What if you knew how your office space was being occupied. I mean really knew. One person who does is Pete Sayers, Director of Workplace and Project Management at global insurance company Aon.
And he has the facts about when that space is in use every minute of every day, not just in a single location but in multiple offices that the business occupies across the world.
It’s thanks to an incredibly accurate monitoring system that combines purpose-built occupancy sensors with powerful number-crunching software. This constantly processes mountains of data about which desks are occupied, whether meeting rooms and soft seating areas are in use and, if so, how many people are using them.
The data insights from these kinds of systems in corporations worldwide are always incredibly valuable for making expensive real estate decisions. So much so that Pete finds it amazing that similar organisations with big office portfolios don’t yet implement the technology themselves.
What they do instead, it seems is reckon. It’s a word that riles David Maddison, Senior Sales Consultant at Abintra, who developed and installed the tech in use at Aon. “Why would you reckon when you can know?” he asks incredulously.
Pete and David are joined by workplace consultant Hans Nyamie for the latest in a series of Smart and Sustainable Building Masterclasses in London.
Hans has made it his life’s work to study how people use space and places, often employing Abintra’s technology to inform decisions for corporate clients.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether people will come back to work as they did before the pandemic. Most studies suggest that the future is hybrid working where people spend some time in the office and the rest working elsewhere.
That doesn’t necessarily mean working from home. Hans sees a future where increasingly people will work – as some already do – in multiple locations, from HQs to satellite offices, coffee shops or at home, for example. He calls it distributed space.
The way office working patterns have changed has huge implications when it comes to the expensive real estate that corporations own or lease. At the most basic level, knowing how many desks you need to accommodate everyone at the busiest times will allow you to decide if you can relinquish some of that space when your lease comes up. At an estimated £15,000 per desk per year for Grade A offices in London, that’s a valuable number to know.
But without really knowing the data there’s a risk that you overdo it, leaving people with nowhere to work. At a time when organisations such as big law practices are competing for the best people, it might be worth sacrificing some cost savings to avoid disgruntled staff being unable to find desks.
It’s not all about saving money though. Understanding occupancy means you can see which spaces are in demand and adapt accordingly.
It was generally thought that the future would be all about agile workspaces where teams can come together to work collaboratively. There was indeed demand for soft seating and different kinds of meeting space in the early post-pandemic days at Aon and at the offices of other Abintra clients.
But as people have returned to work, the data at Aon suggests that there is also demand for quiet one-person booths where staff can make phone calls or concentrate on writing reports.
Ironically, one reason for this is the increasing number of meetings taking place on those icons of home working, Teams and Zoom. While those platforms are fine if you’re in your study at home, they don’t work so well in busy offices with lots of background noise.
One of the most remarkable insights that Abintra’s data shows is that low desk occupancy is not a new phenomenon for which Covid is wholly responsible. In a big, post-pandemic corporation it may be that desks are in use on average fewer than two days out of five but even before Covid, that rate could well have been no more than three fifths.
Space the final frontier
Some years ago, well before the term hybrid working had been coined, Abintra published a report called Wasted Space that predicted most corporations were only using 70 per cent of their desk space at best. In reality, the figure is more like 50 per cent while most meeting rooms are barely averaging 20 per cent occupancy.
The benefits of getting office real estate decisions right include cost reduction (real estate is typically the second largest overhead after staff in an office-based business), recruitment and retention, motivation, wellbeing and productivity.
The audience at the Smart and Sustainable Buildings event, organised by Crystal Associates and hosted by haysmacintyre, included corporate real estate managers, local authorities, FM people, architects, fitout specialists, HR managers, accountants and finance directors. That variety of job roles and responsibilities is testament to the importance and influence of real estate decisions.
The event also marked the official launch of Abintra Director Tony Booty’s book ‘Managing the New Office Environment’ which I co-wrote with him.
The investment required to acquire accurate real-time data on how office assets are being used is a fraction of the cost of those assets. And the possible cost savings are not limited to giving up floorspace permanently. With insight, building managers can reduce running costs by turning off HVAC systems and lighting in spaces that aren’t in use.
It can have unexpected payoffs too. Seeing the data on occupancy rates at Aon’s Rotterdam office building on Fridays, the real estate team calculated that they could bring everyone together on two out of the six floors. This gave employees a more sociable experience with a buzzy atmosphere, and it smoothed the flow of inter-team working by bringing together people who normally work in different departments.