Go with the Work Flow

June 30, 2011
Structuring workspace around how work is done allows for optimal utilization

Corporate real estate is a valuable asset, typically second only to payroll in expense. But if you're not fully utilizing that asset, you're essentially losing money.

But how do you know if space is underutilized? How we work in an office environment is changing. Once bound to individual desks and cubicle spaces for solitary assignments, we are increasingly driven to work collaboratively and even remotely. The workspace must encourage, rather than encroach on, this evolving method of interactive productivity.

"There's a lot of wasted real estate usage," explains John Anderson, president and CEO of PeopleCube, an intelligent workplace, resource, and energy management technology company. "If you walk into a building, typically 40 to 50% of the real estate is not being used on a given day. I'm talking about conference rooms, cubicles, offices, etc. If I've got 40 to 50% of my building not being used, I'm spending a lot of money on energy that I don't need."

The problem isn't necessarily that there is far more space than employees, but that the provided space isn't always being used. "Promises that technology will allow people to work anytime, anywhere are coming true, freeing knowledge workers from the need to come to the office to get their work done," says Dean Strombom, principal with Gensler. "Look around most workspaces today and you'll see lots of empty desks. It's not that there isn't someone assigned to the desk, it's just that they are only physically there about 30 to 40% of the time."

This gap in space provided and space used is where money is lost. Define this gap to help to determine your workspace allocation strategy.

"We're definitely seeing building owners and managers trying to gain more efficiency in the utilization of space," says Patricia Roberts, executive vice president of strategic consulting with Jones Lang LaSalle. "So what they're trying to do is really understand the work activities and to match the space requirements to the changing nature of work."

Measure the Potential
To determine if your office space is being utilized to its full potential, you have to measure and determine what is happening in the space on a day-to-day basis. Unverified assumptions of space use are often incorrect.

"The most common myth about space utilization is that space is not used as people think it is," explains Chris Hood, managing director of workplace innovation for the workplace strategies group for CB Richard Ellis. "It's partly a question of what people want to be true – when asked, typically managers will very objectively respond that their employees are in X percent of the time, but then when you actually measure it, it's something a lot less than that."

Whether employees are in the office and using the space will answer one space utilization question. But how the space is being used is an entirely different question. Study your company's workflow to see how the space is – or isn't – being utilized. "We find many organizations don't have a good understanding of their workflow and work processes," Roberts says. "Do very in-depth studies to understand workflow, work processes, and work activities. Do research to identify the gaps between what you have today and where you'd like to take it. We definitely recommend that the strategy developed is based on a solid understanding of those work patterns."

There are many options when it comes to evaluating how your space is being used. These techniques can be as simple as "bed checks" – consisting of a person walking through the office, desk by desk, and checking those who are in the office at their assigned desks and who aren't – to more technology-based methods, like using a badge in/out system to see who comes into the office, software systems to see who reserves desks and meeting rooms and how often, or even using chairs with occupancy sensors to determine the occupancy rate of chairs in conference rooms or desked spaces.

However, you can't simply decide to do one study and decide the space is working as is, or that you'll change the space once to better meet how it is currently being used. Space utilization studies should be an ongoing practice, because as the workspace adapts to meet the needs of employees, the employees will continue to adapt their ways of working.

While there isn't a set time period between when you should do evaluations, Strombom recommends evaluating an area's layout and utilization "every 5 years at a minimum, but 'constantly' is the right answer."

Transforming Technology
Technology has a great impact on space utilization, as it allows for increasing mobility in the workspace – both inside and outside of the office. This mobility allows less work to be done in a dedicated workspace, creating more underutilized space. Laptops, cellphones, and Wi-Fi allow employees to perform their jobs nearly anywhere – including from casual seating areas in the office, their couches or desks at home, and public spaces that include coffee shops and airports. With this mobility-enabled freedom – and permission from employers – employees are taking advantage of the ability to do work outside of the office.

"There's a great deal of mobility around, and it's not necessarily mobility that people have driven by policy or design, but often it's just happened because of the enabling qualities of modern technology," Hood says. "People figure out what they have to do that day, how they're best going to do it, and sometimes that doesn't involve the office."

In addition, mobility tends to beget mobility. "The more mobile you become, the more mobile you become," Hood continues. "What that actually means is that, for example, you are able to measure today what space 500 people would really need in terms of a physical amount of space to meet their needs, then in two years' time, that space required to essentially support those 500 people would be less. As they become more mobile, they become used to becoming mobile and don't come into the office as much."

When employees work remotely instead of coming into the office every day, their assigned spaces sit empty and unutilized. This space that you're paying for is not being used, which means it is money lost.

Utilization Untruths

There are many misconceptions when it comes to office space utilization. According to Dean Strombom, principal with Gensler, office space utilization is not:

  • Only about me
  • Only about technology
  • Strictly open plan
  • One size fits all
  • Work at home
  • About office size
  • Only about collaboration
  • About less square footage
  • Just cost savings
  • Easy


Technology also has an impact on workspace configuration. LCD monitors and laptops take up far less room than CRT monitors and large computer tower units, allowing for smaller individual workspaces. In addition, some companies are going so far as to not assign each employee a dedicated workspace, because employee mobility often leaves those spaces vacated.

"Gone are the days when we typically assigned offices that were cubicles and conference rooms to workers and assumed that was sufficient," Roberts explains. "What we're really finding is that people are very mobile, people are working anywhere supported by mobile technology, and offices are very underutilized."

Culling Cubefarms
The evolution of how people work is also leading to a transition in the way workspace is set up. The cubefarms of Dilbert-ville offices are slowly dwindling, as office floor plans are allowing for more flexibility.

"In general, cubicle sizes are getting smaller, the panel heights are getting lower, and these environments are becoming more open," says Roberts. "I wouldn't go so far as to say the cubicle is dead, but I think we can look across the world to see places, like Asia-Pacific and Europe, where other solutions – like benching – are more prevalent. I don't think they'll ever go away, but I think more and more people are thinking about more open environments supported by enclosed spaces and collaborative spaces, so that when those activities need to be done, there's a place for that. And especially in a knowledge economy, cubicles are becoming smaller, lower, and more open."

Reducing cube space and relying on a more open floor plan is one way to enhance space utilization by allowing more workers to utilize the same amount of space, but without the claustrophobic effect of cube walls closing in. However, this can be seen as a negative if employees cling to how work was once done – including unused file cabinets and the privacy associated with cube walls.

Incorporating hoteling or free-address workspaces is another technique for reducing the gap between space provided and space used. "Clearly there are companies with large populations of mobile workers who are not present all the time," explains Hood. "What we've tried to do is predict the amount of time they would spend in the office and the amount of time they would need a desk. And what we essentially said is, 'We will provide enough desk space for the collective decisions of all those people and make it available to them on a first-come, first-served basis."

Foster a Collaborative Environment
A more open floor plan is just one component of fostering collaboration. Employees may have the ability to speak with each other due to close proximity and the lack of barriers, but by itself this concept does not match space to the way people are naturally working.

"The dominant theme is to do more with less. Some of that is driven by cost objectives but also the desire for a more productive workspace," explains Coy Davidson, senior vice president in Colliers International's Houston office. "The trend is for more open collaboration space as people work less in silos and are increasingly part of project teams that require more collaboration."

Speaking and sharing with each other are now encouraged rather than inhibited. "We're probably seeing more attention focused on collaborative spaces than anything else these days," says Roberts. "It's really based on an understanding that knowledge workers, who comprise the majority of the 21st-century workspace, are really driven by people's ability to talk to each other, to share knowledge, to share information – and not only in the form of formal, scheduled meetings, but by creating collaborative environments that allow them to connect in a more spontaneous or ad hoc way."

Providing collaborative space doesn't necessarily mean providing more structured conference or meeting rooms. These rooms often need to be scheduled hours, days, or even weeks in advance – this defeats the purpose of providing an area for spontaneous communication.

Try adding small tables with chairs located near clusters of desks, a couple of chairs with a whiteboard in the corner, or even allocate space in the cafeteria or lobby area. The purpose of these spaces is to be available whenever a small group suddenly needs to get together to discuss an idea or plan – they don't need to be fancy, just accommodating and available.

These drop-in spaces can also accommodate your mobile workers, allowing you to further reduce the number of individual workspaces.

Consider Company Culture
Your ideal office environment will depend on the culture of your company. There isn't a best one-size-fits-all approach for determining the layout of space.

"For many of us, the office is becoming less a place about sitting in desks all day long and doing heads-down work, because that can be done from a lot of different places," says Hood. "So maybe the real value of the office is different. It's about interaction, it's about meeting people, it's about overhearing people, and interrupting people. It's more energetic, more energized, and it's all about interaction. And what that tends to suggest is that people are up and about, meeting with other people, as a routine part of their daily work style; they're not sitting at a desk all day long. If you've got a lot of people doing that, the environment which best supports that and the technologies which best support it, become different than one desk, one person."

However, not all office cultures are conducive to the energized environment discussed by Hood and thrive on flexible or open office environments. "It varies by industry and, to some degree, region," Davidson explains. "For example, in Houston, which has a significant cluster of oil and gas companies, many have moved away from open layouts and back to private office environments. The same would not hold true in Austin or Silicon Valley, or any market with a high percentage of technology companies."

"The nature of employees' work and company culture is not always conducive for a completely open office environment," he continues. "In some cases where a higher proportion of private workspaces is preferred, collaboration is promoted by providing more common open lounge and conference areas for use by employees and teams."

A more conservative, reserved company may compensate for the lack of an open office plan by accommodating collaboration with multiple lounge, touchdown, or conference spaces. A more cutting-edge company that embraces an open office plan may not need to incorporate as many of these spaces.

Communication and Change Management
"If you're going to dramatically alter your space utilization from its current strategy, it is critical to manage that change by educating staff and seeking input in order to get employee buy-in," Davidson says.

It isn't always easy to take away an assigned cubicle space. An assigned cubicle is an employee's home away from home, an employee's territory and foothold in the workplace.

"The impact of a well done-communication and change management can be dramatic," Hood says. "For example, we did a project in Monterrey, Mexico. Typically, Mexico is a tough place to implement nonterritorial office solutions because there's sort of a machismo that seems to exist – their workspace is who they are and if they lose it, there's a really negative tone. But our management team in Mexico said, "OK, we get the program, we understand, we've seen this mobility here in Monterrey ourselves, and we're going to really get ahold of this thing and we're going to manage it very energetically."

Due to management embracing the plan and requesting ample communication material to provide to employees when promoting the project, they were able to escape much of the negativity formerly associated with nonterritorial office solutions. After the post-evaluation surveys taken 5-6 months after the project, the project was deemed a success. "We got the best results anywhere in the world in arguably one of the most difficult places to implement in the world, and it was all down to the quality of the communications process," he continues.

Communicating to employees why the company is making the transformation supports employee buy-in and cooperation. Making employees feel embraced, consulted, and drawn into the process will have a tremendous correlation to the success of a project.

Consider employee feedback before or after implementing a change. Even if you hadn't considered changing workspace layout, your employees may tell you that you really should consider it.

"If you get a response to a workplace survey that sounds like this: 'It's just a cube farm in a box where I go to work,'" says Strombom, "it's definitely time for a change."

Kylie Wroblaski ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.

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