Get Smart About Space Utilization in the Workplace

Humana_HUB Anthropology Deliverable Final 020411“We’re just not using our space effectively” is one way clients typically sum up their pain points when we first sit down to talk with them.

“Well, walk us through your typical work day” will often be one of the first follow-up responses a workplace strategist will ask to begin to discover what’s working and what’s not in terms of how people use their space.

As we continue to look for more effective ways to improve the overall workplace experience, one tool we can use is measuring and analyzing space utilization. To gain better insight into how companies utilize their office space, there are several ways to approach these types of studies. Below are few ways to get started.

Establish Goals and Understand the Key Performance Indicators

Be clear on what you are trying to measure. I’ve worked with clients who want to know how every last inch of their space is being utilized, but in some cases, clients have more targeted pain points, and really want to focus on, say, how often conference rooms or break rooms are being used. Being clear on these goals will help you tailor your approach. In addition, make sure you know any Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) or benchmarks that you want to measure against. For instance, some companies have pre-determined ratios for how many private offices vs. open workstations they provide, as well as ratios of how many overall conference room seats they provide in relation to staff headcount. In other cases, companies can provide more anecdotal benchmarks, such as “our sales team should only be in the office around 15% of the time”.

Time and Technology Factors

Establishing goals and KPI’s early on will help determine how long to conduct a study as well as how high-tech or low-tech you want to make your approach. In some cases the client may have data to provide you as a reference point, such as badge swipe statistics for days and times employees are coming and going. Likewise, you’re probably going to want more than a day or two worth of data. Doing a study for at least a week or more will provide a more realistic pattern of activity. This gets us to technology. If you’re looking to do a large study (i.e. looking at multiple floors, hundreds or thousands of employees) how do you tackle this logistically? In the past, people would simply do a “pen and paper” approach, walking the floors in the same route, hour after hour, marking each area on a floor plan by hand (bed checks, essentially), then having to manually input that data into a spreadsheet in order to do further analysis. Very time-consuming and draining on your staffing resources. The other downside is that your people can’t be everywhere at all times, so some of your data will miss the “in-between” observations that help paint a clearer picture.

The other approach is to get more tech savvy with the studies. In recent years there have been advances in sensors that track how people use their space. This can provide great benefits in terms of saving time, resources, and the ability to collect much more accurate data. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Tracking Sensors Invade the Workplace, highlights some of the ways companies are leveraging tracking sensors. In one example, employees all wore a small badge which collects “data on their motions, whereabouts, voice levels and conversational patterns”. The badges were developed by Boston startup Sociometric Solutions Inc. Data collected from these types of devices can help an employer better understand how their employees work, and when and where they are interacting with one another. This, in turn, can help determine more appropriate allocations of office space. For instance, if the data tells you that employees are spending more time away from their desks than usual, you need to figure out what’s driving that behavior.

Sociometric Badge (image © Alex Johnson, WGBH)

Having the badge sensor will be able to tell you where they are when they are not sitting at their desk. It eliminates some of the guess-work and anecdotal insight. For instance, you may start to see that employees are away from their desks not because they are lazy and taking too many breaks, but maybe because they are having more small meetings in conference rooms or a cafe space. This information then helps you adjust how you provide space, and in many cases, re-allocating space can result in less space overall and reduced real estate costs.

In addition to badge sensors, you can also attach motion sensors to office chairs. Herman Miller provides these type of chair sensors, which were used by Kimberly-Clark, as noted in the WSJ article.

“Employees frequently griped that the consumer-product company’s Neenah, Wis., offices were short on meeting space. Kimberly-Clark placed space-usage sensors offered by furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. beneath chairs and in conference rooms. It found that groups of three to four employees were gathering in meeting rooms designed for much larger numbers”

Herman Miller chair sensor

Wireless motion sensor (image © Herman Miller)

The “Big Brother” Factor

While all of these methods are useful in collecting valuable space utilization data, we must not forget about the human element when doing these studies, most notably, people’s perceptions of privacy.

“Gathering big data about human behaviors can be a sensitive topic,” says Dave Lathrop, director of workspace futures and strategy at Steelcase Inc., which has used sensor data with its own employees and is developing sensor products for businesses.”

Humans are curious by nature, and we also love to jump to conclusions. So as you begin to plan a space utilization study, you need to be sensitive to the people on whom you’re collecting data. Many people I talk to say they would have a negative reaction if their company proposed using tracking sensors in the workplace. There is a general assumption that this is less about improving the workplace and more about spying on employees. So, going back to the early stages of establishing goals, one of the goals should be to clearly communicate the purpose of the study to all employees and consider letting them opt-out of the study if they truly feel uncomfortable. The goal of a space utilization study should be to collect accurate data that represents normal workplace conditions. If everyone feels like they are being spied on, they will change their behaviors and your data will not be truly representative of normal conditions.



One Comment
  1. May 8th, 2013 - 6:42 am
    JayH said:

    A thoroughly explained reason for tracking over a clearly defined span of time might be the way to go. Bill, do you know of anyone who rents tracking equipment?

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