Space oddities: too much of it (and what to do)

Photo by Daniel Salcius on Unsplash

Workspace. We have too much of it. We’re struggling to understand demand and supply. But in responding to a changed landscape, we can do things differently.

At the Workplace Event at the NEC in April, my talk was focussed on ten things that need to change in Workplace. I’m going to expand on each, one of the ten a week. This is the first.

Where we are now

Here’s the present situation, post-pandemic.

Most organisations have realised they have too much office space — but they always did have too much. Like highly elasticated trousers. Pre-pandemic utilisation studies revealed over several decades that peak occupancy was around 40–60% on a day-to-day basis, whether the workplace featured allocated desks or agile space. But the empty space was rarely the same space, justified (but only true in part) as resulting from the daily ‘ebb and flow’ of people coming and going.

The proven success of ‘work anywhere’ (mainly home) has removed the default position of the office as the ‘place that work happens’. Thus far, attendance has generally reached around 30% maximum, usually midweek. Which means 70% waste. Again, not always the same waste. Of course this varies in the form of a normal distribution, with some organisations rejecting office space altogether (mostly those who already did, or had substantially) and some insisting on full attendance. Most in the middle somewhere.

Why does this problem continue?

Supply, inherently inflexible, has always responded to demand on a relatively static basis. Demand has historically been calculated based on the total number of possible attendees multiplied by a given amount of space per head, including amenities and shared spaces. In the UK this is around 10–12 m2. ‘Space budgets’ that pursue detail usually arrive at roughly the same total as the shortcut. Their detail adds a degree of confidence.

The total number of people required to be accommodated has always been vague. Headcount needs aren’t often known by teams, and therefore organisations, other than in the short term. They’re ever-evolving, a work in progress, in perpetual beta. Then mergers and acquisitions change everything.

Data collection has generally been a one-time intervention focussed solely on space performance (inputs) rather than organisational performance (outcomes). As in, how many people are there and do they like it. Sensors may gather data in real time, but they’re just showing us how many people are there and where. That’s all.

As unused space isn’t the same space, it’s often distributed around the building in tiny pockets that are always changing. They’re too difficult or disruptive to consolidate, or ‘de-frag’ (for those who remember having a HDD). So under-capacity remains locked into the problem, but we can’t identify where it is exactly.

The results: we don’t know how much space we need, so we continue to over-estimate just in case everyone shows up. We don’t know what contribution our space makes to organisational productivity and innovation so we continue to over-estimate just in case everyone shows up and something happens. Even though we wouldn’t know if it actually did. Meanwhile, our over-supply contributes negatively to human experience (too few people present), organisational efficiency (it costs too much and the benefits aren’t being realised) and environmental sustainability (generating needless emissions). ‘Workplace strategy’ will continue to be guesswork, however well informed it’s believed to be.

What needs to change?

There are five things we can do today to address the problems described.

1. Realistic demand forecasting: Everyone isn’t coming in. They never have done. Three decades of utilisation studies tell us that. And if most happen one day miraculously to do so, they’ll have to hang out at something other than a desk. We’ve reached a stage where to forecast effectively is beyond human computation. We can, however, forecast demand from captured daily requests for space against how many people actually used it, and use AI to forecast future needs based on a combination of complex patterns and derived reasoned assumptions. AI can do the stuff humans can’t.

2. Flexible supply: Dynamic occupancy technology can provide teams the space they need on a daily basis, responding immediately to local variations in who wishes to attend. Which removes the need for the traditional stuff of space planning in the form of static team zones and neighbourhoods, as they harbour our unused space and prevent its consolidation. Most simple rule-based desk booking tech operates within these zones and therefore reinforces rather than solves the problem.

3. Smart building management: In the short to medium term, until lease events allow, rather than gathering data as a one-time intervention and planning and delivering a space re-organisation, smart technology is needed to consolidate space demand and gather unused space in areas of the building that can be closed down on a daily basis if not required, in real time. That means informing the BMS in advance through consolidated allocation, rather than responding via sensors. The ceremonial de-frag with all that it entails isn’t needed when it’s a real-time outcome.

4. Informed space reduction: Around 70% of the costs of an office are non-discretionary — we have to pay them contractually and legally. So as patterns identified at (4) are understood, space can be identified and exited when the opportunity arises or the market enables. There’s the environmental cost, too: when we realise a typical CBD floor generates the equivalent CO2 each year of driving a diesel car 36 times around the equator, it brings home the issue.

5. Using what we have to make a difference: If workspace isn’t making a contribution, there’s no point in having it. We’ve demonstrated that other than for a small proportion of most workforces (sub 5%) who can’t work from home, physical space is most in demand for proximity and interactive pursuits, with individual focus space for ‘breakout’. This could — until we understand more — leave our proportionate balance of space roughly the same as pre-pandemic. But it’s no longer about parking lot ‘free desk’ approaches, most people will have one of those at home. It means ensuring we provide the most important draw to physical workspace of all — enabling the right people to work together at the right time. Then we stand the best chance of understanding the positive contribution the workplace can make, and allowing people the choice to work elsewhere when needed.

The possibility of having an appropriately sized, focussed, lower cost, higher quality, better performing and sustainable workplace that creates a fantastic experience by enabling the right people to work together as they need, responding daily to changes in the needs and priorities of people, teams and the organisation, is very real.

We won’t get there doing what we’ve always done. But we already know what we have to do. We just have to do it.

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Neil Usher

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