The college campus is the model for return to office

Using tech to map the spaces we need for the future of work

Shadows walking GIF

It's likely we already know what this new office environment will look like: the university campus.

GIF: Butlr

Co-founders Honghao Deng and Jiani Zeng are the CEO and CPO of Butlr, a spin-off of the MIT Media Lab.

On Sept. 9, Microsoft announced that it has indefinitely scuttled return-to-office plans, after initially targeting early October for a resumption of in-person work. "Given the uncertainty of COVID-19, we've decided against attempting to forecast a new date for a full reopening of our U.S. work sites in favor of opening as soon as we're able to do so safely based on public health guidance," Jared Spataro, Microsoft's corporate vice president, wrote. "Our ability to come together will ebb and flow."

The same goes for Apple. The iPhone maker was recently forced to backtrack on its intention to resume in-person work at its Cupertino headquarters, pushing back the likely date until January 2022, during the height of cold and flu season. And employees seem to agree; more than 3.2 million Americans said they were not working due to fears about "getting or spreading coronavirus," according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey conducted in August 2021.

Yet while the emergence of new variants continues to frustrate efforts to resume in-person work, the Delta variant alone does not explain why major employers continue to struggle to bring workers back in person. It seems that employees have lost faith in past models of working, which naturally prompts an examination of what a future "ebb and flow" will actually look like.

Well, it's likely we already know what this new office environment will look like: the university campus.

The university campus as office

Google's Mountain View mothership, the "Googleplex," first gave rise to the idea of technology company campuses that resemble the university environment, which just happens to be very familiar to recent graduates they attract. The idea was to create an environment where employees flow seamlessly from leisure and relaxation to intense bouts of creation and productivity (and never feel like going home).

Up until now this model seemed to work, spawning many copycats across the globe. Yet what the university campus seems to get that the corporate office does not is that productivity and creativity is less about aesthetics and more about flexibility.

College campuses have spaces that foster collaboration, community and culture — labs, open areas, cafes, not to mention auditoriums and arenas for events, sports and other rituals. But these are opt-in — no one forces you to go to the basketball game. You choose to go. So too companies will want to use their space to foster collaboration and culture for employees to opt into.

Butlr platformButlr uses environmental elements to sense traffic and translate presence into patterns and numbers.Photo: Butlr

Colleges offer courses according to a set schedule, with a fixed duration, but the dynamics of the workplace are much more varied. Learning and working is a fluid state that blossoms in a network of set spaces (library, auditorium, dorms) which, even though physically distinct, all operate in a seamless and interconnected way.

Colleges and universities also go to great lengths to demonstrate safety measures for their student population, with evacuation plans, conspicuous campus safety officers and other forms of public information. Companies need to not only provide a safe environment but to make their employees feel safe. That can mean transparency on cleaning protocols or showing real-time occupancy so that employees can make their own decisions on whether to come in and where to go.

What are workers actually doing in the office?

Indeed, flexibility is key. Given the uncertainty and changing norms, expectations and fluctuations in the economy, it's important for companies and facilities managers to remain flexible as they create the best workplace experience. Just as the university supports a wide range of learning paths and learning styles, a reimagined office can support many new forms of collaboration. And it all starts with data.

Workplace and facilities execs should optimize their offices to understand how they're actually being used, to see what people are actually doing. And this data needs to be passively collected and not require behavior change. Relying just on data that requires people to take action — to book and check into rooms, to badge in AND out, to fill out a survey, to place their phone on a QR code —won't give you the right information to make data-driven decisions. Real decisions should not be based on how people think they behave in a space but on how they really do.

This new normal, however, should not act as a Trojan horse for hardcore workplace surveillance measures. Instead, we are collectively facing a great chance to explore solutions that respect human dignity, and protect privacy. Our solution at Butlr (a spin-off of the MIT Media Lab) is to create better spaces via technology. We've introduced a people sensing platform that is designed and built on the firm belief that understanding space does not require the collection of personally identifiable information or facial recognition in order to deliver valuable insights. Instead of cameras, Butlr uses other environmental elements, such as body heat and machine learning algorithms, to sense traffic and translate presence into patterns and numbers.

Butlr isn't the only solution for mapping out space to build the office of the future, but there's no doubt that a solution is necessary. Impactful optimization requires us to truly understand how employees are using and experiencing space. The important question to ask is, "What is the actual relationship between the employee and their productive environment?" Decoding such underlying logic allows for creating a truly responsive environment, opening an ongoing dialogue between the user and their space. In this way, Butlr reads and understands patterns of space usage, and its data platform can help building occupants and operators plan new space requirements based on data and observations, not just hunches.

Predictions of "office death" may be wildly overblown, or only slightly hyperbolic, but there is a high likelihood that office occupancy will be significantly scaled down for the foreseeable future. Optimizing the physical interactions that do occur creates new and unprecedented opportunities to reimagine the workplace based on data.

Collecting workplace analytics, space utilization data and occupancy level insights is like planting a tree. The best time to plant one was 10 years ago. The next best time to plant one is now.

Latest Stories