Workplace Utilization Strategies that Pass the Common Sense Test

Bernice Boucher on finding the right tools to measure how people are using your space.

Image courtesy of JLL.

Many companies are still using outdated metrics to determine how much — and what type of — space, they need, and missing significant opportunities. From smart lighting to chair sensors and wearable tech, we are now living in an age of plentiful workplace data. New sources of information are a boon to professionals trying to determine the right amount, type, and configuration of space that will keep employees, CEOs, and managers happy — all at once.

So it’s important to use data to get a sense of who is working where, when, and how. But one reason people hesitate to access it is the opposite challenge of information overload. There’s such a thing as too much of a good thing; all too often, we are buried in irrelevant information, or are using technologies that seem useful, but don’t move the strategic needle.

Investments in workplace technology should help achieve business objectives, provide actionable information, or achieve projected cost savings. It’s important to invest in the right technology, at the right time, at the scale that makes sense for you. In this article, Bernice Boucher, head of the workplace strategy practice in the Americas for JLLhas tips for finding a strategic purpose behind every new technology tool, as well as for acting on smart interpretations of the data you gather.

Strategy first

To avoid information overload, it’s essential to identify a strategy: why you’re looking at space utilization, and how the information will benefit the organization as a whole.

As the workplace utilization requirements become clear, your strategy should be based largely on the answers to questions such as: What’s driving the business case? Do we need one-time measurements or ongoing monitoring? What level of granularity is required? How smart are the applicable buildings? Do we have any money to spend?

Keep in mind that high tech isn’t always the right answer. The key is matching the scope and granularity of your solution to your business objectives and implementation realities. As you begin your workplace journey, we still recommend “low tech” observation studies where a trained expert physically walks your workplace and provides broad ethnographic feedback that a sensor simply cannot.

If you only need building-level occupancy data, then badge swipes are likely sufficient, and sensors would be too much. But if desk sharing and internal mobility is a part of your workplace strategy roadmap, a utilization study will provide the best of both worlds.

It’s not uncommon for an organization to answer a question about one office, in one city, by placing sensors on every desk. But, if the exercise is primarily to validate that the office in question is
underutilized, it might be enough to use badge or login data to determine the number of people using the space on a given day. In other words, desk-level accuracy is not required to solve that problem. The means to collect the data might already exist and would provide the answer at a far lower cost.

What level of accuracy and technological sophistication does your organization need? The answer may lie in where the group stands in the utilization lifecycle spectrum.

The utilization lifecycle

The first step to understanding what utilization tools and metrics are right for your organization is understanding where the group falls in the workplace lifecycle. We’ve broken down approaches to space utilization based on four primary levels of complexity, and their affiliated recommended utilization strategies, as follows:

  • Level one: measuring
  • Level two: monitoring
  • Level three: passive manipulation
  • Level four: active manipulation

Just as workplace strategies themselves follow a lifecycle, your position across the levels will evolve with your workplace.

Level one: measuring. In this phase, the workplace may be described as follows: “We’re in a traditional environment with one person to one seat, legacy ways of working and a concern about our desk and office vacancy.”

Workplace strategy and utilization metrics programs should align with a simple and straight-forward approach. Organizations at this stage typically need to determine how employees actually work.

Strategists are trying to develop a workplace approach by asking and answering straightforward yet powerful questions such as, “How many people work in the space each day?” and, “How much of our space gets used?”

When the strategic needs are this direct and uncomplicated, often a utilization snapshot is sufficient.  Organizations that self-define at this level many times will over-invest in workplace technologies or in complex strategies. Many CRE teams use a sledgehammer to crack a nut: they select complicated workplace utilization strategies that don’t match what are often simpler, underlying requirements.

Level two: monitoring. This phase is reached when mobility begins to impact culture. The workplace may be described in terms like, “We have minimal vacancy in a traditional ‘names on seats’ sense, but we have also implemented some level of mobility or sharing, where actual daily utilization is becoming more important.”

The office has become more than a sea of empty desks, and the threat of overutilization (think: people seated elbow to elbow, or several workstations where one used to be) is real, as a result of occupancy spikes or headcount growth. You want to know exactly how a floor is being used if mobility-program participants can sit almost anywhere.

At this level, you need continuous monitoring, proactively notifying CRE leadership about changing conditions. Your organization could try permanent sensors, WiFi triangulation, and badge data.

Level three: passive manipulation. At this level, employees take control of their own environment. They may describe their experience with observations like this: “Our office space is now reacting passively to the way our users move through it, for example, by adjusting heating and lighting levels, or with wayfinding signage showing available spaces.”

Employee satisfaction is paramount at this level of the space utilization cycle. To accomplish a more personalized level of user experience, when the office environment reacts without intervention to occupants in the building, you might consider beacons and permanent sensors to accomplish feats of energy savings or to configure work settings based on who is in them.

This, of course, requires an advanced building management system and significant collaboration with your technology partners.

Level four: active manipulation. At this level, truly innovative approaches may incorporate real time location and social network information — so the building knows when colleagues and friends are nearby — and mobile applications to let them manipulate the environment.

Employees may observe, “Our spaces are truly connected and dynamic. Users are actively engaging the space, navigating around and interacting through mobile applications.”

You still measure occupancy as spaces respond to presence, and you may be ready to integrate smart building functionality with the user experience in truly technologically integrated systems.

The right data balance regardless of lifecycle

Wherever your organization falls in the lifecycle, sometimes finding the right balance of big data versus not enough data can be challenging. In the field, every company must find the right systems and approaches that work for their unique real estate portfolio and corporate culture. We recently worked closely with the CFO of a financial services organization, who challenged a team of corporate real estate, IT, and HR professionals to create a mobile working strategy. Rather than starting with a technology-driven data-gathering process, the project team turned to more old fashioned methods of observation.

Working with a workplace strategy consultancy, the team conducted “walk around” studies in the company’s conventional office layout to see how staff were working. After piloting the mobility strategy with a few small employee groups, the team conducted a second walk-around study to personally observe, with human eyes, the anthropology of the new workplace.

But they didn’t leave technology behind all together; the company simply harvested login information from individual desks and used commercially available data visualization tools to model desk popularity, group mobility trends, daily user mobility and other directly relevant data points. The approach worked on a large scale — internationally — and proved to be substantially cheaper than sensor-based studies. Five years in to the program, more than 14,000 staff is working productively in fully mobile environments, and the population continues to grow.

At another company, the corporate real estate team needed evidence to justify its recommendation to shrink the client conference center when the company was relocating its headquarters facility. The team assumed a sensor study would be required to track the exact number of attendees per meeting — until it realized that the room reservation system data alone could support a business case to reduce the number of rooms by 25 percent. Again, an expensive sensory study was avoided by using existing, under-utilized technology systems — but the right technology was deployed at the right time, for maximum impact.

Asking the right questions

What’s the common thread among these organizations? It’s a simple, common sense approach that leverages technology without over-investment.

Today’s CRE leaders are increasingly confronted with the question, “How do we apply more science to measuring the productivity and utilization of our portfolio?” As a result, they’re looking to technologies like sensors to track the usage of desks, although it might not be the best and most cost-effective way to get the productivity data they need.

Before making technology investments, we recommend that you carefully assess your objectives. Critical questions to ask include:

  • What problem are you trying to solve and how can data help?
  • How will you use the data — what substantive changes can you make with it, and whom do you have to convince?
  • How would you like to aggregate and report the data, and are there any relevant privacy policies or regulations?
  • How much can you spend to create or collect this data?

Using the right lens

Once you’ve asked all the right questions, consider how the project team will gather, aggregate, and report the data, and how it will be transformed into actionable insights. This objectives-based approach leads to sustainable workplace utilization strategies. We have seen many individuals successfully tackle the utilization monitoring challenge.

To make it work for your organization, be circumspect about framing why workplace utilization is important for your organization. After all it is, in itself, a key component of business strategy. What will you monitor, and how will that information contribute to high level strategic objectives? It should not be solely a byproduct of financial initiatives, but viewed as a window into the organization for senior management. It’s important to pause and really consider where you want to focus your efforts, what data you want to drive transformative conversations.

If your company doesn’t yet have a workplace utilization and monitoring strategy, and you have the foresight to recognize that it needs one, you can be the catalyst for real change by becoming the evangelist to establish a comprehensive approach and roadmap.

One thing to consider: Finding the right strategy sometimes means hiring the right people, data specialists with an understanding of workplace and commercial real estate data-which is not an easy task. This avoids a common situation in which a lack of analytics talent gets in the way of achieving workplace goals. In fact, a recent Forrester study commissioned by JLL found that corporate real estate teams are having trouble matching aspirations to reality when it comes to data-centric strategies, simply because of the shortage of data scientists to collect and apply the data.

Another option: looking outside the organization. Specialized workplace and space utilization can make product-agnostic recommendations, and serve as outside advisors on determining the most cost-effective and comprehensive way to achieve what you need; creating the argument for change; and building a workplace utilization strategy that your leadership can stand behind.

The art of utilization

In the end, space utilization is an art, not a science, requiring judgment calls about balancing efficiency against providing the right kinds of workspaces for the work being performed.

Our bottom line advice: Don’t invest in data that you don’t know what to do with or that you can’t respond to. Buy the technology that you need — not the shiny tools that look sophisticated, but don’t have a clear value proposition. Certainly, use the sensors you have in place to gather data. But don’t forget low-tech methods that will also round out the real picture of whose butt is in which seat on which day.



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