Figuring out how much to spend on office space is a difficult question. It’s even more difficult in a hybrid remote working environment when you’re not sure which employees are in the office on what days.
But employees needing different things from office spaces is not a new problem. It’s just that the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing workplace changes put that old problem in a new light.
On the IoT for All podcast, InnerSpace founder James Wu explained his views on the challenge companies face today and how data plays a necessary role in the solution.
A century-old business problem, now different
Since the working world shifted from factory to office, companies have tried to figure out how to compress more people into less space without impacting productivity.
First, every white collar worker got their own offices. Then slowly the business world expanded and cubicles became the order of the day. With the dawn of tech startups, open offices and large communal spaces took hold. Finally, companies around the world began looking at hoteling and hot-desking.
If you’re wondering why companies would do this, the answer is simple: money.
Commercial real estate has some of the most expensive rents in the world. For example, the average rent in New York City can easily hit $100 per square foot per year or more. That means even a 50 square foot cubicle costs $5,000 annually per employee, plus the costs of meeting rooms, conference rooms, and other common spaces. It adds up. Even less costly cities or smaller towns can still run hundreds to a few thousand dollars per year per employee.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Overnight, the total usable square footage of office spaces went to zero as lockdowns came into force. Instead of a conference room, people used Zoom. Instead of wondering how much office space existed, people set up on their dining room tables. Monthly rent became a key concern for finance teams as offices were vacant but companies still had rent as a major line item.
The pandemic taught the white collar world that a lot of work could get done without an office at all. This had been the norm for a niche group of freelancers and digital nomads but few thought it would apply to all white collar functions until COVID. Suddenly office usage trends changed dramatically and companies had to figure out how to keep up.
Now, companies are continuing to think about minimizing total square footage in office buildings, but for a different reason. In a hybrid remote future, employees want offices as a space for collaboration and connection rather than a home for all work. Employers want the same thing from a cost-saving perspective.
A scientific approach to designing indoor spaces
How to use office space properly—making the most of usable square footage—is a big question that requires a scientific approach. Maybe not with beakers and a lab but at least with real data.
Most companies try to collect this data through surveys. They start with how much office space they have then ask what employees think they need and how they currently use office space. And it’s not that this approach is wrong—we’re firm believers in getting employee feedback and opinions on things that affect them—but it’s not going to give you the data you want.
In short, most people don’t actually know what they want. And people tend to skew toward remembering the bad things more than the good things. This means your survey collection won’t represent how employees actually use office space but instead their slightly-negatively-tinted views of how they should be using office space.
To get a more accurate dataset, companies should use real data based on real actions in the office. It’s not just about a use case but how people move, how long they are in certain spaces, and what they are using the space for.
This practice—collecting real data from employee movements (anonymously) for office space planning—is what we called Indoorology.
Indoorology is not just a people-counter or a survey tool. It’s the study of human movement and use cases within a space (your office), using data to understand how different groups use space differently. This information then is used in office space utilization planning for maximum efficiency and minimal cost.
It becomes a critical tool that gives you objectives analytics like usable square feet while also telling you how much space employees are using on a regular basis. This contributes to data around overall occupancy trends (critical in a hybrid remote world) and tells you how employees are using space such as different common areas, hallways, or if meeting rooms are hitting capacity on a regular basis.
Start small but do it right
Whenever a new data project comes up, people tend to be eager to start but want to start small. A common phrase in the corporate world is to set up a pilot to see if the data is high quality.
Pilots can be impactful—and cost efficient—but it’s critical to start at enough scale for the data to be impactful. Starting small for its own sake, for example a single sensor in a corner of the office, will lead to low quality data you can’t use anywhere. In effect, it guarantees a failure from the beginning.
Instead of thinking about starting small for your pilot, think about a reasonable scale. This might mean a department, portion of the office, or floor of a building, for example. These reasonable scales can give you high quality data and give you the opportunity to test out your infrastructure for both privacy and scaling. These two issues—privacy and scale—should be questions you ask of any provider you choose in this space. Ideally, they should leverage existing infrastructure, such as your company WiFi network, rather than forcing you to add yet another layer of IT onto your network.
Ultimately, taking a scientific approach to office design requires listening to your employees first. And the best way to listen is to see how they actually use a space rather than asking for opinions on what might (or “should”) happen. To get that, you need to think about how to leverage IoT devices that can passively collect high quality data. Then you can use that data to design a space that’s right for your people and your balance sheet.