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An office able to collect data on the activities of its occupants might sound like something from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it’s far less scary – and far more useful – than you’d think, says Regus’s James Mitchell, in conversation with Hannah Hudson
“One of the great benefits of flexible workspace is that it is flexible… but how do you know how much space you really need?” asks James Mitchell, Head of Business Solutions at Regus. “And do you know how your staff are really using the facilities? And what they need? Wouldn’t it be great if you could find out – and make the workplace better as a result?”
Mitchell has been with Regus for nearly a decade, and now manages solution design for the company’s IT group. Part of this remit involves exploring how data collected from within Regus business centres can be used to improve the workspace experience for companies and their employees.
“Collecting data is a critical part of the design process, and helps us really understand the needs of our customers,” he says. “It’s not about counting cups of coffee – it’s about looking for broader trends and patterns, and using the information to empower businesses and employees.”
One simple example is monitoring data traffic volumes. “By measuring the usage volume of our internet connections, we can predict when we need to lay on additional capacity,” Mitchell explains. “By doing this, we can ensure that everyone gets the best performance when they need it to really work effectively.”
Data can be useful in other ways – to make the office environment more comfortable, for example. “A lot of the feedback we get from centre visitors is to do with problems with the temperature in the rooms,” says Mitchell. “That’s why we’re developing a programme to look at using sensor technology in the environment to help monitor and report on this.”
Mitchell explains how a joined-up system might work in the future: “With temperature sensors in each room reporting back to a central system, we could use this data to identify issues and fix them before anyone even notices.”
James Mitchell, Head of Business Solutions at Regus
Sensor technology could also be used in other ways. “Much like the retail industry, we could use presence detection and heat tracking to build footfall maps that would assist us in optimising the design of the office layout,” says Mitchell.
Isn’t there something invasive about having sensors everywhere? “The key thing to remember is that the data collected is always anonymised, it’s never personal,” he says. “We just want to understand the office environment better and we only gather what’s useful for this purpose. Our goal is to make the centre a better environment for people to use.”
“Think of your car,” he adds. “Thanks to GPS, your car manufacturer knows how you drive, where you drive, your speed and other information. They don’t know it’s you and they’re not interested in that. They just want to know what they can do to make the car work better – to make it a safer and more comfortable ride.”
Mitchell is keen to stress the importance of respecting users’ privacy, especially since GDPR came into force in May 2018. “We’ve just run a big programme to ensure Regus is complying with the new EU data laws,” he says. “And we’re looking at how best to apply it to all our global operations – not just the countries affected by the legislation. Privacy is important to all of us and we want to do more than just complying with local legislation.”
Ultimately, Mitchell says, the outcome of all this data collection is a superior office environment in which to work. “We want to understand how people are using our centres, so we can give them more of what they want and less of what they don’t need,” he says. “When we design new centres, we could adjust our layouts to reflect what people really want – perhaps reducing the number of desks and upsizing the lounge areas.
“We could enhance the existing business centres, too. In addition to the temperature, we could monitor noise levels and the brightness of lights – and apply these learnings. Whether we then put in acoustic baffles, play white noise or increase the light in certain areas, we can be more responsive to customer needs.”
In the future, data may even be used to create a completely personalised workspace for each and every person. “Imagine arriving at work to a space that’s exactly as you’d want it,” says Mitchell. “The room is at the right temperature, the lighting is just right, the network is set up for you and your collaboration tools are good to go. We could even have your favourite cup of coffee ready for you.”
“That’s the real-world power of data,” he adds. “When handled correctly and responsibly, it can help us find ways to live better.”
Hannah Hudson is the editor of Regus magazine