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The Limits of Tracking Tech in the Workplace


Photo via Digital Trends

While the quaint phrases “punch in” and “punch out” live on in the lexicon, the now-vintage image of employees sliding cards into a timeclock has given way to fingerprint scanners, facial and voice recognition systems, key cards loaded with monitoring tech, and GPS and biometric tracking software installed in company vehicles and mobile devices. Surveillance technology is becoming so commonplace that PC Magazine now puts out a guide for “The Best Employee Monitoring Software” and the site GetApp posts the cavalierly-phrased list: “5 Employee Tracking Apps for iPhone to Spy on Your Staff.” It maybe goes without saying that employers should be cautious and diplomatic when introducing surveillance software, biometric data gathering devices, and other kinds of tracking technology.

As employee monitoring becomes increasingly sophisticated by the year, human resources and legal departments have to move quickly to address legitimate privacy concerns. The Atlantic reported last year on the “murky… legal landscape around tracking employees,” which might reasonably make people shy about surveillance technology. Amazon’s patent for employee tracking devices, for example, made many negative headlines recently. Several lawsuits have already been filed in Chicago under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which “limits how companies can collect and use biometric data of individuals,” reports Bloomberg.

Part of the problem is that “biometric timekeeping vendors are selling systems to employers without discussing the legal obligations that go with the technology.” The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) issued a guide for employers in January for the implementation of employee monitoring programs. These should all include “clear policies, effecting training, implementation strategies” and “tactics for handling sensitive employee information.” Avanti software adds guidelines like, “Don’t surprise your employees with a biometric clock.” Transparency is key. Employers, they note, should give workers the opportunity to voice concerns and should clearly show how personal data will be kept secure.

As with every rapidly progressing technology, legal limits will likely always trail behind the limits of the tech. One company, Humanyze, “an MIT spinoff,” reports Digital Trends, “aims to overlay biometric analysis and analytics over the traditional employee badge technology.” Their ID badges are equipped with RFID, near field communications (NFC) sensors, Bluetooth, “an infrared detector capable of tracking face-to-face interactions, an accelerometer, and two microphones,” writes Digital Trends. The microphones “creep frighteningly close to Big Brother territory,” but the company assures potential users that “they don’t have the ability to record conversations. Instead the mics measure tone, volume, and speed, along with potentially monitoring stress.”

The last function listed for Humanyze’s tracking tech points to one possible employee benefit of tracking programs—the potential for reducing employee burnout and health-related issues. Workers with elevated heartrates or blood pressure, for example, might be encouraged to take a break, take a walk, meditate, or take other de-stressing measures. Other benefits “range from accounting for employees in emergency situations to protecting employees and employers from unfounded complaints” by creating an evidentiary trail. Whether or not benefits outweigh the risks—including the risk of hacked devices—employee tracking tech has inevitably expanded far beyond monitoring internet use and reading employee emails, and it will inevitably continue to do so.

The tactful implementation of a monitoring program involves multiple considerations, not the least of which, writes Susan Heathfield at The Balance, “is the potential damage to a work culture that fosters trust and employee commitment and motivation.” As Manny Avramidis, senior VP of the American Management Association, puts it, “99% of the population will be fine without electronic surveillance; fewer than one percent of employees are causing the damage that allows all of the bad stuff for employers to kick in.” Heathfield recommends that employers have employees sign off on company security policies, “then, take a deep breath and—trust them.” Her advice might sound just a little too altruistic to many security experts.

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WeWork and the Evolution of Co-Working Spaces: From Hackers and Activists, to Scrappy Start-Ups, to “Enterprise Clients”


Photos by Lauren Kallen, via OfficeLovin’

Contrary to appearances, the trend in co-working spaces popping up in major cities all over the world did not begin with tech start-ups, but rather with a “relatively small, scrappy set of independent contractors and do-gooders,” notes Laura Bliss at The Atlantic. “Its history might begin with the European hacker spaces of the 1990s, where independent programmers swapped coding skills in dark basements with an air of techno-anarchism.” The original “co-workers,” in other words, probably included no small number of squatters.


“Americans caught on a few years later. The first true co-working space, so called, emerged in 2005, renting square footage from a feminist collective in San Francisco’s Mission District.” Enter companies like WeWork to monetize the concept and create what WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann calls a “capitalist kibbutz.” Opening their first location in New York in 2010, the Brooklyn-based start-up has, in the last eight years, come to dominate the co-working world with a business model based on “rent arbitrage,” as a research report from CBInsights puts it, “charging its members more than it has to pay its landlords.”


How much more? CBInsight relates an anecdote from a 2014 event at which Vornado Realty Trust’s chairman Steven Roth sarcastically remarked, “Adam [Neumann] always says, ‘No schmucks and no assholes, but the definition of a schmuck is someone who rents a property at .5x and then turns around and rents it at 1.5x.’” In reply, Neumann “reportedly held up two fingers, indicating he actually charges members double.” Jokes aside, the strategy has paid off big-time for the company, which was valued last year at $20 billion after raising $760 million in its latest funding round.


The question investors and market watchers have asked for several years is whether WeWork has been overvalued. Functioning more like a tech-startup than a real estate company, WeWork first crafted its appeal to gig economy workers, an “eclectic mix,” writes Bliss, “of freelance writers, labor organizers, financial consultants, and app developers hustling for investors.” The problem with this approach is that the company’s selling point—creating community for workers choosing, or forced into, contingent labor—is also its greatest weakness, since many of its members lack security and, writes CBInsight, “can pick up and leave if they want to, leaving WeWork on the hook.”


To hedge risk, the company has begun purchasing properties and targeting more “enterprise clients,” with 30% of its members now fitting that description. In a planned WeWork space coming this fall to Durham, North Carolina, for example, 55,000 of 130,000 square feet of office space will be leased by Duke University. Corporations like Salesforce, HSBC, and Facebook are also major clients. The demographic shift as a whole in co-working has been away from individual contractors and freelancers and toward large firms and small businesses, meaning that the anarchic, freewheeling feel of co-working spaces is beginning to give way to the more organized, workaday feel of the traditional office.


It makes sense in a certain respect to compare WeWork to a tech company. They achieve “maximum efficiency” in part through the use of machine learning. “To decide how many meeting rooms to construct” in each location, “researchers at WeWork created a neural net that collects information on its existing building’s layouts and meeting room usage.” This enables them to make predictions about usage for layouts yet to be built. And each of their spaces is unique. As you can see you can in the photos here from its quirky, homey Long Beach offices, WeWork spaces include such welcoming accommodations as a secluded “Mothers Room” (above) and a “Phone Booth” (below) that can be sealed off from the hubbub with a glass door.


What is it like to work in WeWork spaces? Bliss shares many positive impressions from members, but also notes the degree of overt corporate capitalism evident in the “capitalist kibbutz”:

Members are encouraged to mingle, network, and leverage one another’s talents, frequently under the auspices of a corporate sponsor: Witness taco pop-ups promoting internet phone service; talk-therapy circles sponsored by a women’s activewear brand; cocktails served up by the payroll-software giant ADP. Billed as community-building programming, the events can feel more like exercises in targeted advertising, with members as the marks. 

The net effect, she writes, “can feel like an all-inclusive cruise.” And when it comes to getting work done, “cruises, of course, aren’t for everyone.” Additionally, WeWork has sold its enterprise clients on productivity schemes that involve monitoring employees with “data-harvesting sensors and facial-recognition software.” WeWork promises this data will not be used to track individual employees. Such promises should be taken with the appropriate amount of skepticism given many other companies’ carelessness or misuse of such tracking data.


In any case, it remains to be seen whether an aggressively corporate version of the improvised spaces once created by anti-corporate activists and hackers will have long-term success. But for now, WeWork is thriving, expanding into smaller cities in the U.S. like Durham, and across Asia with WeWork Japan, WeWork Pacific, and WeWork China. The company, notes Forbes, is “now worth about the same as hotel operator Hilton Worldwide and more than commercial real estate giant Boston Properties.”


Do their offices encourage more partying and promotion than productivity? Or more marketing than creativity and innovation? Or more surveillance than office freedom? Have they “humanized” work, as they promise, or created trendy, expensive rental digs for more of the same? It’s hard to say. Bliss concludes with some incisive observations about WeWork and the direction of the co-working model more generally: “A future where co-working is made entirely of big fish and little fish content to swim in one transactional bowl is a future that seems to leave out a lot of other fish: the vegan-meal-kit makers, the community bail fund, and hey, the journalists. We, too, are working here.”

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The Office of the Future Will Still Have a Coffee Machine

Trumpf Logistics

Trumpf Logistics Center, Ditzingen (Photo: Ina Reinecke)

When it comes to office design, it seems that few styles stick around for long. “We have been repeatedly planning working and office environments for almost 25 years,” says Berlin-based architect Regine Leibinger, “and hardly any ‘trend’ was really lasting during all these years.” In an interview with the site World-Architects, Leibinger and Martina Bauer of Barkow Leibinger discussed the “Office of the Future,” with the general proviso that “it’s primarily the way we work, the way buildings are used that is changing—and we have to react to this.”

What exactly does this mean for working architects? “In addition to maximizing floor space,” says Bauer, “increasing flexibility and the associated provision of conversion options and technical installation is becoming ever more important.” But creating modular designs that can accommodate any number of possible technical or “smart” scenarios comes with aesthetic, and human, costs.

“On the one hand, it is an exciting task… On the other hand, this also means that everything becomes more and more interchangeable the more it is subject to pre-defined extension grids and consensus-oriented equipment and furnishings. An office world with character, an environment that is really tailored for a company, its employees and their work processes is becoming increasingly rare.”

The huge new offices of companies like Salesforce and Apple show that the bespoke office is alive and well, but also perhaps a rarified commodity. Leibinger and Bauer speak to the recent phenomenon of high-tech offices as de facto playgrounds: “there are, of course, some industries where such lounging areas or a ball pool really do fit,” says Bauer, “In our experience, however, everyday life—which is much rarer to see in magazines—looks different.” Bauer sees the necessity in most situations for “a good medium” between the extremes of distracting arcades and dystopian cubical jails.

The primary concerns for the designer remain, as they always have, an integration of form and function that centers basic needs: comfort, light, air, acoustics, social interaction. “What good is the greatest open space if everyone wears headphones to concentrate?” Leibinger asks. “How far do we want to push the depth of rooms for efficiency’s sake? To be healthy and motivated at work, you need light and air. And atmosphere. We certainly do not find the right solution at the lower limit of the workplace directive.”

Leibinger and Bauer do not address “biophilic” design trends, which aim to bring natural air, light, and growth into the office environment, or bring the office further out into nature. Perhaps such offices, like the toy-store lounges of many a tech start-up in the past couple decades, will come and go, like every trend architects have seen over the years. In any case, the basic design of the humans who work in offices is unlikely to change much in the near future.

“Perhaps the office of the future will not be so different from the office of today—who knows?” says Bauer. “We will certainly benefit from ever new technologies… but tables, chairs, windows, a coffee machine—I can imagine all this in the ‘Future Office.’ We strongly believe in the future of the office as a physical space of encounter and interaction, and not so much in science fiction.”

Read their full interview here.

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Designing Future Offices Around Future Workers


We can’t talk about the office of the future without talking about the worker of the future—or the worker of the present, for that matter, often in a radically different position than even a decade ago. In 2016, for example, 35% of the U.S. workforce was made up of freelancers, a number expected to climb to 43% by 2020. With so many workers moving, and being moved, into the gig economy (and with the number of people who telecommute part or full-time having increased fourfold since 1995), traditional office spaces serve a rapidly decreasing number of employees.  


We need radical new visions of what, exactly, constitutes an office. Bypassing urban glass and steel towers, ex-urban office campuses, the local coffee shop, or the home office tax write-off, one proposition for a mobile office would likely have appealed to Buckminster Fuller. Jie Zhang’s FoAM—inflatable office bubbles of various sizes and shapes—even includes a geodesic dome model, perhaps in tribute to the great architectural innovator. (Other concept designs include an umbrella shape and what appears to be just a bubble that inflates around one’s head.)

“It is impossible for architects and designers to ignore the needs of 30% or more of the US workforce who are freelancing,” Zhang, co-founder of design startup OPT, told Metropolis magazine of her proposal. FoAM‘s ingenuity earned it the runner-up spot in Metropolis‘ Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, which asked the question, “what will the workplace of 2021 be like?” A massive shift in workforce demographics “presents tremendous opportunities, but also a challenge for us to think beyond the conventional client-designer model for office designs.”


Zhang’s quirky design anticipates a need to recoup urban spaces like parking lots, notes Metropolis, which may become largely abandoned “with the widespread use of shared autonomous vehicles.” FoAM might also be called maximally biophilic design, if set up in the right environment, offering “office” space with a direct experience of nature. Each FoAM would be equipped with wireless charging options, powered by a transparent solar cell. Additional amenities include a “360 projector/camera,” a “radiant floor pad” for heating and cooling, and “modular inflatable furniture.”

Anyone who has gone camping will immediately note some of the possible problems. These include not only the hassle of set-up and tear down, but also concerns about long-term structural integrity, and the nuisance of lugging around a massive lump of heavy plastic that may never fold neatly enough to fit back in its carrying case. But the intentions behind this brief acknowledge societal shifts taking place outside the office that may render most traditional spaces obsolete in the near future.

Co-Gen Space

The winner of the Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, Co-Gen Flex Space by Ethelind Coblin Architect, also began with a demographic shift, this time toward a multi-generational workforce comprised of seniors and semi-retired people and working parents in need of childcare. The architects designed their co-working space by “taking into consideration that there is also a growing number of seniors that are not simply retiring but that choose to (or have to) participate in active social and work life.”

A “co-generational work environment,” proposed for New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the Co-Gen Flex Space incorporates a coop-funded daycare facility, “work spaces of varying privacy and size,” and all of the technical services any modern office might need, including on-demand 3D printing and conferencing technology. In both the Co-Gen Flex Space and FoAM, we see office design that begins with the reality of a rapidly changing workforce—increasingly mobile, contingent, multi-generational, and with a variety of needs and schedules that cannot be easily accommodated in outdated 9-5 office spaces.


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Zen and the Art of Worker Bliss

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In my neverending search for the ideal office layout,  I’ve pored over countless articles riddled in contradictions. Workspace designers often reference the Harvard Business Review study heralding the death of the cubicle in favor of open designs, yet there’s recent research by Fuze and others stating that open plans completely destroy productivity. Who’s right?

Adding to the confusion, an increasing number of people are working from home these days, yet numerous companies believe that innovation comes from serendipitous in-office collisions. And then there’s the reality that in-person brainstorming sessions totally matter. Oy Gevalt!

I think where all of this is headed is employee choice. Balance is required, and just like in the real world, we need places for seclusion, quiet work, open community, and smaller social/collaboration areas.

I really like where Knoll is at in this regard.

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In the Knoll-provided graphic above, “Primary spaces” are defined as areas where you have your permanent office home. Sure, call it a cubicle or small private office. The point is, it’s yours and for concentrated work time. This eschews the trendy “hot-desking” concepts where employees never have their own permanent workstations.

They also have places for assembly, community, enclaves and refuge. “Activity” areas are all those places that are not your primary home.  Here we see a blend of about 50/50 between Primary and Activity space.  Historically, private areas have been at a ratio of 70% and higher.

What all of the aforementioned research appears to leave out is that we all work totally differently. Doesn’t this help explain the controversy? And we also change over time. Some of us prefer working in social areas all the time and some of us really want to be left alone.  It’s important for managers to recognize this. Aside from meetings or brainstorming sessions that require groups to gather, let people choose what’s best for them.

You may be familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, which made huge leaps in better defining our personality types. It was based on Carl Jung’s recognition that humans experience the world using four principal psychological functions – sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking – and that one of these four functions is dominant for a person most of the time. From my perspective, this begs the question: Where are the studies that map Myers-Briggs personality types to preferred office environment? Introverts want constant privacy. Extroverts would rather be dead than spend all day in a cubicle.

Forward-thinking companies need to finally get on board recognizing and catering to the plethora of personality types and what drives each of us towards productivity bliss.





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Ground Control to XTX: A Sci-Fi London Office

Open the pod bay doors, Hal… it’s time to design an office for robots.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

London-based trading firm XTX Markets has built a new office space that’s all about the future. They know a thing or two about it: all of XTX’s traders are self-learning machines. Don’t worry, we’re not in Matrix territory yet… there are still plenty of humans keeping those machines in line. So XTX’s Kings Cross workspace is all about the blend of sci-fi tech with creature comforts.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

Design firm Peldon Rose took inspiration from movies like Tron and Blade Runner to create XTX’s new space, putting machines and servers on display behind glass walls with glowing blue lights. One hallway looks like something from Star Trek, with a working airlock door, a Battlestar Galactica cylon, and a moving mural of more than 30,000 LED lights. The company’s restaurant even has a replica of the Apollo 11 landing capsule, complete with seating inside. But there are also plenty of cozy spaces that are more living room than space station, with egg-shaped lounge chairs, inviting leather couches, and bunk beds.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with machines… or at least, maybe we can design offices with that idea in mind. Take your protein pills, put your helmet on, and check out XTX’s new space in this video from Peldon Rose.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

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The Oak-town Cometh!

Hey Oakland, Get Ready to Work. Your time has come.

Bay Area residents are used to a few things: great weather, good restaurants, and fog on any major holiday involving fireworks. Unfortunately, another thing we’re used to is traffic. With many offices located in tech hubs — Mountain View, San Jose, San Francisco — lots of Bay Area residents take cars, shuttles, carpools, and BART on a daily basis. Commutes from the East Bay to San Jose can take upwards of two hours. Two hours on a freeway vs. telecommuting? No wonder people prefer to phone it in via FaceTime.

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What’s the fix for this commute nightmare? Enter Oakland, with a prime physical location, a downtown ripe for revival, and pre-existing major BART lines. Looks like Oakland’s ready to host a whole new generation of workspaces. The Mercury News reports that downtown Oakland is about to get a new office tower on a historic site, saying “Oakland’s time has come.” The new office tower is slated to be built on a lot next to the historic Key Building downtown, which will be renovated and connected to the new tower. The new tower is only a block away from BART and should be ready in 2019 — and it’s already 50% leased. Developer James Ellis thinks the BART location is a big deal for this tower, saying: “Tenants are really demanding that they are much closer to mass transportation than they used to.”


New office construction that blends historic with modern seems to be the trend in Oakland, and it’s hard to even take a headcount of all the new development projects in the works. TMG Partners is revamping a 1930’s Art Deco furniture store into office space, and plenty of other developers are looking into similar revamps. Uber has just sold Oakland’s former Sears building, and it looks like that Art Deco classic will also have a new life as office space. Harvest Properties has plans to renovate the iconic Tribune Tower. And with the Oakland A’s eyeing a stadium site at Jack London Square, the downtown skyline might look pretty different in a decade or so. (Come on, A’s, don’t leave us…)

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It’s not just tech companies driving the Oakland office boom, either. A wide range of industries are seeking out space in Oakland, and TMG Development Director David Cropper says that traffic and location may be the driving force: “Employers want to be closer to the East Bay not for the cheaper rents, but for all the stuff Oakland has,” Cropper said. “BART has always been important, but is even more important now that traffic is only getting worse.”

So, East Bay denizens, watch this space. Lots more to come on the booming Oakland office market…

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How did WordPress go so wrong in their office, that all the employees abandoned it?

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I’ve been deeply pondering this article for the last few months since the day I read it. WordPress, with over 500 employees, got 15,000 square feet of space in San Francisco to support its workforce. In their efforts to compete for hiring with Google and Facebook, they also told employees showing up was optional.  Employees could get a $250/month stipend to go to a co-work space.  Guess what happened?  No one showed up at the office and they’re letting their expensive office go. Poof!

What does this tell us about the future of work? Do offices matter? Do we want to be home?  The value proposition of WeWork and co-working at its core is certainly about removing loneliness, so it appears WordPress employees choose to work with strangers locally over commuting.

Ok… So we don’t want to be home alone, but we don’t show up for work.  We choose to work at WeWork or the local cafe over the co-working space our company provided.  How did WordPress fail?  Would a series of smaller micro-offices around the Bay Area have better served the company?  Would those have felt more lonely than WeWork?

As a former CEO, I never really loved when people worked from home. We tried it, but we definitely lost momentum.  My partner, who works at a giant software company, gets on her company-provided bus every morning at 6am and commutes 2 hours each way. Working from home for her is not an option and she’d probably feel very dismissed if she didn’t show up.  I don’t think the future of offices is no office. Offices need to evolve.

I believe that face time matters.  In-person matters. Avoiding loneliness matters. WordPress somehow failed in creating an environment worth going to. Maybe companies need a Chief Fun Officer.  I’d love to try to dig in over the coming months and interview ex-employees who lived through this and get their take. What are your thoughts?

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The Grateful Dead had the Wall of Sound, But Amazon has a Wall of Ground

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Appears there is a new kind of war between the titans: Google and Apple, doing their best to out-do each other on their Biophilic design. Now enter Amazon’s Spheres — Seattle Times has the best scoop yet.  Yes, I want to go there. Yes, It makes me want to work there. Yes, I’d brag to my friends.  I think if my work environment looked and felt like the outdoors but in a climate controlled environment, I’d be excited to go to work every day.

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LEED certification was so 90’s. We’ve moved into the “WELL Standard”

You’ve probably heard or seen the LEED logo on buildings near where you work, or if you’re lucky, on the building you work in. LEED ensures landlords are building spaces that adhere to green building design.  This has become commonplace for new building development, and next-generation builders are thinking about wellness.

The design of your office, from comfort level, to lighting, to air quality is mission critical when it comes to employee retention and happiness.  All hail the WELL standard!

Screenshot 2018-01-27 at 9.51.55 AMThe WELL Building Standard marries “best practices in design and construction with evidence-based health and wellness interventions. It harnesses the built environment as a vehicle to support human health, well-being and comfort. WELL Certified™ spaces and developments can lead to a built environment that helps to improve the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep, comfort and performance of its occupants. This is achieved in part by implementing strategies, programs and technologies designed to encourage healthy, more active lifestyles and reducing occupant  exposure to harmful chemicals and pollutants.”

For someone building out workspaces, or for a developer thinking more endemically about how this plays into building construction, read their  documentation defining the standard. It’s free at their resource center.