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Five mistakes firms make when they measure office occupancy

By Tony Booty, Director, Abintra

What do we do with our offices now? That’s the question many businesses are asking themselves in the hybrid working era.

Smart managers realize the first step to making the right decision is to monitor how space is being used. But it’s easy to get that wrong.

In my recently published book, Managing the New Office Environment, I’ve pulled together more than a decade of experience in workplace occupancy, working with major corporations worldwide.

I have seen clients achieve huge benefits by using accurate workplace occupancy data, from optimizing space utilization and reducing overheads to improving staff wellbeing. I have also seen the pitfalls of poor practice.

Here then is my list of the mistakes that organisations commonly make when they decide to measure workplace occupancy.

  1. Not getting everyone involved

Your office real estate is probably your biggest overhead after your people.

Yet senior managers typically have little involvement, devolving responsibility via finance to building and facilities managers.

When it comes to evaluating the workplace, that just won’t do.

Before you measure anything, bring together a team representing key areas of the business, including the CEO, finance, HR, ICT and real estate/FM to drive the process and respond to the results.

  • Failing to set clear goals

Be crystal clear about why you are reviewing how your workspace is being used.

Are you looking to reduce overhead? Or do you want to reimagine your office space to accommodate more agile, collaborative ways of working?

Perhaps you want to downsize your HQ and have a more distributed operation with satellite offices around the city or country.

Is it important to you that your workplace is attractive to existing staff and potential recruits? Then you’ll also want to make it easy to use so that people can find the space they need when they need it.

  • Leaving your workforce in the dark

Before you set out to measure office occupancy, be sure to not only tell your people what is happening but also explain the potential benefits to them. ‘Big Brother’ for many will be a natural jump to. In reality (certainly from our own perspective), it’s about utilization of space and not utilization of people. We do not measure people and their activities, we measure if and how space is being used, not who is using it. Communication is vital.

This is especially important when switching from a one-person one-desk setup where people will naturally feel they are giving up their territory. But it holds true in any situation.

Once people see outside contractors in the building or new technology being fixed to their desks and ceilings, you do not want an information vacuum.

That’s going to be filled by resentment and the rumour mill.

Instead, explain why you need the data to adapt the office so that it works better for people.

  • Doing a clipboard survey

Sometimes called bed checks, clipboard surveys simply involve individuals walking around the workplace noting attendance.

This may appear to be cheaper than deploying technology, but it will only ever give you a very brief snapshot in time and is open to misleading and inaccurate interpretations, using data that by its nature is always going to be inferior.

To make really informed decisions you need detailed analysis of workspace utilization patterns, which you can only do if you have accurate real-time data.

People with clipboards may also make observer errors. A classic example known as “signs of life” is marking a desk as occupied because there is a jacket on the back of a chair when in fact the jacket’s owner left the building hours ago.

  • Using the wrong tech

As providers of occupancy and environmental technology, you would expect me to champion them over manual surveys.

But not all technology is up to the job.

Be aware of vendors over promising.

The pandemic-driven shake-up of office real estate has encouraged many new entrants into the occupancy market. Unfortunately, not all of them have the expertise or technology to deliver.

Off-the-shelf PIR hardware may give less accurate readings than purpose-built devices. Other systems rely on overhead cameras that may infringe people’s rights.

Then there is the challenge of gathering all the data and crunching it to provide accurate reports and insight with which you can confidently make big decisions.

We’re proud to have developed powerful software that can deal with the huge amounts of data generated by sensors and turn it into easy-to-understand displays, reporting and meaningful insight.

About the Author

As a co-founder of Abintra, the pioneer of flexible working technology, Tony Booty helps organizations to understand and manage their corporate office real estate through effective monitoring of space utilisation.

His built environment experience covers more than 30 years and ranges from domestic architectural and interior retail department design to experience in corporate planning appeals and the implementation and development of Computer-Aided Facilities Management.

Tony’s book, Managing the New Office Environment: How to Deploy PropTech to Optimise Space Utilization and Wellbeing is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.