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Using occupancy surveys to measure utilisation is a superior methodology. But why is this the case?

November 26, 2019

EventMAP’s Vernon Chapman examines some of the methods more commonly employed to improve efficiency of use in built workspace.

I'll start by posing the question: what is the best method for achieving an optimal use of space within a strategy for smarter estate utilisation?

Much work has been undertaken in the public sector to drive up the use of space. Because public sector initiatives of this type have to be monitored and reported, often to meet targets, much information exists about space use in this sector. For this reason, we’ll focus here on the public sector estate.

According to the State of the Estate reports commissioned by the Cabinet Office for 2017/2018, the average workplace density figures expressed as a ratio of square metres (SqM) per person is 1:17 (one person to every 17 SqM). However, there is considerable variation in this depending on the government department. Overall the intent is to drive this ratio down.

There may be a number of reasons for such a variation, such as: the actual built estate used (old Victorian buildings may not be as suitable for their purpose as modern purpose built facilities), the type of work pattern undertaken (whether a significant proportion of staff are mobile workers or not), etc. This would indicate that to simply target a density level of say 10 SqM or 7 SqM per person may be ineffective. To illustrate, the Department for Education (DfE) worked with an average of 3 SqM per person, this compared to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) which occupied 32 SqM per person. Depending on the estate, it may be difficult for the MHCLG to reduce its estate down to 10 or 7 SqM per person, and counterproductive in terms of efficiency to raise the DfE estate to these levels.

Similarly, in recent years public bodies have been encouraged to target people-to-desk ratios in office environments. A target often documented is a ratio of 8:10 or 8 desks for every 10 full time equivalent staff members. Of course, this target is often seen to be easily achievable. Some have calculated that at any given time 15% of staff are absent due to sickness or annual leave. With these absentee levels, and when including staff that may be mobile workers who only require a desk-base for part of their working week, an 8:10 desk ratio may be attained without the need to introduce any significant changes to a workplace. Consequently, some public organisations have targeted more challenging targets, such as a 7:10 (desk to person) ratio.

On the surface, targeting such workplace density ratios should improve utilisation of the built estate. After all, if you have a reduced floor area, or fewer desks for the same number of staff, common sense dictates that the natural result is more frequent use of remaining space. However, it is noted in the British Council for Offices (BCO) Office Occupancy Density and Utilisation Report, that significant improvements in actual utilisation of space only really start to take hold with more challenging targets than those normally targeted in public bodies. The reason for this may be, as an example, that as suggested earlier an 8:10 ratio allows the status quo to continue, as it can be implemented with little, if any, change.

The BCO report highlights that utilisation levels have not changed significantly in traditional office settings over the last decade. It cites utilisation occupancy rates at core work times of 40% – 50%. This means that desk spaces in such a scenario are unoccupied for some 50% to 60% of core work time. However, in our experience, utilisation levels in all space types in the public sector are typically much lower than those cited here. Often, utilisation study results identify usage in the lower double digit or single digit range, depending on the space type being examined.

There are a number of reasons that we have identified for this, and the following list is by no-means exhaustive:

  1. As space is vacated, staff spread in to occupy the vacated areas.
  2. People seldom look for opportunities to cut back on space requirements and will often vigorously defend their use of space, even citing reasons to increase their use of space rather than rationalise it.
  3. People only ever see the space when it is busy – few ever see their workspaces at times when it is relatively unoccupied, and this reinforces the perception that space is tight.
  4. Staff decanted into a building from other sites also suffer from absenteeism and, may additionally adopt more mobile working activity than formerly to avoid spending too much time at their new base (especially if they view it as less conveniently located).
  5. Previous, ineffective attempts at improving the efficiency of space use have been aborted with minimal benefits at best – if not disastrous results.

So how can we truly increase the overall efficiency of space use within the public sector (or indeed in any sector), as these problems are by no-means sector specific?

The best tried and tested method is by means of a utilisation study: by examining how effectively space is being used over a given period, and at a specific frequency of observations over that period. By observing spaces and measuring occupancy at these specified intervals (typically hourly) over a typical time period of activity, it allows a snapshot of activity to be documented, and this information can then be extrapolated to show how effectively, or otherwise, space is being used.

Often the results can be quite disturbing, as suddenly the inefficiency of space use is exposed.

By gathering additional data, such as security door-swipe data, storage data, IT and facility fault log data and so-forth, a comprehensive picture of building use can be garnered – which can then supplement the observational data. This, combined with more qualitative data such as staff interviews, information on staff working profiles (for example percentage of time spent office based or working remotely), makes it possible to build a picture explaining some of these data findings.

Combining all this information, a full picture as to how space is being used and why it is used in such a way is extracted. This information can then inform a process of transformation, which then allows an organisation to move to a more efficient use of its space, which can then be achieved without experiencing some of the nightmare scenarios that can impede future attempts to improve space use.

Once an organisation has fully transitioned to a more efficient use of its estate, the results can be similarly studied to ensure that the estate is functioning as intended – and as needed. This way the process can then be tweaked to incorporate any unforeseen issues that may undermine the eventual goal, and any necessary changes implemented.

EventMAP has a wide range of experience in helping organisations to move to a more efficient use of its estate. Our approach is underpinned by our leading-edge software applications that are designed not only to inform the process to a more optimal use of estate, but also manage the ongoing use of the estate post project. This then allows us to enable organisations to continue benefitting and reporting on the use of their estate throughout a change project and into the future.

If you are planning a move to a more optimal use of your built estate, why not give us a call, or drop us an email? We would love to discuss your project with you.

Vernon Chapman



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