The title may sound counterintuitive and we have only one simple answer: “it can’t!”. However, we believe that there are ways that employee-facing technology can help enhance human connections. We have seen technology aid interactions in the commercial side of business in the form of apps, social media, and augmented and virtual reality to drive stories about what a company is doing to improve employee experience. Now, in the human resources realm, we are seeing more and more tools available. Many of these platforms are focused on connectivity and collaboration which bring the human element back to the workplace.
"The office of the future is not a place where people come just to do work – it is a place to make personal connections with colleagues, consultants and the community"
As architects and interior designers, we consider how design can deliver authentic, personal experiences that make work and life memorable. I am sure you are saying, what does this mean? And why does it matter? Research shows that 78 percent of millennials would buy an experience over a product. In a world where remote workers are on the rise and where people choose to pay to work in co-working environments, we need to make critical decisions on how we design space for employees who are really the consumers of our workplace environments. The office of the future is not a place where people come just to do work – it is a place to make personal connections with colleagues, consultants and the community.
In 2016, Gensler moved to a new workspace in Midtown. The new space boasts an interconnected staircase and bridges that connect six floors of the workplace to meeting rooms and breakout spaces. The vertically out of our office led to a shift in team dynamics and enabled them to cross pollinate with those sitting on other floors. The move, coupled with the size of our office (680 people and growing fast!), was the catalyst for our interest in using software to help facilitate introductions. Never Eat Alone (NEA) is an innovative, mobile platform geared towards connecting colleagues who do not know each other. The founder of NEA conceptualized the app while working as a summer intern at UBS and having limited opportunities to meet others in the firm. We piloted the app for six months to increase internal networking and connect like-minded coworkers across our studios and collaborative teams.
Our leadership introduced this initiative by presenting an overview of the feedback and data collected by our employees as part of our strategy as we transitioned to a new office. We hosted a kick off with each studio to discuss the benefits of the app and assisted and encouraged people to sign up.
The process was initiated by downloading the app, entering your work email address, and creating a profile that includes your name, a photo, studio, and hash tagging your interests (#dogs, #yoga, #coffee, #champagne). Users learn more about one another, create connections and have the opportunity to schedule a time to meet for lunch.
Within the first few days we had many people sign up for the app. Then we saw a surge during our second month, right around the time we onboarded our summer interns. Registrations have since slowed, with only a few people joining every month. Initial reactions to the app ranged from excitement to apprehensiveness.
One of the most important lessons we learned is the importance of user experience. Two-thirds of employees who responded to a survey at the end of our pilot period stated that they would continue to use the app if offered the opportunity. NEA has proven to be a really useful tool for onboarding, and for our new employees who are looking to find peer networks across the office.
Our main takeaway was that without push notifications users could easily miss new social connections, among their other work demands and apps to check. New users can create a profile and start interacting right away. On the human resources and operations side, it is important to continually update the employee list. In the current version of the app, the administrator has to manually make edits to an employee list for the NEA team. With an office that is growing quickly and a robust summer intern program, it is not sustainable over the long term.
Coupling design with networking in a tech-forward world is an increasing focus. We are working with multiple app and office sensor companies like Humanyze, Honeywell, Beco, Workwell and others to inform things like conference room utilization, employee news feeds, location based services, building occupancy, and data analytics. Coupling design with networking in a tech-forward world is an increasing focus. We understand that technology is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and we are continually developing our point of view on which app makes sense for our firm and for our clients. Being a trusted advisor on the best technologies is the reason our clients choose to partner with us.
Looking ahead, Never Eat Alone has pivoted their focus to Workwell – a workplace tool that will provide mobile accessibility for the company intranet, ultimately improving access and increasing usage. Features may include accessing office maps, meeting room reservations, temperature control, food delivery, finding a colleague and more.
In our own workplace performance research, we found that the highest performing workplaces are more innovative, from their physical space to the programs they offer. We believe that the strength of connections among employees is essential to a robust company culture. While on the surface it may seem like introducing technology would isolate employees, we have found that it helps build connections and develops deeper relationships. We have seen on the business side that advances in, and disruption to, the status quo from technology is increasing at an exponential speed. How can your organization use technology to build culture?