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Big Data and Workplace Productivity


One could be forgiven for thinking the office landscape had atrophied over the last decade or so. Email-reliant, open-plan sprawl, productivity stagnating; the stereotype is well-known. There are, however, many exciting companies developing solutions to office-based challenges, from productivity to wellbeing and motivation. Let’s look at a few of the standout examples of innovation for the workplace that’s drawing inspiration from beyond the office.

Communication is fundamental to any organisation, and how you organise this says a lot about your internal priorities and values. For Slack, the workplace messaging app, this has meant being able to raise $427bn earlier this year, and soaring to a $7.1bn valuation. (Incidentally, Slack’s story is a fantastic example of a fail-fast, agile start-up mentality we believe in – this is a fascinating podcast on how Stewart Butterfield’s two failed attempts at starting an online game resulted in Slack.) By aiming to eradicate internal emails and enabling co-workers to exchange instant messages and collaborate on documents via a desktop or mobile app, Slack has gone some way to restructuring both office communications but also knowledge retention. Because Slack channels become repositories around specific topics, on-boarding new starters can be done with the tap of a finger.

Slack does, however, define a key obstacle of digital or data innovation within the workplace. An individual approach to productivity or well-being likely won’t shift the makeup of an entire organisation. One person could implement a time management app into their working day, but the impact this has on the productivity of the workplace might not be measurable or attributable. A user can’t unilaterally decide to use Slack; the software relies on company- or team-wide buy in. The mentality shift of focus to consolidation and archiving, Slack has altered many of the most common and frequent practices in thousands of offices across the globe.

Flexible, focused communication has also developed alongside a less centralised workforce. Cloud technology has supported a boom in flexible working, a concept which might have seemed counter intuitive to productivity during its initial stages, even if its impact on wellbeing and job satisfaction hasn’t been as clearly argued. However, figures from an HSBC productivity report show that workers find the concept to be a key motivator to their productivity – almost 90% say flexible working motivates them to be more productive. With an increasing focus on work-life balance, three quarters of UK employees now have the option to work remotely – for professions such as programming copywriting there are global support networks emerging like Flylancer that show the importance this dynamic demographic could hold for tomorrow’s workforce.

The same tech that seeks to improve work-life balance can also disrupt it. Having instant access to work outside the office can make it harder for employees to disconnect. Startup PagerDuty, which began as a solution alerting programmers to crashes, now plans to offer the same approach to other sectors. Naturally, there will be incidents in which this is beneficial, but the fine line between this form of productivity and inciting a 7 day, 24-hour work culture is one employers need to tread carefully.

The increasing attention being given to employees’ physical and mental health has created another dynamic growth area for startups and scale-ups. Lysa Health is adapting its virtual nutritionist app to help manage employee health by providing guidance around food decisions. Employees can now access a range of professionals through platforms like Unmind, including therapists and psychiatrists. Employees can view real-time dashboards through platforms like Limeade to track key health metrics. In turn, employers will be keeping an eye on metrics such as performance, attendance, retention and loyalty.

Herein lies another challenge, intrinsic to big data innovation in and outside of the workplace. Tracking the information provided by data collection, especially when linked to wellbeing, can teeter on the side of invasive surveillance. The difference between BP giving its employees FitBits and financial traders in Amsterdam wearing a bracelet that measures emotion is small but significant. Both are wearables, but the purpose behind one of the initiatives is certainly more challenging than the other.

Better physical and mental health for employees can only be a good thing for all, and wellbeing must be central to any employer-employee relationship. There are plenty of examples of this being done correctly, particularly in smaller dynamic organisations where companies have been able to design from the ground up how wellbeing and productivity interact. The challenge is how to scale this approach, and in this respect, there are some great learnings that larger organisations can take from smaller ones. Developing the modern workplace for modern workers is a fundamental challenge for 21st century businesses, one that doesn’t have an end-solution. Innovation, flexibility, and open dialogue with employees will be central to how successfully business tackles this.

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