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Spatial Awareness

31 August 2012

Martin Atkinson - Managing Director of PiMS Workspace

Understanding how well your office is utilised is the first step to stream lining space, driving down costs and reducing your carbon footprint - Martin Atkinson, the Managing Director of PiMS Workspace explains the importance of auditing your office and adapting it according to your findings.

Years ago, if a colleague was ill or absent from work, the empty space at their desk would explain all. Nowadays it’s a rare sight to see half the seats in the office full. Whilst technology has advanced rapidly, so too have the trends in how and where we work. With cloud computing, flexible working and mobile technology, the boundaries of what we define as a ‘workspace’ are ever changing.

But whilst we are aware of such changes, many organisations misjudge the big picture and are yet to adapt the office to suit modern working behaviour. When you consider the financial, environmental and organisational benefits of reducing space, it begs the question, why?

The fact is, without a thorough occupancy audit it’s difficult to have an accurate understanding of exactly how workers use their office. Take, for example, four members of staff working in one office, each of which has their own desk. When you consider that one works part time, two work from home (twice a week), one travels overseas frequently, and all are repeatedly in meetings or another area of the building, it is probably a rare occasion for more than one to be in the office at any given time.

In actual fact two - or even one - workstation could easily accommodate the needs of these workers. However, by simply taking a quick staff head count, without any analysis of working behaviour, things could appear differently. When you consider this on a large, and perhaps more complicated scale, it becomes clear why today’s offices are only ever 50% occupied.

Who, what, where and when
An occupancy audit should analyse the day-to-day usage of all the office workspace offering an insight into who uses what, when and how. From hot desks to meeting rooms, break-out spaces to quiet zones, a space audit should consider every aspect of the working environment, revealing how frequently and effectively it is used.

A good audit will be based around an in-depth analysis of every single area of the building with a regular and consistent assessment of occupancy. It should also investigate the working behaviour of each member of staff taking into consideration their organisational department, the nature of their work and the regularity of their tasks.

An audit of occupancy should also examine the working culture specific to that particular department and how this effects the location of the working individual. This will then determine the overall spatial requirements for each company division, which will differ greatly as some will be more stationary or office bound than others. A workspace audit can also examine matters such as power supply, lighting and heating to reveal specific areas of the building that may be using energy inefficiently according to the level of utilisation.

Measuring occupancy
An increasingly sophisticated range of high-tech tools and services are currently on the market to measure workplace occupancy. These tools are capable of capturing real-time utilisation with unquestionable accuracy. Using Computer Aided Design (CAD) building layout drawings, these can provide occupancy reports that allow the user to identify vacant space, area ownership and can apply names to specific desks and areas. Movement sensors can also track and record details of traffic moving through various areas of the building.

However, a cheaper and perhaps more frequently used method is human observation. This technique simply involves a small team of people walking around a building once every hour over the course of two weeks, noting occupancy levels at desks, meeting rooms, recreational areas etc. For a more detailed breakdown auditors can also record the way in which space is being used (e.g. using computer, formal or informal meetings, leisure breaks or phone calls).

It is important to remember that when auditing space, a coat over a chair or an empty (yet reserved) meeting room is not an indication of occupation. Such details should be recorded though, as they may offer information on, for example the misuse of workspaces and the location of staff’s workplace - all of which is crucial in developing an idea of how well your space is utilised.

All the data gathered can then be broken down by function and a clear presentation of how the company is using its working environment can act as a cornerstone for any future workspace decisions. It will also clarify ways in which you could hone your facilities, removing under-used resources and replacing them with elements that are more in tune with your staff’s needs. With accurate statistics you can confidently evaluate the appropriateness and impact of any areas such as open plan environments, increased density of occupancy or flexible working policies.

Avoiding concern
When conducting an audit of occupancy, it is vital that this process does not present a risk to employee relations and motivation. This is best avoided by communicating effectively the reasons behind the audit, highlighting the fact that the analysis will result in providing a working environment that will best suit the needs of the employees.

In these uncertain times job security is always a concern and the thought of big brother watching everyone’s movements might be met with suspicion and resentment if an audit takes place without prior explanation.

Adapting to change
Inevitably the findings of an occupancy audit will dictate the next steps in reassessing your workspace. It is more than likely that the number of people utilising the office at any given time will be far less than expected.

As well as revealing the true level of office utilisation, audits also often illustrate the efficiency of certain workspaces. For example, it may be that two similar purpose serving environments, such as a breakout zone and an informal meeting room, may not be utilised as frequently as possible, therefore can double up as the same environment, reducing both space and costs.

Meeting rooms in general can be frequently underused. There is often a significant discrepancy between the size of meeting rooms and the number of people attending meetings at any one time. Rooms designed for eight to ten people will probably be used by meetings of three or four people on average. The result is a 300 square foot room being used when a 150 sq. ft. room would do.

Small changes can make a big difference to the amount of space your business needs, without having to resort to an overcrowded environment.

Introducing flexibility
Many large global organisations that have audited their space and understood the level of utilisation in the office have now introduced the reservation-based desk booking system, known as ‘hoteling’. Here companies are removing cubicles, telephones, partitions, private meeting rooms and separate offices for bosses and are replacing them with locker areas and clear desk spaces for laptops.

These working environments- accompanied with flexible working- are aiding large organisations to drop from occupying 70,000to 50,000 square foot facilities, hugely reducing the office desk count.

If however, reducing all partitions and private desk space sounds too adventurous, you could begin by introducing direct access to the facilities required to work efficiently - be it at a shared desk, a quiet workplace area, meeting zone or resource area.

Adding activity based work areas to a working environment, such as meeting zones, collaboration areas or one-to-one pods, can help reduce unutilised desk space whilst encouraging flexibility. Supporting specific working needs aids flexible working, offering ad hoc workstations as opposed to designated desk spaces. Such areas offer a range of settings that encourage workers to complete tasks for spontaneous meetings, brainstorms or isolated work.

When you consider that an office workstation in the UK costs between £5,000 and £20,000 per year, taking the time to audit your space more than pays off. By measuring and managing occupancy the average employer will save at least £2,000 per employee per year. Your working environment can be modernised, your worker’s needs supported and your energy bills vastly reduced. All by analysing the data that you have at your fingertips.

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