Interview: Eleanor Forster of Leesman on Data Driven Workplace Strategy

Currently, only just over half of the respondents believe that their workplace enables them to work productively, to enable them to do their job. For the sake of the global economy, not to mention engagement, we think that it should be closer to a hundred percent.  -Eleanor Forster

We recently sat down with Eleanor Forster, Managing Director of Leesman North America, to discuss the important role that data takes in the workplace design process.

Leesman is an independent workplace data firm that helps organizations through surveying employees about their workplace and analyzing the data to provide a clearer picture of how they are supported by their working environment. With 260,000 survey responses, The Leesman Index is the largest independent collection of workplace effectiveness data in the world and serves as an exceptional  benchmarking tool. Leesman also publishes the Leesman Review, a quarterly report covering a broad range of workplace topics from functional design to data driven decision-making.

At Momentum, we use the Leesman survey to guide our financial services client’s workplace strategy and design process. This helps ensure we deliver facilities that fully support their staff and the work they do.

Momentum:   Why is it important to integrate data analysis into your workplace strategy?

Eleanor: When designing a space for employees, we feel that it’s important to get insights into how those employees can be better supported in their work. But we also think that it’s important that the insight be impartial, so there’s no hidden agenda. Since Leesman doesn’t offer any consultancy, the clients we work with know we’re not looking for anything specific; we’re simply just facilitating an open and honest assessment. In the quest for truth, independence is key.

A lot of people think that they know what is wrong, or they know what they know – until they’re proved otherwise. We call ourselves the radiographers of workplace because our tool allows us to scan for shadows, which helps to identify the areas that need attention. You wouldn’t want to go into the surgery without an x-ray! Our data is a very powerful tool in that toolbelt for approaching how to create a more effective workplace. If you don’t have the data, that information or insight, then you could be operating blind or myopic at least.

Conversations are obviously important too, but without the data you can’t hope to gauge the science behind workplace design.

But there is a caveat; it’s crucial to use the right data. If it doesn’t look at the right things, data itself is not useful. The methodology and the parameters must be clear to ensure the data you’re collecting is reliable, representative, and robust. 

Our reports help clients further validate the design concept, and the data can set them straight where more investment is required based on what employees consider to be important in their daily lives. Many consider this strategy a tool to gain a competitive advantage.

M: Why is it important that the entire staff be surveyed, as opposed to just the management team or those involved in the planning process?

E: We believe that to create an effective environment we must understand what each and every employee is doing in that environment, what it is they do in their daily role, what is in their activity matrix, and how well their environment supports them. We really need to understand each department and job role and we do recommend that holistic approach. Because every employee has a voice and should be heard. 

Our survey is a powerful communications tool as well as a powerful change management tool. From the organizations we’ve worked with, we’ve found that engaging everybody at the beginning of a process can really help the entire team undertake a successful journey of change.

M:  What are some significant trends or common misconceptions that you’ve uncovered in the data?

E: One of the things from an overall database point of view is something we describe as the “myth busters.” And certainly what we see statistically, in our data, is that millennials are just not as demanding as everyone seems to think that they are. Our data doesn’t provide any evidence to suggest that they’re hard to please. In fact, as per our large Activity Based Working report we’ve recently released, this age bracket – the millennials – is a lot more likely to choose to work in one planned space. Perhaps they have a less complex activity matrix and their desk facilitates that. There’s many different reasons we’re looking into why that is, but we certainly don’t see millennials as a more demanding part of the workforce. 

But one statistic that we find a bit more amusing is that tea and coffee facilities are continually ranked as one of the biggest things that organizations need to get right. Employees rate that as an important part of an effective environment. So maybe it’s something to do with the tea in England and the coffee over there in the US, but it’s certainly an important part to consider!

M:  I understand that you have accumulated a very large data set that functions as a benchmark. What value does this add, and what would it mean if an organization received a low “functionality and effectiveness” (Lmi) score? 

E: Since 2010 when we launched, we’ve amassed a rich collection of data for the Leesman Index; over a quarter of a million responses, and that’s accelerating at quite a pace. That includes 69,515 employees in the financial services sphere.

A low Lmi score essentially means that the physical workspace is not effectively supporting the employees based on what they deem to be important in their day-to-day roles; it means there’s room for improvement. When going through that report you’re going to understand what led to that score, from something that may be a little more difficult to remedy through to quite straightforward red flags that that are undermining the ability of the workplace to be effective.  Any elements we uncover can help to make that environment more effective along the way and ensure it is effective in supporting the employees’ productivity. 

M:  What insights does the data reveal about the future of financial institution workplaces?

E: Fifteen years ago, people were banking on the high street. Today, people are banking on their phones. And the result is that in the financial industry, the typical employee skillset is changing and organizations are competing for the same talent as retailers of products we’re buying on our phones, and the technology companies whose games, tech services, and products we consume on our devices.

The industry is being held ransom by those who peddle petty myths and convenient semi-truths of the wants and desires of those millennials that they’re trying to attract.  The future of the financial workplace demands a refresh, but how?

I think our most important finding from the Activity Based Working report would be the mobility profile. In the recent study we created, four different types of mobility profiles emerged, ranging from those who sit at the same desk and are not mobile through to what we call out intrepid explorers, those who work from one end of the office to the other using a wide variety of spaces. These profiles can help businesses change their processes so they’re more tailored to the needs of the natural behaviors of the different departments. 

Activity complexity is driving mobility. The more roles you have to do, the less likely a desk is going to support that, and the more necessary it is going to be for you to utilize other spaces. And that’s where we see variety of different types of spaces being a critical driver in an effective workplace. 

M:  What’s one thing you wish everyone did with your data?

E: Use it!

We just want the majority of employees to believe that their commute to work each morning is worthwhile. When we talk about productivity, really what we’re asking as they step over that threshold is “does this workplace enable you to do your job?” 

Currently, only just over half of the respondents believe that their workplace enables them to work productively, to enable them to fulfill their primary function. For the sake of the global economy, not to mention engagement, we think that it should be closer to a hundred percent. 

Thanks to Leesman’s policy of openness and free dissemination of knowledge, this rich research source that can be mined for the benefit of all to change attitudes to workplace, to engage organizations in a more meaningful debate on the topic, to reveal the reasons why that for nearly half of employees, workplaces don’t work and to fuel debate. We publish the results of our data quarterly in our Leesman Review and everything is accessible on the website. We don’t hide our methodology. If you want to go online and try the survey to see what it’s like, there’s a demo link on our home page.



To learn more about Leesman and their research, check out their website and download the latest Leesman Review.

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