Workplace Unplugged

Change Management: Weaving Big & Little Data For Best Results

Moira vandenAkker
August 5th, 2016


If the occupants of a building don’t understand how the building works – then the building doesn’t work. Conversely, if the building doesn’t understand the occupants – if it is not designed in a way that is enabling to what people inside do – then it does not work. In this Workplace Unplugged Interview, we sit down with Melissa Marsh to explore how we can use data to design better work environments.

PLASTARC Founder and Executive Director, Melissa Marsh is an expert in workplace strategy and a leader in change management services. She has defined a career in workplace innovation by embedding the added value of occupant centric real estate strategy within design, architecture and master planning projects around the world.



With the intention of becoming a future President of the United States, Melissa started her undergraduate studies in Political Science – but she quickly figured out that being President wasn’t the job she thought it would be! Though she still holds a passion for politics and social topics, she realized architecture aligned better with her creative ambitions.

MM: I discovered partway through undergraduate that I had a bit of a maker gene in me, and writing term papers for political science wasn’t cutting it in terms of a creative outlet. So, I added architecture and started taking a couple architecture classes […] I finished my undergrad with a double major in Poli Sci, American Studies, and Architecture. I really saw architecture for its political and social importance: space to bring people together, space that demonstrates power and impact, political influence, financial influence, and social-culture influence.

Melissa completed her Masters of Architecture at MIT, initially with a focus on high-performance green buildings, sustainable design and design solutions that would contribute to a better world from an ecological perspective. However, during her studies she found a slightly different focus, uncovering a unique niche.

MM: I went back to grad school and tried to take as many people science and business courses as I possibly could, while also completing my Masters of Architecture. And really, before I even finished graduate school, I had crafted a specialization of simultaneously studying buildings and people, and particularly doing so in the context of corporate and organizational work. So, how people occupy buildings, how buildings support people as occupants has been my passion. After all, in the case of work environments the occupant experience is the purpose of the building.


Melissa’s graduate experience took her around the globe and provided the opportunity to learn from various teams doing sustainable design projects. She tells us about one of her most memorable experiences from her studies abroad – the crucial importance of buildings and people understanding one another.

MM: One of the things I heard, time after a time, and a broader conclusion after having interviewed a dozen teams that did high-tech sustainable design projects was if people don’t understand how a building works – the people who are operating a building and the occupants – then the building doesn’t work.

If we have a passive thermal solution and people open the windows it short circuits the whole building technology system. And so really the building doesn’t work if the occupant and the people don’t understand how to operate it or how it works.

Similarly so, there are a lot of buildings that don’t really understand people. They are not designed in a way that is really most facilitating or enabling to what the occupant has to do.

After completing grad school, Melissa looked across the landscape of what was available to clients who are interested in exploring how their space is impacting their people and how their people are impacting their space. She found there wasn’t a lot of competition within that domain – a two-fold discovery.

MM: One, it meant there wasn’t a place that I wanted to go work. And two, it seemed that there was a real business opportunity to focus on this unique topic, what some people call a ‘niche of a niche.’

Capitalizing on the opportunity in the market, Melissa founded PLASTARC.

MM: Plastarc is a contraction of plastic and architecture, with the proposition that through social research, technology, and people analytics we can really make architecture solutions that are more flexible for occupants, occupants as individuals and occupants as organizations.


With the rise of unassigned work environments, we asked Melissa to share some key principles that facilities managers should keep in mind when managing workspace changes.

Her advice? Fail fast.

MM: In terms of the role of the FM or an operations person, some of the things we talk a lot about are taking kind of a tech company approach, and what you might consider ‘fail fast’. Really trying different things, being experimental, giving people a chance to vote with their feet and testing the environments that you are designing or implementing by deploying them. See what people like. When stuff is well liked and well utilized you do more of it, and when it is not well liked or well utilized you do less of it.

But when it comes to unassigned work environments, shared desk or flexible work space, the difference in workplace structure (or lack thereof) has its pros and cons.

MM: It has the benefit of meaning that you do get to choose, and you can pair your work setting with both your own personal preferences and what you’ve got to get done. But it’s really quite a different process. So, it is important to recognize the intensity of that difference for some workforce demographics and really commit to an empathetic approach to change management. Doing that from both the top of the organization down, as well as from the bottom up. You really need to give people the autonomy and control in their environments to have that be successful.

On the topic of change management, Melissa lets us in on two words that are the secret to successful change management – Engagement and Data.

MM: It is mostly about participation. Our whole approach to workplace is to make the design, and the change, and the behavioral aspects inclusive and participatory. And then to bring a lot of data and information sciences to help people see how things are actually working and what’s going on. So often we can’t start a design or a change or transformation project because people each have a different view of what is the current state. When you are able to see with data and analytics what’s actually going on, then you can have a much more productive conversation about what you might want to be doing differently in the future.

We asked Melissa to elaborate on the types of data FMs should collect when initiating a change or transformation project. She tells us how data shouldn’t be entirely collected from scratch – rather it is important to identify and leverage data that currently lives within your organization.

MM: First of all, what I often say PLASTARC does is weaving big data and little data together. So one of the things we do is help organizations understand what data they already have available. Whether that be building systems data, security systems data, we might even be looking at pantry order information. Really any data set that is enough adjacent to human occupancy and behavior for it to be an indicator. We are constantly looking for data that already exist in the context of our client organizations as to avoid having to deploy an additional data collection effort that might be duplicating something they already have.


If collecting existing data is step one, what comes next? Melissa shares the process PLASTARC takes when knitting big data with little data.

MM: First we do a data inventory or data audit to figure out what is available and what’s already embedded in the systems and process they already have. Then we visualize that data so it can be a point of conversation, and so our clients can understand the relationship between those data and architecture, real estate, and facilities decisions. Then we put the puzzle pieces together to identify what information is truly missing so that when we are proposing what data collection that we might do, that it’s truly complementary. 

But gathering data is only half the equation! In fact, it’s not the size of the data that matters, but how you use it.

MM: The other piece of weaving small and big data together is that we are analyzing big data and then looking to move to the small data or the story scale. By presenting data and then conversing about it, we are spending time with the client talking and understanding what that data means, and what the implications are. So the real insight comes from the combination of the two, big data, which can show us systemic things, with small data, the conversations and the people persepctives. In this way, we gain an ability to understand the implications of the information might be – that’s where you move from just 1’s and 0’s to real insights, learning things about a work environment that would really make a difference for change.

Considering the variety of shapes, sizes, and structures of organizations, we asked Melissa if there were common or typical initiators of a workplace change project.

MM: Almost always the impetus of the change is something that is not a single person but rather an external force, something that cannot be helped by the organization. Whether that be a lease that is expiring, or an external competitive situation that the occupant group has different clients, or different competitors, or is having to change who they hire. Change happens when companies are needing to think differently about their space because of who they are attracting. So, I would say big change often does not come by choice but is rather initiated by some other force likely external to the organization.

Melissa explains how once a trigger point is activated, whether it be real estate and facilities related, or external market related, that the leadership of the project is going to relate to what the pain point is within the organization that has to change.

MM: So if an organization is changing because of a lease expiry it is likely going to be the real estate or facilities management person that is responsible for that transformation. If an organization is in transition because of an external reputation or brand or marketing issue and that’s the reason for their change of work environment than that person might be more in charge or closer to the project.

Interestingly, this has lead to a new trend in the industry – an increasing involvement of HR and People related departments in facilities initiatives.

MM: I think one of the things we are seeing as a workplace trend is the increasing interest of HR and People and Talent professionals in relation to architecture and facilities projects because we have the increased frequency of the change being driven by who an organization is trying to attract from an employee and employment perspective. You have more HR and Talent leaders engaged in real estate and facilities transformation projects because of our focus on the millennial workforce and the need to offer different kinds of space environments in order to attract those individuals.


Considering the stereotypes regarding certain industries being stodgy and slow to change, we were curious to ask Melissa if she has observed particular sectors that were quicker at adopting a new workplace strategy compared to others. Melissa identifies four sectors that she has found to be more inclined to think differently about their work environment.

1. The financial sector and particularly retail banking, consulting and advisory services

MM: The first and foremost is the financial sector, in large part because they are more quantitative, they are more return on investment-focused, they are more inclined to kind of see that square footage and that real estate is needing to perform in certain kinds of ways. They often tend to be looking for ways to compress the square footage, but to maintain or increase performance.

2. Biotech life science and pharmaceuticals

MM: The next is biotech life science and pharma; organizations that are more culturally inclined to understand a quantitative nature of human experience, health, and people benefits. They are most likely to have a Chief Ergonomist on staff and so really thinking about the workplace from a health and wellness perspective has positioned them more naturally to be leaders. Also being more scientific in nature positions them well to be pushing their workplace.

3. The technology sector due to their demographics, their sectoral discipline and their tendency for high growth.

MM: The next category is technology firms in large part because of the speed of change and speed of growth they’ve incurred in recent years. When you are fast growth the physical work environment which can relay so much information about the culture and the behaviors and the expectations and the standards of a company is even more powerful when you are growing because then your space is like a manual on how to be a great employee and really shows people how to behave and what’s valued and expected.

4. Somewhat of a surprise, the Federal Government.

MM: The federal government has been more progressive than one might think. In part because of legislation – one is sustainability and the most sustainable buildings are the ones we don’t build(!) because we use space better, to begin with. They also have teleworking initiatives at a policy level. Between Obama also wrote executive orders on footprint constraint which really pushed the federal workplace sector to be more in line with where contemporary office and commercial sectors were going.

The bottom line on successful change management? Don’t do it for the sole purposes of improving your organization’s bottom line.

MM: I think the biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful projects are whether you are doing it to save costs or whether you are doing it to make a better workplace. And the occupant can pretty quickly and easily see which is which. The physical result may be the same at the end of the day; you might have more open space, you may have smaller individual spaces, you may have more shared work points, or shared alternate meeting and lounge environments, and different technology solutions. But the categorical difference between the program or the initiative having the intention of costs savings versus having the intention of occupant performance improvement is quite obviously the difference between black and white.

What excites Melissa the most about her work? The ability to support the movement towards the golden era of workplace design.

MM: I am a person who wants to change, and transform, and influence – and that is really to change how we are thinking about workplace and people. We are shifting from a functional, manufacturing and process perspective to what I think of as a golden era of workplace design. Where we can for the first time truly be designing spaces for people and the occupant experience because we don’t need to be designing spaces for equipment either manufacturing equipment or computer processing equipment. Even in laboratory, and science, and medical, and academic environments, we still have all the tools and capabilities to be designing for the occupant and the human experience.

For more information on managing change, read PLASTARC’s article, Degrees of Change, which covers some of the questions and steps to take if you are in a position of leading transformation from a facilities management perspective. Or, feel free to contact Melissa on Twitter @plastarc or get in touch on LinkedIn.

What role does data play in your change management initiatives? Share your tips for managing change in the comments below.