Recently I read an article about one of Berlin’s latest smart offices, known as The Cube. This modern office, being built by Austrian real estate company CA Immo, will use sensors connected to a cloud platform to measure factors such as motion, temperature, lighting, humidity, and CO2. The technology is called ‘the brain’, and the purpose of its data tracking is to optimise how the building runs. This includes things like switching off lights in unused spaces, allowing users to find the best workspace for them on a given day based on their schedule, and ensuring printers never run out of paper.
The obvious benefit here is improved productivity, at least at face value, but is this really the best way to engage employees and improve your employer brand? There are two obvious potential downfalls of this technology. One is the fact that the building runs on a ‘hotdesking’ model, so employees never have a designated space to sit. The other is data privacy, as employees need to use a smartphone app to get the building’s benefits, and employers can therefore track employees’ whereabouts. So, what’s better for your employer brand: investing in a smart office or bolstering your flexible working strategy?
Putting the employee first
In short, you need to do both – or at least a little of both. Wherever employees work, they have to be in a place where they actually want to be or like to be, so for people in an office this means giving flexibility to choose where they work, whether that’s their home office or a ‘hot desk’ in the office.
But if you want more flexibility for people to work from home, why would you also invest in a smart office? The answer is that people should be able to work from home but should also be able to have a great experience when they do need to be in the office. If you have the choice between working from home and in the office, it’s usually that you go to the office for a reason, like meeting other people. So, having an environment that allows people to work comfortably and work together (but also have their own space) can help make people more productive, enjoy their time at work more, and have them feeling more positive about their employer and how the company cares for its people. As an added bonus, these smart offices with optimised air quality have also been found to reduce employee sick leave rates.
In big cities, such as London, where office real estate is limited and expensive, having a flexible, smart office also makes a lot of sense, as it allows you to have hot desking spaces for when meetings are required or for those people who need to be in the office every day, without paying for a space that accommodates every employee unnecessarily.
In companies or industries where people don’t have a choice to work from home, such as manufacturing or retail, the work space itself should be optimised as much as possible. This isn’t just for health and safety regulations, but also for other employee comforts, like ensuring breakout spaces are comfortable, that cashiers have good quality seats, and so on. Working environments need to be enjoyable if you want to retain your employees and boost your company brand.
The data problem
While the brand benefits of a solid flexible working strategy and smart office are clear, employers need to take the data privacy aspect seriously. With the GDPR in place, companies know there are strict rules about which employee data they can hold and how they retain it, and it’s paramount that companies remain transparent about it with employees.
The data that smart offices such as The Cube collect can be incredibly useful for companies in optimising the productivity and efficiency of the workplace, but of course there could be negative implications for employees’ brand perceptions if employers are tracking employees’ every move.
Companies should keep employees informed of exactly what data is taken and how it’s used. For example, while the smart office may record when an employee arrives and leaves, it isn’t necessarily a negative thing if that data is only used for security purposes and only accessed by the security team – rather than your boss, who could compare it to your time management software. Reassure your employees by staying transparent and communicating clearly.
Put the ‘human’ in human resources
The key thing with all of this is showing ‘the human side’ of human resources and showing respect to employees. If you work in an unwelcoming, noisy, dirty or unsecure environment where you can’t have a proper space to work, or can’t find proper meeting rooms or any coffee, then you aren’t going to enjoy working for your company and will try to leave.
Flexible working and smart offices bring ROI for companies through better employee retention and an improved employer brand. And it makes sense – if a candidate has a choice between two identical jobs (in terms of role and responsibilities), but one has an attractive workplace and the other looks old-fashioned and dull, then they’re going to go for the smart office.