People Analytics: How can this emergent discipline inform workplace design?

PLASTARC recently attended the April 2016 Wharton People Analytics Conference (WPAC) to see how conversations about people analytics are currently intersecting with design analytics.

One of the highlights of the event was the interview with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, facilitated by Adam Grant, author of Give and Take. Hsieh discussed several of the ways he’s incorporating people analytics into his leadership approach—for example, with Zappos’ development of a new metric called collisionable hours to quantify probable interactions between employees per hour, per acre. Using this metric, Zappos can create performance-based targets for the ambitious investments they’re making in their workplace environment and surrounding community, such as the Downtown Project. Hsieh’s advocacy of such new metrics builds on a larger conversation in the design and corporate real estate worlds about how to measure the impact of space on people and business. At PLASTARC, we are dedicated to shifting the metrics associated with workplace from ‘square feet and inches’ to ‘occupant satisfaction and performance,’ and therefore are pleased to see these advances.

Another distinguishing feature of Hsieh’s leadership style is his embrace of the anti-hierarchical management theory Holacracy, which is intended to encourage creativity and innovation. As a philosophy, Holacracy relies heavily on the workplace environment to support increased autonomy for occupants as they navigate their work day. In other words, a successful Holacratic organization is supported by a workplace that endows each team member with a sense of control over their workspace.

Many modern methodologies—from Holacracy to crowdsourcing to fail fast—can have a profound impact when integrated into workplace design and management. PLASTARC recently worked with Mozilla to integrate their own organizational and tech methodologies, including fail fast and open source, into their workplace design and employee experience. Such participatory strategies are critical to engaging employees in a more purpose-driven workplace that extends from design to space management to new behaviors.

One of WPAC’s brief departures from the business school context was a presentation by journalist A.J. Jacobs, known for his contributions to *Esquire *and for his “lifestyle experiments” —such as living according to the moral and legal code of the bible for a year. Jacobs discussed his current project: constructing an immense family tree that will connect him to everyone on planet Earth. This project is now more feasible than ever, thanks to the affordability of gene sequencing and the availability of data on crowdsourced genealogy websites.

On one hand, it’s important to respect people as individuals; on the other, there is an emerging belief that work is best done in collaborative groups

In an interview with FiveThirtyEight, Jacobs claimed that Barack Obama is “his aunt’s fifth-great-aunt’s husband’s brother’s wife’s seventh-great-nephew.” This project seems consistent with current business school thinking and a general cultural shift towards seeing the collective, rather than the individual, as the primary unit of analysis and focus. Intensified interest in the collective was further reflected in a panel discussion about studying teams as the predominant workforce unit. One conundrum that arose for the panel was the difficulty of aligning the principles of the individual and the team. On one hand, it’s important to respect people as individuals; on the other, there is an emerging belief that work is best done in collaborative groups.

Another speaker on the “Team Performance” panel was Brian Welle, a researcher in the People Operations department at Google. Welle is tasked with researching the company’s internal operations, and is particularly well known for his work on unconscious biases, which was motivated by a wave of publicity surrounding the underrepresentation of women in the workforces of tech giants. (According to SEC filings, 70 percent of Google’s nearly 50,000 employees are male.) One notable product of his research was a 90-minute workshop intended to persuade Google employees of the existence and long-term consequences of unconscious bias.

A particularly exciting moment at WPAC came during a presentation by the winners of the conference’s research paper competition: a team from the Stanford Graduate School of Business who submitted “Enculturation Trajectories and Individual Attainment: An Interactional Language Use Model of Cultural Dynamics in Organizations.” Their research concluded that recruiters and hiring managers should not, as is widely thought, necessarily seek out the candidates who seem best suited to the culture of the hiring organization at the outset, since an employee’s ability to acculturate over time is actually a better indicator of their decreased likelihood of involuntary exit. In other words, companies should look for the most flexible candidates rather than those who seem like perfect fits out of the gate, as flexibility is a more important characteristic in the pursuit of long-term success than pre-fabricated compatibility. PLASTARC’s work builds on this research and explores opportunities for the physical environment to be a platform for culture as well as an accelerator of team learning and individual acculturation. 

WPAC’s opening keynote speaker was Daniel Kahneman, a prominent psychologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work to advance the field of behavioral economics. During his presentation, Kahneman gave historical context to the field of people analytics by pointing out that it dates back to the mid-20th century, when management science was incorporated with psychological thinking and then matured through its applications in the military. Now, there is a wave of excitement around people analytics due to advancements in computer processing power. Although the language of people analytics is connected to the notion of big data, Kahneman insisted that this doesn’t mean we need a large, complicated set of criteria to develop powerful algorithms for assessment. On the contrary, he asserted that no more than six well-considered criteria/indicators are required.

In general, the 2016 Wharton People Analytics Conference focused largely on the application of people analytics to human resources like recruiting, onboarding, and evaluation, whereas previous conferences touched on a broader range of its possible applications. This is likely due to the fact that HR topics are now, more than ever, at the heart of how business schools formally approach the field of people analytics. At PLASTARC, we continue to advocate for the utilization of people analytics to create workplaces that enable superior individual and team work.