Locatee’s Thomas Kessler on why flextime is no longer ‘on the side’ – Commercial Observer
What should a company do?
Real estate has never been so mysterious. In the past, you simply counted your people and ordered as many desks, computers and telephones. And if you really wanted to know where to put the potted plants, there were specialists for that.
Now everything is a big blur. Just knowing how many standing desks you need might not be covered in business school. You know you’ll be met by employees who want to come part-time, who aren’t willing to go back on the hamster wheel, who are lugging their food around, and you need places to heat it up. Unless you buy. And then you know you’ll have to shell out for some amenities to keep your minions from escaping. But which? And how big?
Lucky for you, the boss, there are companies out there that can help you manage your space and use it more efficiently. One of these is Locatee, a global company based in Zurich, Switzerland whose mission is to get to know your people, maybe better than you do, and help them get the most out of your offices.
Locatee CEO Thomas Kessler pounced on a Zoom call from Zurich in May to explain what his company does and how it feels when so many questions swirl around office usage. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Trade Observer: Describe what Locatee does.
Thomas Kessler: When we started Locatee I was working for one of the big banks here in Switzerland. And they hired some students to walk around their office building. So the office building I was in was the largest office building in Switzerland. It had about 2,000 employees. It was one of the newest buildings.
So they went through it with clipboards and counted how many people are in there. And then after a while I asked her why are you doing this? And then I actually realized that the problem they’re trying to solve is understanding how many people are in the building so the real estate team at Credit Suisse, the bank I worked for, can decide whether it can hire more people or if they are busy. After two weeks, they found that utilization was at 50 percent. And I was shocked because this building is a huge complex that uses a lot of energy. It is expensive.
And then I realized: How big is this problem? It’s all over the world. Office buildings are among the least used assets you have. That was the initial problem.
My co-founder said we could replace the students and just use data from devices like cell phones and laptops. So that’s what we did. We went out and basically developed a solution and the app is patented in many countries like USA, European Union, even China and so on. Technology captures people’s behavior and we and the company are trying to understand it.
For example, in New York you have Swiss Re in the building. So when someone enters that building, our solution recognizes that someone has connected and we measure the behavior of the person in that building. Once you have this data, you will know how many employees you have and how they affect the organization. So when events are coming up, you need to know: Am I busy? Can I get out of the rental agreement?
Then you have other operational services that are all about designing the right experience, creating a layout that is attractive to people, collaboration areas, project areas, not just cubicles. That’s big in the US right now. Everyone renovates their office space to increase the quality of the space so that people are attracted to come locally.
And last but not least more in facility management. Once you know how many people are in the building, you can start customizing various processes—like cleaning locations. So when you have more people on site it gets dirtier. So they do the cleaning, heating, ventilation, etc. based on the number of people in the building. This is all sort of a set of different value points and impacts that you can create in the organization. And it all starts with data on how people behave when they are in the building.
Long story short, do you give users the ability to learn a little more about their spaces so they can use them more efficiently and cost-effectively?
It’s about cost efficiency. It’s about employee experience. So it makes the space attractive or the whole sustainability aspect. They don’t want half-empty office buildings because they cause a lot of CO2 emissions. A lot of energy is consumed.
Your website states that Locatee is active in more than 60 countries. How global are you?
What we mean by that is, let’s say we have a big pharmaceutical company based in the US. They say, OK, we’d like to get out of the US. We would like to know how our buildings are used in Singapore, in India, in Australia, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and so on. And we help them create that transparency and understanding across their portfolio so they understand how the portfolio is being used. So we go to the Head of Corporate Real Estate and help him or her get a global perspective.
Do you find cultural differences in the different countries you are in?
Absolutely. It always depends on the economic situation and the economic environment. One example I can cite comes from Shanghai. One of the lessons we learned there that was fascinating to see was that in March 2020 everyone was going home and everyone had to work from home. In China and India, people have been forced to work from home. And they didn’t have the equipment at home – they had a lot of people in the same apartment, in the same place. These are like small apartments. They usually do not have a house and their own office space in their house.
For example, when restrictions were lifted in China, people started running back to the office because they couldn’t be productive otherwise. They distracted each other at home. The office actually offered them a better working environment.
One thing we can say very clearly is that northern European countries like Sweden and Finland, these countries have always been in flexible working mode. They have always been very employee friendly. You had it way before the pandemic — you had this activity-based approach to work, which means you have different layouts, you don’t assign a desk to a person. They have collaboration zones, focus areas, and so on.
What we see in the US, the US had very long cabins. Typically one desk/one person, right next to each other. The US is catching up with the European countries.
So they can’t get rid of their cubicles fast enough in the US?
Exactly. I don’t have any data to prove that, but I think it has to do with the culture, how very deep in the culture in terms of leadership styles. And that’s typical of Northern European countries, they’ve always been very inclusive – it was very bottom-up. Everyone spoke. In the US, there is still a lot of hierarchy, especially in large companies. You had a lot from top to bottom. You start from scratch and work your way up.
What do you think is the most in-demand thing your customer base wants in the post-COVID environment?
I think the fundamental shift that’s happening is coming out of a very employer-centric nature of the real estate business. It was basically a perk that you offered some employees to work from home. It was clear that you had to be in the office to get your work done.
After the pandemic, flexible working is no longer a fringe benefit. And if you, as an employer, don’t offer this to your employees, you risk them quitting their job and moving to the next company that has a more flexible working model.
If people can choose where to work today, that relationship between a person is equivalent to minutes of desk time, minutes of meeting time, minutes of work from home, minutes of work at a coworking space or at Starbucks, etc. This becomes very difficult. And what the corporate real estate industry needs to do is shift from a location focus to an employee-first perspective. The problem we solve for them is understanding employee needs.
Looking at your website, you seem to really want to know what makes people tick. How you do that? And how do you do that in such a way that the employees’ desire for privacy is taken into account in the process?
On the one hand, you want to understand the behavior of the employees in depth. They don’t want to understand how David behaves as a person. But you want to understand: What kind of people do we have in our organization? How often do you come to the office? How often do you work from home or in a coworking space? The needs of one group are enough. You don’t have to go to a specific person.
This is all anonymized and stored in such a way that you can never go back and say, “David did that.” This is very important from a technological point of view. But of course there is the perception, the perception of the employee. I’m being followed?
It’s very important to make employees part of the solution and involve them in this conversation early on. So you understand why we do this. What’s the benefit? How do we make sure it’s not used for threatening purposes?
If you’ve been following me, you might want to know how often I go to the bathroom, how long I spend on a coffee break, how long I spend at lunch. Does a boss bend over me too much or too little? How much do I work with my head down, talking to co-workers? Honestly, I can see it getting a little annoying that you’re curious.
We help our customers to inform employees. We inform about the reasons why we do this. We don’t look at you if you look at the website Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. We don’t have this data.
We try to explain what measures and what technologies are in place to avoid misusing the data for different purposes, and that is the anonymization I was talking about. It’s important to have this conversation.