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Office Occupancy Is Too Complicated for One Number

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We love to simplify things. No matter how complicated a concept might be, we want to find ways to boil it down to one easily understandable metric. This is the case for so many things but is particularly true when it comes to building occupancy. As the world watched to see if and when people would return to the office, a number of companies started compiling and sharing occupancy counts for popular metro areas. While this data does help inform the general public about how many people are coming and going from office buildings, it doesn’t tell the whole story. As I learned co-authoring our recent report about calculating building occupancy, to really be able to understand occupancy in a way that allows buildings to control their environments, alter their managerial procedures, and redesign their spaces, they need much more detailed information. 

The metric that most people use when they talk about building occupancy is purely the percentage of people who have access to a building, enter the building on any given day. This is helpful, it gives an idea of how many people are entering a building on an average day in the week, but it can misrepresent the value of the visit to the occupant. If someone just shows up to the building for (probably free) lunch then they count the same as someone who came in early and long after others had gone home. Just looking at how many people come into an office, on average, can also gloss over the fluctuations that might be happening day to day, week to week, or month to month. We are already getting a sense that, at least for offices with voluntary attendance, the majority of visits are on the days in the middle of the workweek, leaving some offices almost empty on Fridays. 

There are much deeper ways to understand occupancy, as outlined in our Propmodo Research report How Occupancy Data Transforms the Way We Operate Buildings. To help building and office managers get a better understanding of how much space they need, occupancy needs to be examined day-to-day. As much as all of the office doom and gloomers would like everyone to think, if almost the entire office comes into the office on the same day, then the office footprint can’t be shrunk, even if much of the office sits empty on other days. 

It is also valuable to show where people are inside of an office. Heatmaps and movement patterns can help offices be redesigned to accommodate the new type of work. Knowing things like dwell time can help inform what people actually do when they are in the office and probably that a lot of people spend most of their time making food in the kitchen (you know who you are). Long dwell times can also call attention to problems like long elevator wait times. Knowing not just if people are in an area but what they are doing is vital to office designers who want to make a space more useful to a wide range of needs. 

Creating more granular occupancy data is vital to being able to make real time HVAC and lighting adjustments and can help offices adapt to the new ways of work. But to get this more detailed data buildings need sensors that can record more than just when someone walked in and out of a door. There are many ways to collect this data including sensors that use Wifi or

Bluetooth beacons. New technology is now using computer vision to anonymously count people that are in a CCTV feed. Each of these methods have their own pros and cons and are often used in conjunction to give the most accurate account of an office’s occupancy. 

A better understanding of occupancy isn’t just an analytics tool, it can help make the office more user friendly as well. Hybrid workers often want to reserve their space before coming to the office. Having an accurate, real time count of who is in the office can not only make seat booking possible, it can also help team members coincide their trips to the workplace together, or even book seats in the same area to allow them to collaborate. Knowing that there will be a place to sit, next to people you want to be with, could help bring workers into the office that might have foregone it without the knowledge.

Occupancy is one of the foundational data points for any smart building. It can help make office buildings more efficient, more useful, and more valuable. Recent studies have shown that smart buildings command a rent premium over their less technological counterparts and even sell for more when they go on the market. In addition, an increased focus on sustainability by large occupiers and a number of upcoming energy efficiency regulations will only make these technologies more valuable going forward. Using one number to define a building’s occupancy can be useful to the casual observer, but for property and office managers it is only the first step on a long journey to a smarter workplace.



Not occupancy related but I wanted to share what I thought was a pretty interesting, if a bit anti-development, website that maps all of the public land in NYC

One of the lesser spoken reasons to go to the office is romance, a new study shows that as many as 75 percent of employees have had an office romance. (CNBC)

Some questions are arising about how accurate NYCs new carbon footprint maps really are. (Market Urbanism)

In what might seem like a crazy idea, the main reason people are returning to the office is to actually do some work. (Fast Company)

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