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The First Signs of Offices Reopening Point to an Agile Workplace Future

Seven months after the pandemic spread to the western world, commercial real estate and workplace leaders worldwide are laboring to implement return-to-work strategies that meet their employees’ expectations for safety and flexibility. To better understand what strategies have the potential to rejuvenate the office, our team at VergeSense recently examined office utilization data from across nearly 30 million square feet of office space that our sensors are installed within. Specifically, we analyzed how utilization rates for desks, private offices, conference rooms, and phone booths evolved through July of this year. 

While there is no surprise that COVID-19 brought office use to near-zero levels for months on end as employers were forced to implement 100 percent work from home strategies, preliminary data on how offices are beginning to be used again offers a glimpse of our agile office future. 

As you can see in the chart above, nearly every type of workspace utilization dropped from typical averages in the 20-30 percent range to below twelve percent by March of this year. One month later, utilization was hovering around near-zero in April. Only essential employees entered the office, and most knowledge workers were encouraged to work from home to comply with CDC guidelines. 

Utilization of private offices, for example, dropped from 28 percent in February to just over 1.4 percent in July. And conference rooms, which were poorly utilized even before the pandemic, experienced yet another stark decrease in utilization from twelve percent in February to 0.6 percent in the summer months. Meanwhile, phone booth utilization, which peaked at 25 percent in February, fell to only 1.5 percent in July. 

Since April, nearly every type of workspace has struggled to rebound with utilization. Spaces like individual offices showed brief upticks and then receded again in utilization. However, early signs point to an increased usage of agile work settings, like hot desks, that offer companies the flexibility they need when headcount changes daily. The utilization of these types of workspaces has been the only constantly increasing May-July. 

This data is consistent with what we’ve been hearing from our customers. As companies recover from COVID-19, they’re shifting to more flexible, unassigned seating plans that make office re-entry easier and safer and optimize an office’s value in the new normal that follows. From a safety standpoint, shifting to flexible seating in the near term means workplace leaders can realize efficiency while catering to non-essential employees’ evolving needs as they choose to return to the workplace. Desk reservation systems enable easily reserving a desk online in advance, and occupancy sensors make real-time availability visible. This also allows companies to optimize cleaning and sanitization once employees are finished using a space. 

Forward-thinking organizations are seeing the recent drop in office utilization as an opportunity to reset, and seizing the chance to draw on a blank canvas and redesign the workplace to support hybrid organizational structures. The priority for most firms is creating a new workplace that can accommodate a hybrid workforce post-pandemic that works virtually two to three days. Meaning, workplaces will need to evolve their design to offer less assigned seating, more collaborative spaces, and more flex use spaces. 

Even pre-pandemic, a CBRE study found that over half of CRE executives planned to implement some unassigned seating in the next three years. Those numbers will only go up coming out of the pandemic as companies see more agile workplaces’ economic benefit. After all, why should employers pay for dedicated desks for every single employee when employees are spending half the week working from home? The traditional model of one desk per employee in a workspace no longer makes sense. The key will be implementing agile work environments and flexible seating arrangements in a way that works for everyone. 

Goodbye hot-desking, hello ‘desk hoteling’

Hot-desking, which grew in notoriety through its widespread use in co-working spaces such as WeWork over the last few years, has previously been tried within corporate environments. However, the results were mixed pre-pandemic. Problems on the employee end went beyond a reluctance to give up ‘ownership’ of personal space within the office. In fact, the most significant employee problems stemmed from showing up at the office each day without ever knowing where you are going to be working, who you are doing work next to, or if you’ll even find a desk available.

Luckily, flexible seating in our new normal can go by “desk hoteling” rather than hot-desking. By utilizing desk booking platforms, apps, and sensor technology introduced over the last few years, employees can now reserve a desired workspace for the time needed before they even show up to the office. This eliminates many of the first generation problems that occurred with flexible seating in the initial hot-desking era. 

This ability to reserve workspaces for a specific need and time allows employees personalization in how they work. If an employee needs to develop an individual report, they can book a personal workspace in a quiet location. Comparatively, if two colleagues are looking to collaborate on a project that will include both together and singular input, they can book desks right next to each other.

Agile = Modular

In addition to establishing better ways to implement flexible seating, our agile future office will need to provide a better blend of flexible seating arrangements, among other types of workspaces. We’ll likely be moving away from genuinely open office space designs where flexible seating flows throughout. Some organizations may have 50 percent of desks unassigned, and others could have more or less. These flexible spaces will be housed within a more modular workplace setup that can also cater to other distinct needs of employees cycling through the office on any given day. 

These needs will include space for collaboration, team-wide inspiration, and focus-based work. Rather than trying to accomplish all of these within a single open office amid the noise and uncertainty of what nearby colleagues are working on, spaces will be customized for these needs. For instance, the personal office may be on its way out, but the need for focus-based work is still necessary. Many companies already have individual pods or phone booths: a door to close, a single chair, and a desk. We only expect this popularity to grow.

Team inspiration spaces could also take on new shapes rather than fit everyone into an overstuffed conference room. Stadium seating setups and workplace technology that enables seamless integration between in-office and remote workers will replace conference tables. Furthermore, agility won’t be limited within one building. 

Companies are likely to implement hub-and-satellite or hub-and-spoke approaches with their portfolios that combine one central hub office with many smaller satellite offices. Based on location (urban or suburban), as well as the teams they serve, agile satellite spaces can be further customized based on specific worker needs. Satellite space can even be supplemented by third-party real estate space from coworking providers who are increasingly offering enterprise clients alternative workplace management instead of direct leases. 

The office will never be the same so we must reinvent it. To do this we must create an agile workplace with the guiding principle of designing for each worker’s needs and the organization’s overall objectives. Only by doing so will we be able to turn what is now a blank canvas into something that will be useful for years to come.

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