Melissa Marsh is Founder and Executive Director of workplace strategy consultancy PLASTARC and leads Occupant Experience for commercial real estate services firm Savills Studley. Her work leverages people analytics and building information systems to enable change management at leading workplaces, and is helping shift the industry dialogue from "square feet and inches" to "occupant satisfaction and performance."
We sat down with Melissa, our newest advisor, to discuss changing expectations about the workplace and her advice for clients on how to embrace digital transformation in the office.
1. How do you see employees' expectations about workplace technology changing?
A phrase I've been using for years is the “consumerization of space” to describe the mobile and consumer-like expectation today’s workforce has about the office.
There are two key things at play here. First, there is the consumer expectation part: people are able to order car service, a cup of coffee, or lunch delivered on-demand in their consumer lives, so they now expect the same kind of on-demand experience in their work life.
Second, not only are employees expecting more based on their consumer experiences, but they also have more visibility into offices, like Google and WeWork, that invest heavily in optimizing and tech-enabling spaces for occupants. In the past, the workplace was kind of a hidden characteristic, protected as a strategic differentiator by those who had the best spaces, and intentionally hidden by those who didn’t. Now, it’s much more front and center, visible through digital magazines or even social media. This has great impact on the talent market, what employees expect, and how employers must respond.
2. You've spoken in the past about a “digital layer” in the workplace and how that can enable a more "full experience" for employees. Can you elaborate on this a bit?
I sometimes refer to the work of Stuart Brand who wrote a book called, How Buildings Learn. His concept involved working from the outside of the building in: you begin with the location (which is unchangeable), then you have the structure and skin of the building that maybe only change every 50-100 years, then you have the building systems that update every dozen or so years. Finally, you work your way down to the objects within the space that people can move around to suit their needs. Notably, his work predates some of the capabilities we have now, to use the building operating systems—from lighting to mechanical equipment—to change the experience of a space moment by moment.
Today, when I talk about that digital layer of a building I'm talking about the layers after these "moveable objects," things that are rapidly changing, such as technology used by occupants within the space. Then, there's building-integrated software that works with building hardware and allows for a level of changeability beyond what is typical of physical or inanimate objects. Comfy is among this last group, that brings instantaneous changefulness to the workplace, whether it's about setting lighting conditions or temperature—it's making something that used to require an expert to change (or that could only be changed in the long-term) and making it something that the user can change.
“Any type of initiative that provides capability and control through a digital platform will have—and will continue to have—a positive and engaging effect on people."
3. What advice do you offer to clients about the challenge and opportunity to enhance the digital workplace?
Here’s the thing, almost any intervention I've seen a client pursue has had benefits. Yes, there are always ways you can do it faster, better, easier, but whether it's a new tool for room booking, temperature or lighting controls, any type of initiative that provides capability and control through a digital platform will have—and will continue to have—a positive and engaging effect on people.
Also, it’s good to consider that typically, your first major project of this kind is going to be your hardest. There will be a lot of things to solve for the first time around, in part because it often involves combining systems—or people—that don't typically talk to each other. Unfortunately, right now the systems integration burden often falls on the client, but I like to remind clients that every project after the first is going to become easier. Also, offerings like the Works with Comfy partner ecosystem are a great example of solution providers working together to ease that burden for clients.
So, I hope this can serve as a sort of “pep talk” to companies who are in the process of implementing—or just beginning to consider—new workplace strategies and technologies: my macro-level advice would be just to hurry up and do something. A simple show of effort will always win over some employees.
4. How do you see technology playing a role in accelerating the feedback loop between employees and workplace managers?
I like to reflect back to the truly hands-on days where the facilities manager would have a woodshop in the building, and if something was broken, they would fix it—maybe carve a piece of wood and add an extension to someone's desk. They would solve the problem. I think that level of human service and engagement is essential and it's a big part of what co-working operators mean when they talk about community, building trust, creating great environments, and making sure that the environment is servicing the needs of the workforce. That human piece is still very important so we want to find ways that we can augment that service relationship with technology, rather than swap one out for another.
At the same time, it's a particularly exciting moment in terms of the scale of data available. Historically, moderate-sized data was collected in a variety of manual or semi-technology enabled ways—like surveys or observations. Now, we have the ability to collect hundreds or thousands of data points in seconds. While the volume of data collection accelerates, we also have more nuanced way of analyzing things and responding to feedback more quickly.
And that's the key: in social engagement practice, it's common to focus on inquiring about things that you can change. We have some protocols about how we address what we discover and how to make sure that we deliver on the engagement expectation. So, as access to more data and feedback in the workplace becomes more readily available, it's also important to have a plan to use that feedback. For example, if you install sensors and analyze sentiment and get people engaged but then they don't see things changing, that can actually do more harm than good from an engagement and trust perspective. One of the great things about Comfy is that the ability to create change is embedded in the technology; the app itself reinforces a sense of trust that when you take the time to provide feedback, something will happen.
5. You talk and write a lot about change management. What are some best practices to employ when introducing new workplace technology?
I think one of the key challenges and complexities in change management—particularly implementing workplace technology—is that it requires communication and collaboration across historically siloed departments, such as corporate services, facilities management, real estate, IT, corporate communications, and HR. It isn't always clear who owns a certain strategic initiative. I've found that the organizations moving in the right direction—in terms of designing, delivering, and enabling that superior employee experience—are the ones who are also better at interdepartmental communications and understanding their roles and responsibilities, or have even gone so far as to on to combine some of these functions into a new discipline.
Other measures of success in change management (which I've spent a lot of time focused on, both in tech and workplace design) are adoption and utilization rates. My take is that if you make a product that people like and that delivers an experience that is better than how things were before, then the change management part is going to be much easier, and you will see a higher utilization rate.
Finally, there's the importance of communicating the change, and that onus falls collectively on the occupant organization, the landlord, and the workplace technology provider. To be honest, most workplace technology providers don't offer sufficient advice and standards of communication to make deployments easy for their customers, at the individual scale or the corporate scale. I think Comfy is unique in the care and service that the team provides in engaging with occupants, and I'm looking forward to offering advice on how to build that out even more.
Learn more about Melissa's approach to change management and how Comfy is optimizing the workplace experience in our eBook, Comfy's latest workplace app features.