Capturing Utilization and Activity Data in the Workplace
By Joan Meyers
Post two of three (See post one here)
“What’s our utilization rate?” If you work in corporate real estate, you’ve likely asked or been asked this question. While utilization is an important metric to inform how frequently a space is used, it’s important to consider another key piece of data for strategic planning: activity data. Part one of this three-part blog series discussed how capturing activity data in conjunction with utilization data can inform a strategy that considers both the cost of the space and the value it provides occupants. The insights gained from activity data can inform a workplace strategy that optimizes existing space, without necessarily increasing the amount of space.
Capturing utilization and activity data comes with its own set of challenges. In recent years there has been a flood of new technology solutions and techniques for capturing data about how and when space is used: sensors on walls, desks, or in chairs; surveyors with clipboard or iPads; self-reporting; reservation systems and badge data; and more. Complicating matters further, these solutions can be combined in a multitude of ways to provide additional layers of data. This post aims to categorize the many solutions available into three overarching methods and highlight the challenges and benefits of each.Start by defining the goals.
Before you start researching sensors and other data collection methods, take the time to define the goals for the study. This will help identify the type(s) of data to collect: utilization data, activity data, and/or participant feedback. Completing a utilization study only to realize that activity data is also needed can be expensive and time-consuming to correct. Identifying the types of data needed up-front will yield higher quality results.
Next, identify the best method(s) for collecting the data. Of the many sensing and tracking solutions available, all can be categorized into three buckets: Observation, Passive, and Interactive methods. Understanding the three different methods helps to narrow the field when looking for a solution to meet a study’s objectives.
True to its name, observation methods rely on surveyors to record their observations of a space—what’s happening and when. Studies can be conducted with a pen and paper or with interactive apps, such as Gensler’s iPad app, Observe™. Observation studies are fast, adaptable, and flexible. They are unique amongst the three methods because they allow for both objective and subjective data to be captured. We’ve found that a solid surveyor training program is key to collecting unbiased and consistent interpretation across a team of surveyors.
One of the challenges of the observation method is that it can be perceived as invasive by employees. Some companies choose to inform employees in advance and some prefer not to—thinking that the advance notice will skew the results. We’ve found informing employees reduces their concerns, and even provides an opportunity to reiterate the organization’s commitment to improving their workspace. If behavior is influenced, it tends to revert to normal patterns a few days into the study. Allowing for a long enough study period, such as two full weeks, will average out any skewed results. The presence of a surveyor also allows concerns to be addressed directly and immediately, through scripted responses to frequently asked questions.
With Gensler’s app, Observe™, a surveyor walks the space on a set schedule. Using an iPad to view an interactive map of the space, the surveyor answers pre-assigned questions about the utilization and activity in each space. Utilization-related questions typically ask if and when the space is occupied. Activity-related questions address the actions of occupants in a space, such as eating, talking on the phone, or reading — activities which are difficult to capture purely with a hardware approach. The observation method is a very reliable way to capture both activity and utilization data.
Interactive methods rely on employees knowingly participating in the data collection process through activities such as consenting to take a survey, logging into tracking software, or using a reservation system correctly. We’ve found that the transparency of an interactive approach gives participants a greater sense of comfort and control than with an observation or passive collection method. Interactive methods are also the most reliable way to capture employee feedback and perceptions about a space.
While interactive methods are minimally invasive, they rely on the participants playing by the rules and leave room for personal interpretation. We’ve found that how participants report use of space versus how space is actually used can be very different. There is also reliance on occupants to use systems correctly; this means no squatting in conference rooms and remembering to cancel unused reservations, which may skew data. Combining an interactive solution with an observation spot-check can help ensure that quality data about space utilization is being collected. Note that the rollout time for an interactive study can vary widely depending on the type of solution used and the software and/or hardware necessary to install.
Gensler’s Workplace Performance Index® is an example of the interactive method. This employee survey measures workplace effectiveness. Typically used as a pre- and post-occupancy survey tool, the WPI survey tool gathers employee input on workplace performance factors before a design project—in order to inform design decisions—and after the project—to measure the success of the design solution.
The promise of a passive approach is that it’s the least disruptive method. It’s a byproduct of something occupants are already doing: sitting in a chair, walking by a sensor, or just using a phone. In fact, the data may already exist somewhere, and it just needs to be uncovered and repurposed. Passive methods are great for long term studies, where capturing utilization data is the primary objective.
Although Passive methods are not disruptive, they can cause backlash if they result in the perception that employees are being watched or tracked continuously. Here again, it’s important to be transparent with employees or participants about the goals and methods of the study. For example, secretly installing seat sensors on employees’ chairs tends to spread suspicions on why people are being tracked.
One challenge of the passive method is that utilization data can be skewed when occupants do not exhibit typical behavior, such as working with the lights off (light sensors) or if chairs get switched around between desks (seat sensors). Note that while passive methods can track utilization patterns, they won’t uncover activity data; i.e. the actions taking place in the space. Again, adding in an observation spot check, either with pen and paper or an application, is a good way to verify that the passive solution is capturing quality data.Leveraging the data
Each data collection method—Observation, Interactive, and Passive—has its own benefits and challenges. Combining methods can be an effective way to gather a wide variety of data and to compare it for consistency. After goals have been set, the methods have been chosen, and the data has been collected, it’s time to leverage the data to gain insights. Part three of this series will address the different ways to layer and depict data, analyze the results, and apply it to strategic decision-making.