We all know what an office is supposed to look like, right? An aseptic lobby full of sharp edges but with a funky piece of modern art that says, hey it’s fun to work here. On the upper floors, a belly full of cubicles surrounded by a rib cage of middle management offices. Beyond those, as many corner offices as you can fit into a heptagon floor plate made possible by the balconettes where you go to look for a cell signal. And finally a conference room or probably two, with sweeping views of a neighboring highrise’s conference rooms.
The reason for this cluster of noisy cubicles and a meeting room where two people enjoy a working lunch at a table made for twenty, is because of our widespread false beliefs about what an office is supposed to look like. We are so easily misled by human intuition and reasoning. And while reasoning is generally seen as a means to make better decisions, the paradox is that it often leads to epistemic distortion, including how our office spaces function. Perhaps if we relied more on science rather than our gut, workplaces would look a lot different, be more useful, and more economical.
As we return to the post-pandemic workplace, office and facilities managers need to rely on science over instinct, but a decades-long laissez-faire approach to space utilization has left us with no baseline. If getting back to normal means getting back to mediocre workplaces, that could be a debacle for an already strained corporate culture. Even if a company had done a good job of measuring office occupancy patterns pre-COVID-19, the workplace we are coming back to will likely be very different from the one we left last March.
The most basic way that office occupancy can be studied is pure first-hand observation. Someone actually walks through an office with a clipboard and takes notes on how it’s being used. While this does help provide some good anecdotal evidence, it has some very obvious limitations. First, these studies usually have a short time frame. Employees want to move on to the next project and consultants want to get paid. Second, they don’t record much information; a person on a clipboard can only write so fast. Lastly, it’s invasive. Employees don’t like having someone taking notes on their every move. It can even bias the results, no one acts the same when they think someone is watching.
Observational studies obviously can only tell you so much. Many offices incorporate badge data into their studies. Most of this data is already being collected by the access control system so it can add some important context to occupancy counts. However, there are flaws to this method as well. Oftentimes people will enter simultaneously, using only one person’s badge. This is called “tailgating.” Also, since you are not required to badge out of most buildings, it does not give any detail about how long someone was in the office. As office attendance becomes less mandatory, we will likely see people badging in just to attend one important meeting.
Badge studies might tell you how many people came into the office, but they don’t help support t understanding about how people are interacting once they are inside the space. Badge studies provide a hypothesis that most companies have right now: How much office space do I need? Office space used to be an easy calculation: number of people working x the allotted square foot per employee. But those old density calculations don’t apply in the new work environment. To figure out what an appropriate density should be for an office, more robust analysis must be done.
That is where sensors come into play. There is a new generation of sensors that can be quickly installed and configured to start studying office occupancy. “We tell clients that it is always best to measure twice and cut once,” said Allison Ballard, Vice President & Executive Director at 4SITE by CORT. “These are big decisions that can have significant impacts on an organization’s bottom line, not only in real estate costs but productivity and engagement; and they need to be made with confidence using actual scientific evidence.”
The unique challenge that workplaces have is that they need to track not only how they are being used, but how that usage is changing. With no baseline to work with, workplace managers will have to use their analytical skills to understand where the new equilibrium is. Ballard suggests that a return to work study should collect data for at least six months before drawing conclusions. “Once you think you have an idea of what your employees want, you can start to make some strategic changes and do some A/B testing,” she said. This requires both the sensors and the design of the study to be as flexible as the space.
Sensors can also feel invasive to employees but a well-designed study can help. Communication channels need to be created to help teams understand the context around the study and what is being done to alleviate privacy concerns. Occupancy studies can be done with only anonymous data so they can actually be much less of a privacy issue than observational or badge studies.
Understanding occupancy, anything really, is about long-term observation. One-time studies can help inform what we know about occupancy but only by conducting ongoing analysis can we fine-tune our understanding and become aware of more nuanced changes. Restructuring a real estate portfolio is a major decision. To make the correct one as much data as possible should be used to verify the accuracy of their assumption. By adopting a long-term, scientific approach to understanding how people interact with their workplace corporate occupiers can be confident about their decision around future office space demand.