WorkSpace Connect is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Ask the Algorithm: Who Returns to the Office When?


Illustration showing AI
Image: lovemask -
When we think about the office today in context of employee experience, all else pales next to health and safety. How could it not? But one day, we surely hope, we will again be able to place a workplace priority on facilitating communications and collaboration.
Michael Colacino, president of SquareFoot, a tech-based commercial real estate brokerage, put it this way: “People are going to come back to their senses.”
By this, what Colacino told me he means is that organizations are going to stop thinking about closing offices as a means of solving COVID-19 problems and instead begin refocusing on the individual and their need for communications and collaboration. “A lot of people have kind of lost sight that what we thought was important in September of last year is still really important today, in spite of everything that we’ve seen with COVID,” he says.
Working as he does for a company in the business of brokering office space, Colacino has an admitted bias in believing in the future of the office. But the decades-long practice of compressing more and more people into an office has now become a liability, he added. “That trend is going to have to reverse itself,” he said.
COVID-19 forces companies to think about office space as a resource to allocate — but how? Dividing time in the office by department or project team, commonly discussed strategies, isn’t all that optimal, Colacino said. These are the folks you’ve probably been working with continually through virtual means, after all, and so meeting in person might not hold that much incremental value. Greater value in returning to the office is in being able to run into and collaborate with others beyond those normally encountered in the WFH day to day.
To tackle the return-to-office challenge, SquareFoot asked its developers to “think creatively about what it would be like to come back into the office,” Colacino said. How could SquareFoot itself best re-occupy its offices safely and effectively from a people perspective, and how might clients benefit, as well?
The result is an algorithm that SquareFoot used to determine who gets to come into the office and when. The algorithm takes into account four factors that team leaders self-assessed on a scale of zero (don’t care about this) to three (can’t do my job without this):
  1. Amenities — not potted plans and foosball tables, but rather things like conference rooms and shared software licenses needed in the office
  2. Commutation & Transportation — not proximity to cool restaurants, but what people go through to get to the office... i.e., mass transit, parking, carpooling
  3. Collaboration — the most traditional factor, but how much in-person face-to-face communication a person needs to do their job appropriately vs. how much can be done remotely
  4. Professional development — onboarding, training, accountability
From this, SquareFoot got a weighted average matrix, which it uses in conjunction with a scheduling system, to allocate office space, Colacino said.
Here’s how this would work for any company. Through self-assessments, this matrix might tell a company that even though brokers only represent 30% of the employee base, they need 50% of the available spots in an office that meets social distancing requirements. Their requests will receive priority. First, a broker would log into a scheduling system and express the desire to come into the office on, say, Monday morning. Before the system schedules their spot, they must work through a COVID-19 checker and verify that they’re not running a fever and are otherwise asymptomatic.
When brokers as a whole reach the threshold on their allotted spots, the system reverses itself, and biases in favor of people in secondary groups who have requested time in the office. In the absence of other in-office requests, the system will allow brokers to move beyond their threshold and grab additional spots.
For SquareFoot, this is phase one of how to address space allocation algorithmically. It will tune the algorithm based on data collected and, ultimately, it wants to be able to measure in-office productivity, too, Colacino said.
For itself, SquareFoot has found benefit in being able to treat return to the office symmetrically for employees, Colacino said. I would imagine others will too — emotions are already running high during this time, so being able to present a fair way of allocating space could factor heavily into how employees think about their return-to-the-office experience.
As Colacino says: “The beauty of the algorithm is that it’s not personal. … It’s just a tool.”