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Space Counts

13 April 2010

Flexible working is a key consideration for the recruitment and retention of staff, and increasingly for maximising and reducing the costs of occupied space. Frank Booty asks PeopleCube's John Anderson how new tools can make this work

MOST MANAGERS SAID Generation Y employees (those born between 1979 and 1989) are the most difficult to recruit, because of high expectations around pay, career advancement, flexible schedules and overall work environment. Holding on to top performers has equally been identified as critical, irrespective of economic conditions. A key consideration when selecting a potential employer can be whether that employer allows flexible work schedules and actively encourages working from home.
Flexible working has its benefits for business too as alternative workspace programmes can significantly reduce costs and enhance sustainability efforts. Growing transportation costs, greater workforce mobility, and the desire to reduce carbon emissions are all driving factors in creating flexible work programmes.
In the UK we are reaching a certain maturity with flexible workplaces. Organisations are defining new imperatives as far as managing these workplaces are concerned. PeopleCube estimates that the emerging management trends of 2009 as far as property and FM are concerned will continue to become established during this year. Simply put, these are: making the best use of video conferencing; and the adoption of the software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model for implementing flexible workspace programmes, but above all organisations are seeking to capture data that can indicate actual utilisation of space rather than relying on estimations of their space requirements.
The big driver for adopting a different approach to space utilisation is the difficult economy. Real-estate is often the second largest overhead after people and the importance of offering flexible working arrangements cannot be overstressed. If flexible working is part of the company culture there has to be a set of management processes that neither put a strain on the organisation nor hinder an employee’s ability to do their job. If not handled carefully, introducing a new approach to workspace can have all sorts of adverse affects on morale as many have found out to their cost.One example is of a consulting business in Paris that saw the majority of their consultants working in nearby cafes rather than spend time in an office that they didn’t consider to support their needs.
There is no doubt of the potentially huge improvement to efficiency; not only with reduced real-estate, travel and energy costs, but improved productivity and increased employee retention. To make workplaces work for employees who do not have full time accommodation requires planning. The reaction of senior management typically is to introduce flexible schemes where few own their own space. One of the first  considerations is the ratio of people to desks, organisations apply anything up to a 7:1 ratio but finding that optimum point for the organisation is critical for a productive work environment. Data capture and analysis of course can help drive the right decision.
“Of course we have been helping organisations rationalise real-estate by managing room utilisation, video conferencing and travel optimisation,” said John Anderson, CEO of PeopleCube. “Now we are finding that managing isn’t enough. It’s all about analysis and taking action based on how space is actually being used to make sure that the right type of spaces are created for the business.”
The first step must be to collect data on space utilisation. There are several ways of doing this; linking to the access control system or using the phone system to establish presence. But these do not record traffic, just individual utilisation.
Last Autumn, PeopleCube entered into a partnership with CountWise, an industry leader in people-traffic monitoring solutions, to create a people-counting solution for  workspaces that also links to specific workspace resource management and data analysis systems.
The technology tracks how many people enter and exit a space by using a combination of shape recognition and motion detection, with the scope of the video-based counting system enabling multizone and bi-directional counting. The electronic eye has to be angled to maximise data capture; currently there is over 95 percent data accuracy but the goal is to hit 98.7 per cent.
The advantage of such a system is that if regularly the room or space is not within an agreed percentage capacity that makes business sense, the FM is able to repurpose the room. Using CAFM systems together with IWMS (integrated workplace management systems) input data can be accepted and used for space scheduling – by comparing actual and planned scenarios – to produce a business planning tool for space. Data can be pulled from the BMS, based on the schedule of space which outlines that it has been booked. Heating and lighting facilities are then geared up for that event. If no one checks in to use the space after a certain time - say 10 minutes - a message is sent back to the BMS and the heat and lighting are turned off.
Cost savings come from paying only for the space that’s needed and not paying to heat, cool or light existing space that isn’t being fully utilised. That’s real-time management. Take a three-storey building where someone wants to book a hot desk. By ‘hibernating’ certain floors, the FM ensures all the ground floor space is used up first by programming the system so that it only shows the user availability on that floor, thereby concentrating the population and managing the space more effectively. It is easy to visualise how the system can be attuned to disaster recovery scenarios – the FM will always know where people are in the building.
“The key is to integrate the systems that support the management of a building so that they don’t operate in isolation. After all there are all important synergies to help understand how a building is used. Our resource scheduling and business intelligence systems are based on a standard SQL Server, with an open applications programming interface to standard BMS, such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls and Daikia, as well as other systems such as access control and CAFM,” said Anderson,. “With this sort of approach you can start to apportion costs, as well as manage the services that you deliver when the space is full and those that you switch off when it is empty.”
The Holy Grail for FMs and corporate real estate executives is to track ‘actual’ versus ‘planned’ space utilisation to reduce real-estate costs. PeopleCube’s experience has shown that in the existing economic climate, customers are seeking the most optimal use of the space they have, enabling them to divest of their underperforming assets from a property perspective. There is a potentially huge return on investment up for grabs, not only in terms of reducing real-estate by divesting or mothballing but for the organisation as a whole as travel and energy costs can be better managed.
“Everyone pays attention to return on investment, particularly when there is a squeeze on capital expenditure,” said Anderson. “Typically there is a 12-18 month payback on introducing systems such as PeopleCounter and the software to run data analysis of workplace utilisation. What it can do is provide the confidence to make the right decision about real estate requirements for the future as well as identify areas of cost saving for the present.”
● Frank Booty is a freelance writer

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