Conversations outside the box #6: (Design) Efficiency and workplace analytics

Insights | 10 May, 2021

Ben Waber explores how to optimise collaboration, communication and innovation tracking and analysing the dynamics within the workplace.

As part of Think Work Out of the Box, our book on workplace transformation, our book on workplace transformation, Studio Banana sat down with leaders across various industries to hear their thoughts on what tools and environments can best serve the contemporary workforce.

Ben Waber is the CEO and co-founder of Humanyze, a people analytics company that measures communication patterns to help companies answer specific business questions around organisational design, workforce planning, and regulatory compliance. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, has previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School, and received his Ph.D. from MIT for his work with Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics group.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, where he dwells on how important it is to understand employees better to create impactful changes in the culture of organisations.

Understanding workplace behaviour

Studio Banana— You have developed the Sociometric Badge, a device you use at Humanyze to analyze people’s behaviours within a specific company. We imagine that through your analytics and during the process of gathering and analysing the data, you obtain some insightful knowledge about what and how specific changes should be implemented in a company.

Ben Waber— In fact, people quite often approach me with a hypothesis in mind, or at least with an observation, an intuition of what aspects should be changed in their company. Until a couple of years ago, it was very difficult or even impossible to prove their hypothesis. But today we are in the position to test, gather data, and to actually approve (or not) a certain hypothesis.

And once you obtain such an approval, it is important to foresee a change implementation as an evolving process. If, for example, you haven’t previously reorganised the seating of your employees, it would not be wise to start shuffling the seating on a daily basis. A “change culture”, so to speak, should be fostered. And you have to identify the pace, or speed of change implementation of your specific industry and then slowly but surely adapt to it.

SB— Through your method of data gathering, you certainly allow for informed decision-making. However, in response to your analysis and in order to obtain optimal business performance, for instance, you have to modify or influence people’s behavioural patterns. And beyond the telling data, this change implementation demands considerable soft skills.

BW— Fundamentally, with our Sociometric Badge we provide a tool that diagnoses and tracks behaviour. And we obviously accompany the evaluation process of the obtained results. Yet, which specific decision is to be made based on these results, is up to the leaders themselves as they have a deep understanding of their business’ complex context.

In order to ensure an efficient analysis and change implementation, we recommend focusing on one or a few aspects at a time (instead of trying to address too many issues at once). We analyse and modify one aspect, to then check the quality before and the impact of the actions taken. If one modification is not impactful (enough), we try another option. In this way, we undertake several small changes in the behavioural pattern.

SB— In your presentations, you illustrate different patterns of interaction among employees. And you mention that working on different floors is a decisive factor in the nature and frequency of collegial interaction. Generally speaking, what is the impact of an office layout in the results you obtain?

BW— It is huge. Just to be clear, when we first started our research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was not taking into consideration, or even aware of, the impact of the workplace. It had simply not crossed my mind. In fact, we saw many things, which we did not expect at first, but which made complete sense in retrospect. For example, that 40 percent of my oral communication would be directed to the people working right next to me, whereas toward colleagues sitting in the same row, my oral communication would decrease to 20-30 percent, and that this would drop to 10 percent with people whose desks were a few rows away. Considering these facts, you should carefully evaluate which individuals and teams sit beside one another and you should also foresee congregational areas between or within certain teams. These types of considerations are obviously closely related to office layouts and workplace design.

SB— So, if we understand your point correctly, you recommend that the office layouts or workplace be specifically organised for each company?

BW— Ideally, the workplace should be organised for each company, but at the same time, it has to stay malleable in order to be able to adapt to the speed and type of changes required by the actual business. You have to think of an office layout as a momentaneous situation, an iterative process.

In most situations, the building of your headquarters is planned to last around thirty years. However, the configuration of your company will be modified over this time span and therefore you have to review and make decisions about the specific layouts, accordingly. This reviewing process is not obvious and companies often renounce it due to the financial implications, which, in my opinion, is an erroneous decision. For the reasons mentioned before, an unsuitable layout will lower the company’s performance. So, in short and to answer your questions, you have to build a framework that fits your business and modify the necessary elements as work life unfolds.

The full conversation, where we discuss the importance of smart data gathering in the definition of workplace layouts, can be found in the Workplace Technology chapter of Think Work Out of the Box.

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To learn more about the future of work and how workplace analytics can definitely change the way we work, follow Studio Banana on LinkedIn.

* Photography: Rubén P. Bescos for STUDIO BANANA.

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