Is it a bus? Is it a plane? No, it’s your workplace

Neil Usher
5 min readJun 7, 2023
Elisabeth Lies on Unsplash

Useful analogies are in short supply in Workplace. But here’s one that may resonate. It relates to how we might think about the operation of our workspace. It’s especially relevant considering the reports that organisations are looking to reduce their workspace by 10–20% — something that, as Mark Eltringham rightly points out — they could have done before the pandemic.

Over several decades before pandemic, with office attendance levels at 40–60% average daily, peaking around 60–80% midweek (yes this happened pre-Covid), we learned that the ebb and flow of people combined with ‘natural’ absence (holidays and sick leave) allowed us to create a palette of worksettings supporting desk provision at a ratio of 7–8:10. It promised both space reduction and more dynamic workspace.

However, we still tended to be conservative in our application of the idea. While the attendance levels and desk provision ratios ensured that we rarely, if ever, ran out of desks on even the busiest days, the waste from under-occupied space was still a problem. However much we reduced the space, we always seemed to have too much space.

During the pandemic, special measures were needed. We had to separate every desk by another desk (the ‘Covid overlay’), then to know who was coming in, who was actually in and who they’d sat next to, in case they brought the virus with them. Some achieved this with desk booking apps, of which a flurry appeared as they’re simple to create, some with shared spreadsheets — the outcome was the same.

Post-pandemic, booking systems are still around. But as organisations begin to trim or hack their workspace based on patterns of hybrid working, and re-balance their worksettings in favour of interactive spaces and away from desks, we’re in many cases further driving the under-utilisation of workspace by restricting access to only those who have booked a desk for the day. Even if that restriction is only perceived.

Part of this is driven by the continuing need for desks, irrespective of ‘brave new world’ pronouncements from the top floor double aspect corner office that we don’t come into the office do stuff we can do at home. As in, our alpha work. But, of course, we do, because we want to be doing it in proximity to our colleagues for when we need each other. Our world isn’t nearly segregated between solo desk work and full-on interaction, most of what we do happens somewhere in between.

The other part is driven by the desire on the part of organisations to provide the certainty of a desk for those making the journey, for fear that they won’t make it without. And that desk needs to be right next to a specific person, in the same place every time. Even though there are lots of others to choose from.

We’re pursuing an agenda of space reduction, ‘more with less’ as it’s often stated, but we can’t do it while stuck in a pandemic mindset.

During the pandemic we lost the element of trust built up over decades of workplace design and operation that organic, varied workspace can function dynamically. In this time, we’d moved away from assigning one person to one space. Also, we lost sight of the fact that we’re often a member of several teams, and that our teams need to work adjacent to other teams. And that proximity needs vary from day to day. We’d therefore also moved away from seeing the organisation as a static hierarchy.

In short, right now, we’re seeing the workplace as an aeroplane.

The end-to-end journey (our working day) is fixed, the seat (desk) is the essential unit of occupancy, we book a guaranteed seat and a luggage allowance (locker), and both are ours until the journey’s over. Which means the organisation can only ever consider its capacity as the number of seats available on the plane.

This is especially problematic when an organisation decides to re-balance its worksettings, taking out desks in favour of other settings, but leaving a booking system in place.

Because it says that to be present you need to book a desk, as desks are now a scarce resource — so don’t show up if you haven’t booked. So, a workplace with 500 seats of which 150 are desks effectively creates a daily capacity of 150. A number of those booking won’t show up, and for much of the time those that do arrive will be away from their booked desk using the other settings or the common amenities. Altogether creating a commercially and environmentally unsustainable workspace, and a flat and uninteresting experience for those present. Like a plane.

But we have to see our workplace as a bus.

People will get on and get off, using all the seats. If they have to stand for a short while because it’s rammed, they’ll take a seat when it becomes free, which is usually in no time at all. We’ll allow those who need to sit down to do so. We’ll sit next to different people and speak to them (okay, that rarely happens on a bus — but that’s down to us). We may take part of the journey, get off, do something else and get back on again later, without leaving our jumper on the seat. We’ll get to see far more people than just those who’ve booked seats for the day, as people come and go. On some days the bus may be too big, on others too small. But it’ll be able to handle the unexpected.

Of course, we’re not going back to under-utilised pre-pandemic agile workspaces, either. We can — and must — be bolder with our determination of space needed. We can now do what we should have done before the pandemic. The bus will therefore need smart tech to understand and forecast patterns of use in real time, allow teams to form and re-form and to get space together when they need it, leaving the rest of the bus to operate dynamically. All without any faff. We’ll also be able to finally ditch the archaic view of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ worksettings and treat the workspace as a whole, to make sure we derive value from it all.

So, our 500-seat workplace will see varied patterns of attendance as teams and individuals require, with no natural or accidental limitations. If 300 people show up, there’ll always be a desk for those that need one, along with capacity in other worksettings. Teams will get the space they need, for the time they need it, with the people they need it with.

The magic of the bus.



Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog