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Parkinson’s Law and space utilisation: why we do bigger rather than better.

February 1, 2018

Parkinson’s law, described by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in his 1958 book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, is the dictum that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

He was, of course, describing an observed tendency towards bureaucracy within the civil service at the time, which seemed to rise irrespective of the amount of work that actually had to be done. In more recent years, the adage has also been applied in many other areas – most notably to computer hard drives, where data is often, and pithily, said to expand to fill the space available for storage.

So, is space utilisation within organisations any different? Let’s take an example: in the year 2000, a small company I knew was located in a residential property in the middle of a housing estate in a small Midlands town. Staff were a little cramped in the residential property, so they re-located to a 230m2 purpose-built office facility in a nearby city, where the staff, for a while at least, luxuriated in their newfound ocean of space.

How strange, then, when one staff member commented just six months after the move that they had filled the building and just couldn’t imagine how they had coped previously. But it wasn’t that the workforce had increased – it was just that the company had expanded to fill the available space and now appeared to be bursting at the seams again. Every new staff appointment had to be shoe-horned into existing space, and when staff were asked how well space was being utilised, they would be able to point at anecdotal evidence suggesting that the premises was being over-utilised.

This definitely sounds like Parkinson’s Law in actionand we’ve seen this experience almost everywhere. Wherever there is a successful, established workforce, a perception quickly takes hold that there is no room for expansion within existing facilities. All office workstations, meeting rooms and training rooms are seen to be at a premium and never available to be booked or used when you need them. But why is this?

EventMAP has spent many years examining patterns of space usage within a variety of work settings within the military, healthcare, police, education and corporate sectors. Using innovative, yet well-tested, methodologies, EventMAP has established benchmarks for differing space-types, and how to accurately measure an organisation’s performance against those benchmarks. Across all space-types we have observed similar patterns of use. What does a close examination reveal when using these methodologies? Well, without exception, we are all collectively very bad at self-managing how we use our available space – and our perception as to how well we are using it is invariably wrong.

Many factors contribute to this poor use of space – one cause is that of space ownership. Often companies don’t properly consider the overhead cost of providing a workspace for their staff. To some space is often seen as a free asset: ‘we need it anyway, so whether it is used efficiently or not is irrelevant’. The truth is however, that all assets have a cost and there is an overhead needed to provide it: lighting, heating, IT hardware and software, building lease costs and so-forth. Wasted space is a wasted opportunity, whether to accommodate additional staff, or downsize an estate. To illustrate, one large, multi-site public sector organisation we looked at recently had 9,519m2 of office space audited at one of its locations. Using standard benchmarks, the operational cost of un-utilised space (4,760m2 of space), at an annual cost of £169.27 per m2, was £805,658, and the capital cost was £9.9 million. But, other than the organisation’s size, this is not uncommon – often you can walk in to an office on any day of the week, see empty desks and then be advised that those self-same desks are occupied. But what the respondent actually means is the workstation is allocated to someone.

The same can be observed in the use of other space types. Nominal ownership, whether by department or some other entity, renders the space unavailable for use by others, even when it is free.

Of course, there can be many reasons for poor utilisation of space, such as lack of suitability of space, poor location and highly specialised space types.

So, what can be done to ensure the efficient use of space?

Firstly, a space analysis is needed, as the use of space changes over time. Secondly, you need to understand how the space is currently being utilised. A space utilisation survey allows for this understanding to be attained. In contrast to a space analysis, which focuses on the how efficiently the space is planned, and is a two-dimensional approach, a utilisation study is more concerned with how the space is used over time – in effect a three-dimensional approach. Apart from highlighting poor or ineffective utilisation of space, the results of such a study may also provide the basis for understanding and defining the various practices adopted in the use of the space which impact on utilisation and which can be adapted or modified with the object of providing the most effective use of available space. It may also highlight how environments may be modified to support those using the space.

Post-survey is then where EventMAP’s bespoke software comes into play. Our software, using the leading-edge algorithms within our OPTIME engine, can develop a range of optimised planning scenarios that enable organisations to actually put changes in place to enable efficiencies and – most crucially – maintain and adapt them to work with changing strategic priorities over time.

For many organisations, space is their second largest overhead after staffing costs and maximising the return from this asset is hugely important. Understanding how well or otherwise you are using your estate is potentially a gateway to substantial savings. It is not something to be left to anecdotal evidence, which – as we’ve seen – is all too often far from the reality. After all, whether you’re running a profit-centred organisation looking to maximise return, or a service organisation struggling to manage growing demand on a constrained budget, who wouldn’t want to embrace the opportunity to do more with less, and save some money in the process?

Vernon Chapman



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