Making the most of space
For many employers, one of the most sought-for benefits of
flexible working is to create the potential to reduce office
costs. But moving from aspiration to implementation can be
tricky. How do you know what can be achieved, what are the
steps you need to take to maximise the benefits and how do you
get everyone to buy into the process?
The first thing is to have a clear understanding of how space
is used at the moment. Most managers and staff habitually
over-estimate how much office space is really occupied in
traditional working environments.
We've undertaken many space audits where at the outset
managers imagine a desk-utilisation rate of 100% for admin staff
and around 60-70% for managers and professionals.
When we measure, this is usually far from the case.
The following chart, with desk occupation measured every half
hour over a 2 week period, shows desk utilisation in a finance
department (all grades and job functions):
Desks are actually used about 45-50% of the time. Why
so little? Well, there are always a few empty desks from people
who are on holiday, who are sick, who have left, etc. Then
there are often full-time desks for part-time people. And
people are in meetings - often long ones - and away working with
other departments or with external clients, on training courses,
etc. And some are probably working - illicitly - from home
And here's a team of fieldworkers (including their support
There's a different pattern of occupancy, here, with higher
occupation at the beginning and end of the day. And a
total of just 38% desk utilisation.
And I would say these fieldworkers still aren't getting out
enough: administrative, rather than business issues, are
bringing them into the office at the beginning and end of the
As well as average occupancy, you need to look at the peaks.
When is everyone in the office at the same time?
The answer is - almost never! Different teams tend to
have different moments of peak occupancy. Even admin staff
rarely reach 100% occupancy. And overall in traditional
offices, I'd say show me a department of 100 people, and I'll
show you average occupancy of around 40-45%, with a maximum peak
But before you go lopping 40% off the space, there are some
other things to think about too.
Rethinking desk layouts and storage
Actually, there's often a lot that can be done to improve the
efficiency of space use even before thinking of flexible
Typically offices have:
- too much circulation space - central corridors flanked by
additional corridors inside rooms and open-plan zones
- a lot of filing - but still (it seems) not enough space to
file everything that is actively being used
- space kept free to get access to filing, open doors and
- desks that are the wrong shape or size and not
- space that is just used to pile things up because we don't
know what else to do with them
- not enough meeting space.
Does that sound like your company? If you look around, you'll
probably see offices that are not full of people, but are full
of furniture, filing and dead space.
A good space designer can help to use the space more wisely,
even while using more traditional working styles.
And it's crucial to tackle the filing. It is often
paper-dependency that draws people back to the office to pick up
paper files, dump paper - and, of course, to generate some more. Moving
processes online is key to reforming the use of space and
enabling effective remote and flexible working.
Spaces for flexible work
As with all flexible work implementations, those that aim to
reorganise space need to involve the people who inhabit it.
Failing to do so is likely to leave them both demoralised and a
tendency to be uncooperative.
And if the flexible work project is presented as being
primarily about cost-cutting, this too will bring negative
The key is to have all employees' workstyles, teamwork and
personal aspirations taken into account. This includes
understanding the spaces in which they work - and which they
would like to work in: the spaces for work both in the office
and away from the office.
Using surveys and focus groups helps to involve staff,
understand their aspirations, and also to get a clear idea on
current and potential work styles.
For flexible working, the space issues include:
- setting up staff with the necessary kit and training to
work anywhere, connecting seamlessly to office systems
- setting up space for work at home, where appropriate -
both the physical and IT environments
- reorganising space in the office - reducing the number of
regular workstations; creating better and more flexible
meeting areas for when staff do come in; setting up touch-down
areas for when more mobile employees need to work for a short
period; rethinking recreational spaces (etc)
It is essential to understand the actual need for space of
different roles, and to create an environment where people are
happy to share space, confident in the knowledge that they will
have the best space to get their work done and that their
benefits from flexibility justify the changes to their working
space in the office.
Space sharing - and in particular "hot desking" - are
potentially a can of worms that we explore in
So what can be achieved?
How much space saving can be achieved depends on:
- where you're starting from
- how radical you want to be
- the types of work undertaken
- the bigger picture - are you aiming to sell off older
properties, expand numbers in existing space, get staff out
closer to clients, etc.
However, having said that, a modest response to the findings
in the desk utilisation charts above would be to go for a 30%
reduction in the number of desks - having 7 desks for every 10
This also means that you can move more staff into the same
space especially when other measures to redesign the office have
taken place. But some of the space "saved" by sharing can
also be used for other functions - meeting space, project rooms,
quiet work areas, recreational facilities, etc.
Some people may need always to be in the office, and their
having their own desk may be a preferred option. In which
case, the desk-sharing ratio applies to the people who are - or
should be - more genuinely nomadic.
For the truly nomadic worker, 1 desk for every 2 people is quite possible,
though likely to be contentious. But the provision of
touchdown spaces and flexible/informal meeting spaces can be
tailored to accommodate peak demand.
Next article: How to Share Space