Markings are displayed on glass wall as members work at the WeWork Cos. 32nd Milestone co-working space in Gurugram, India (Photographer: Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg)  

Every Move You Make, WeWork Will Be Watching You

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Of the company swag worn by WeWork employees, one T-shirt slogan says a lot about where the shared workspace business is headed: “bldgs=data.”

It’s hardly a surprise that WeWork Cos. wants to make money collecting and analyzing information about how people move and operate within offices. In the past year it’s pushed hard on that front, acquiring Teem, a maker of software that captures conference room bookings. In February, WeWork bought Euclid, a service that tracks smartphones in retail spaces. WeWork also is testing several types of sensors, including thermal and motion detectors and Bluetooth check-ins. The tools help analyze how workers intend to use a space vs. how they actually use it, according to Shiva Rajaraman, WeWork’s chief product officer. It’s like “Google Analytics for space,” he likes to say.

WeWork is testing the tools not in its co-working locations but with its own employees in San Francisco and New York. (Tests of Euclid are in the planning phase.) It also has run a pilot for several big clients, using the data gleaned to help them make decisions about redesign, building projects, and how to better manage existing offices. One New York law firm wondered if it needed more conference room space. WeWork’s study included placing battery-powered thermal sensors under conference room tables to measure how many pairs of legs were present and for how long. Its finding: Make conference rooms smaller since they’re rarely full. When a New Jersey consulting company wanted more employees in the office on Fridays, WeWork analyzed a year’s worth of badge swipe data. The answer: Encourage partners to show up. When they did, others followed, says Liz Burow, WeWork’s head of workplace strategy.

WeWork, which was last valued at $47 billion and operates in 32 countries, does consulting work for Samsung, UBS, and others through its “Powered by We” branch. The office space data collection and analysis is part of an effort to expand the consulting services, Burow says, and help “humanize the workplace experience” by relying more on data and less on intuition. “We like to say it’s data in and wisdom out,” she says.

Collected data are anonymized and secure, WeWork’s Rajaraman says, but privacy advocates say they’re concerned about the consequences. “The first intended use of a data set is not the only way a data set ends up being used,” says Michelle Miller, co-founder of worker organization platform Coworker.org and co-author of a recent report on how data mining is migrating to the workplace. Also, anonymous data streams could still be traced to a person who spends long stretches of time in particular locations, says Jacob Snow, a technology and civil rights attorney for the ACLU. “The devil is in the details,” he says. “It’s important to think through how information can be combined with other information.”

Rajaraman says the efforts are a way to explore how spaces are used at a mass scale, adding, “We want to defend privacy as well.” Teem’s room-booking data captures who organizes meetings and who gets invited. “Once you have this, you start to develop a graph of all the connections between people,” he says. He wants to eliminate regularly scheduled “zombie meetings” that no one attends. Teem’s information is even more powerful when used with other data: “If we know someone’s seating chart, we can start to optimize which rooms are available based on how long it takes you to get to the room,” Rajaraman says.

He’s also excited about Euclid’s technology, which tracks individual phones through a MAC address, a unique identifier used to locate available Wi-Fi networks. “We can discard the individual identity of the device,” he says. “We just know there are 20 devices in the room. Usually those devices map effectively to people.”

Euclid, founded in 2010, has confronted concerns about privacy. Some shops, such as Philz Coffee Inc., the San Francisco coffee house chain, stopped using the service after customers complained it was invasive. Rajaraman says WeWork wants to make it easy for people to opt out of Euclid’s tracking while also retaining the data’s benefits. The data can help measure the demand for private booths for making phone calls, for example. “Over the weekend there might be a new phone booth waiting for you,” he says, and the data is the only way to get there. “We don’t know unless we analyze the situation.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dimitra Kessenides at dkessenides1@bloomberg.net

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