Measure, Learn, Build: How Better Tech (and Psychology) Will Bring Employees Back to the Office

Employers have been wringing their hands over how to get Millennials and Gen Zers to trade Zoom for a room. AI may have the answer—with a little help from WHY.

Stephen Butler
7 min readMay 13, 2024
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

If a time traveller from 1924 was to visit an office today, they would have a lot to marvel at.

Much of their attention, of course, would go to technology. The magical screens with keyboards (many portable) sitting on every desk, even in corner offices. Larger screens with cameras attached, enabling discussions with colleagues several time zones away. The handheld devices carried from meeting to meeting — even to washrooms — and dutifully stared at while waiting for others to show up.

Their awe would not stop there. The last century has seen equally striking revolutions in how offices themselves are configured.

In the 1930s, architect Frank Lloyd Wright tore down rabbit warren-like walls to create “open concept” spaces.

In the 1960s, design-forward firms began replacing remaining walls with floor-to-ceiling glass, giving rise to “fish bowls.”

Thirty years later, two Chicago firms tired of paying forroad warriors’ empty desks took a page from a centuries-old naval practice, “hot racking”— whereby sleep spaces were not assigned — to create “hot desking” (or “hoteling”).

Whiteboards became ubiquitous, some filling entire walls. Lighting became more natural. Ergonomic furniture appeared. So did open spaces with couches that were for neither meetings, nor eating, nor desks, but simply for (often random) social interactions.

All this has made most 21st century workplaces far more humane than their predecessors, the surviving instances of which feel positively medieval for those unfortunate enough to work in them.

“So,” one might well say. “Job done?”

Not so fast.


When Steve Jobs and Jony Ive were developing iPad — a process that began almost a decade before the product came out — they were obsessive about making sure the device itself was as unobtrusive as possible. “The edges needed to be black, with no logo, ideally no button, and as thin as possible,” Ives later recalled. “We wanted users focused on the content, not the platform.”

The same might well be said of the modern workplace. Designers have gone out of their way to ensure that users are focused on their work and each other, free of annoyances and distractions.

Even when firms invest in bonus spaces, they are typically looking to foster serendipitous interactions that spur creativity, as Jobs aimed to do when he began personally designing the Pixar headquarters in 1999.

To some extent, this has worked as intended. Few of the millennials and Gen Zers fortunate enough to land jobs in Grade A buildings — and who now make up almost half the workforce — have any recollection of the dismal environments many of their seniors endured back in the day. As one Vancouver CEO recently observed, “They can’t remember waiting for someone to get off a public phone either. They have no idea how good they’ve got it.”

Nor do they share the same concerns as previous generations. According to Gallup, they are less concerned their paycheck and job than their “purpose” and “life.”

What does this mean, if anything, for those responsible for optimizing their workspaces—and who most want them to use them?

In the early 90s, advertising agency Chiat/Day showed how not to do it. Many of the innovations they implemented — from hot-desking to open spaces to playful Frank Gehry design — turned out to be a disaster. A decade later, Jobs likewise faced pushback on his desire to depersonalize Pixar work stations in favor of work-focused creations. In both situations it turned out that good design meant (a) respecting users’ most urgent and practical needs and (b) allowing them some measure of autonomy in deciding what their desks should look like.

The pandemic has thrown a new wrinkle into the mix: the rise of remote work. Leaders everywhere have found themselves caught between allowing employees to take full advantage of the new “perk” of working from home — a practice made more feasible by the maturation of collaborative and video meeting technologies — while ensuring there’s enough in-person interaction to foster teamwork and mentorship.

Many have gone out of their way to make the workplace more “inviting,” taking a page or two from features popularized by WeWork and other co-working spaces: a higher meeting room-to-desk ratio, better stocked kitchens, phone booths for private calls, more regular group activities, and the like.

But are these working — or can they work?

One of Silicon Valley’s greatest exports this century is not another billion- or trillion-dollar company, but an idea.

The so-called Lean approach to product development rests on the view that our best ideas are just that — ideas — until we test them systematically. Its approach is encapsulated in its now-familiar “Build/Measure/Learn” credo.

All this is easy enough when “build” means writing lines of code. “Measure,” in that context, is almost as straightforward: user experience can be understood simply by tracking digital events.

When we’re talking about leasehold improvements that can run into the hundreds of dollars per square foot — and thus into the hundreds of thousands or even millions, depending on the overall footprint — companies need to be a lot more careful before placing their bets.

Of particular note is the profound question of how big an office actually needs to be. If your people are only present 60 to 80 percent of the time, can you get by with 60 to 80 percent of the space? What if your objective is to make sure that teams are all in the office at the same time? Does that mean you need space for all of them at once, which will sit unused three or four days a week? Can you bring in some teams but not others on certain days? How will that impact inter-team collaboration?

Just as technology has helped scatter workers, technology may hold the key to bringing them back. With the rise of AI-driven sensors from companies like Verge Sense that can track exactly how a space is used, leaders are now in the novel position of being able to measure where they previously had to guess.

  • How often is a given meeting room used for informal chats?
  • How many people are in an average meeting?
  • How much “hot desking” action a given workspace sees in a week? Does anyone ever sit on that couch by the kitchen?

And so on.

All this puts leaders in a position to understand how much space they actually need at a given location — and, if they experiment with partial renovation, how much difference that makes to usage.

As some Lean practitioners have learned the hard way, however, one approach to learning that doesn’t work is to start by measuring, with no clear idea of what we are looking for. (Disclosure: I once oversaw the release of an app with over a hundred event trackers. The data generated was bountiful, but made no sense. When we reduced the number of tracker to a dozen or so, we were able to figure out what we needed to know.)

When it comes to optimizing offices, it’s critical to start with an understanding of what the company is trying to do there.

Creative brainstorming? Customer meetings? Team alignment? Retention? — and how this meshes with individuals’ objectives and desired experiences.

Here the best practice is, as the man said, to start with why: in particular, the why of individual users. Companies have now entered a phase of the War for Talent where this cannot be taken for granted. Many have invested millions in corporate citizenship initiatives as a way of engaging younger workers — only to discover that what they really care about is their own personal impact.

I’ve recently co-authored a book on this subject with a former Walmart executive: Why Is a Verb: How Well-Managed Teams Turn Purpose Into Productivity. Business productivity growth is near an all-time low. One UK study suggest the average worker is only on task about three hours a day. Leaders have realized that if they can engage their people to put in just another few minutes each day of productive work, the potential impact on overall performance may be mind-boggling.

Just as the purpose of the iPad is to help users experience content, so is the purpose of the workspace is to help users experience their own impact. In this light, the following questions are essential:

  • What are the segments who use the space — managers, front line employees, customers?
  • What is the emotional state each needs to feel there — pride, joy, delight?
  • What are the experiences that drive these feelings — teamwork, autonomy, discovery?
  • What must each space within the office do to support these?
  • What is the optimal mix of the above?

AI space analysis alone is not going to spit out an answer. This must be paired with another best practice, employee pulse surveys, to get human takes on how well things are working. In turn, this requires leaders and employees alike to engage in constructive discussions about the balance they collectively need to strike.

The prize, however, is worth the ticket. We are moving into an era where leaders will be less concerned about the face time workers put in, than the results they are able to produce — not because this isn’t what always mattered, but because AI is making such tracking easier and more cost-effective than ever. Likewise, the rise of meaningful personal dashboards promises to push impact to the top of what employees are seeking each day, outweighing concerns about commute time and work-life balance.

If it’s true, and can be made transparent, that the best place to have such impact is in a beautiful, thoughtfully-designed office — whose location and amenities allow support the growing ideal of ‘work-life integration’ — you won’t be able to keep your people away.

Stephen Butler is a partner at Sagely, and co-author (with Karissa Price) of Why Is a Verb: How Well-Managed Teams Turn Purpose Into Productivity. Thanks to Izzy Cannell, Workplace Insights Lead @ VergeSense, for inspiration and feedback on this piece.