revolution. As organizations look for new and innovative ways to help their employees become more creative, more productive, and higher performing, they are increasingly considering how the space in which they work affects utilization. Productivity levels, or lack of, have remained relatively stagnant in the U.S. since the financial crisis a decade ago. This, in turn, has led to businesses increasingly looking towards more innovative ways of solving this “productivity puzzle”. For this reason, perhaps, people have been predicting the death of the office for years. Yet it’s clear now, that the office isn’t going away. And as the focus on space heightens, facility management and business leaders should consider adopting approaches to office design that measure how the space supports the people working within it.

office design
Image: Leesman

The historical tendency to focus solely on the problem as opposed to looking at the areas around the issue can lead managers to become blind sighted and, consequently, to measure the wrong things. A rather startling example of this can be found in the problem solving of Abraham Wald. In 1943, “the most extraordinary group of statisticians ever organized”, including mathematician Wald, were handed a new mission by the U.S. Government: to get more warplanes home. Having conducted extensive studies of the damage done to returning aircraft, the researchers recommended armor be added to the areas which were marked with red dots — the areas which showed to have the most damage. But Wald noted a fundamental flaw. This red dot analysis only acknowledged the returning aircraft — the bombers that had been shot down were not present for data collection. The armor, said Wald, doesn’t go where the bullet holes are — it goes where the bullet holes aren’t. The fallen planes. The white spaces. These are the areas people need to be looking at in an attempt to solve problems.

Wald’s story is a prime example of survivorship bias; of concentrating on the things that have made it past the problem and overlooking those which have crashed head first into it. This kind of bias can result in a multitude of misleading or incorrect conclusions. As with the U.S. aircrafts, if organizations look at the wrong things, this information also has the potential to fuel myopic data-driven mistakes. And this can cost businesses both time and money. At present, big data is influencing many of the ways in which we work, and the patterns and trends which are currently being assessed will no doubt help us shape the future of work. Yet this kind of data has the potential to lead businesses in the wrong direction.

Subscribing to the notion that the analysis of data sets needs to be done in a rounded way through a wide angle lens, we set up the Leesman Index benchmarking tool. It’s a way to measure how workplace design affects employee satisfaction and perceived productivity. With workplace, it’s not about measuring how many people you can fit into a space; it’s about measuring how that space supports the people working within it. Reducing cost per square foot is the proxy that the corporate real estate world has allowed itself to be measured by. If the measure or proxy were output per square foot, then I believe that the pressure would be to create spaces that have the potential to increase productivity. And that’s where the conversations would become more interesting.

Rather than looking at space in somewhat reductive economic terms, we can look at how space can become an active agent in the overall experience of employees and, by extension, the success of a business. Workplace design and productivity are inextricably linked. Office layout can positively influence your culture, unleash your workforce’s productivity, and reflect your brand values. It has the potential to support learning, improve performance, and even employee well-being. With this in mind, the physical workplace becomes an asset as opposed to a liability.

Of the 1,900 buildings we’ve surveyed, 6% have achieved a Leesman+ accreditation. Looking at this group of the highest performing workplaces in our database, clear patterns begin to emerge. Quite simply, these spaces offer the physical, virtual, and social infrastructures their employees need.

I think it’s fair to say that we are no longer still stuck in the old paradigm of one desk per person or the idea that everyone is working in a traditional office. With huge advances in technology have come the move towards flexible working, agile working and mobile working. The 90s saw the boom of the open plan office. The turn of the century has seen many changes in the workplace, causing some to suggest that we are in the midst of a workplace revolution. But, as with anything, if you want to move forward and progress, you have to think of new ways of looking at the same problem. Success in our changing world means transforming the way we work, and the environment we work in has the capacity to help us do that. We have to break down the literal and metaphorical silos in which we are working if we want to get the best out of employees. Breaking out of traditional models of work could help close the productivity gap.

A tripartite model, whereby facilities management, human resources, and corporate real estate adjust to the new ways we are working could lead to better utilization of real estate. The ultimate goal is to create workspaces which support employees in the role which they are undertaking, thus improving employee motivation, engagement, and productivity. An environment that fosters creativity, communication, learning, and well-being can be achieved if we stop looking at the bullet holes in our current workplace and instead start looking at those all-important white spaces.

Forster is managing director, North America for Leesman, a London-based firm focused on how workplaces support employee and organizational performance. Coming onboard in 2016 to launch Leesman in the U.S., she is responsible for the strategic development of the Leesman brand in North America, establishing the company’s first office in New York City. Forster has a long-standing interest in people and space, how they influence and interact with each other, and how we can better understand our human needs in the built environment.