One of the most commonly talked about issues amongst workplace professionals over the past few years has been the ability of data to transform the way we think about, plan, design and create workplaces.

Much of this debate is centred on major technological issues such as Big Data and the Internet of Things and the increasingly sophisticated approach to existing technologies such as smart building systems, booking systems and workplace sensors.

Similar trends are unfolding in the overlapping field of HR. Although HR departments have traditionally collected key information on issues such as turnover and absenteeism, the increasing convergence of the digital, physical and cultural workspace means they are more and more involved in the gathering and analysis of wider forms of data related to performance, productivity and wellbeing.

Increasingly the use of analytics in a workplace context has focused on people. A recent report from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) called The Promising State of Human Capital Analytics, suggests that nearly 70 percent of organisations are using people-based data to drive their businesses in some way.

“Successful companies tend to be those that purposefully use data to anticipate and prepare rather than to react to daily problems,” the authors say. “The future focus of professionals in the human capital analytics field will increasingly be on using analytics to guide strategic decisions and affect organizational performance.”

In a world with masses of sophisticated data, we can forget that on certain measures, success can be defined in purely binary terms. At the very outset of an office fit-out we can provide yes or no answers to the most fundamental questions of whether the project was completed on time, to budget and with no defects.

The same approach can be extended to the outcomes of the workplace design itself because it is extremely likely that it will have been created with a series of clear objectives in mind. These are likely to include the fostering of collaborative work, wellbeing and productivity, accessibility, the user experience and the integration of technology.
At the root of all these issues is how well they create a productive environment for people, and so we are fortunate that we have a range of metrics in which to assess the performance of the workplace in this regard.

The challenges we face now are massively augmented iterations of a pair of problems that we have known about for a long time, namely what to measure and what to do with the measurements we produce.

It’s important to get this right. In a business context, most people will be aware of Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that ‘what gets measured gets managed’ but maybe less so with his idea that ‘there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.’

There is an added complication in that we can change something merely by observing it. In quantum theory this is described as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but a similar idea is at play in working environments.
If we tell people we are measuring them by the hours they are at their desk, they will behave in one way. If we tell them instead they are to be measured on their output, they’ll behave in another.

There are lessons here for occupiers in our data rich age. Technology and data by themselves are not enough. Organisations must acquire the skills to filter and analyse data and use it to meet the right objectives and ask the right questions about what they want from their facilities, employees and working culture.

Remember it’s all about people!