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Shrinking the office

How to provide more space for work using less property

Making the most of space

For many employers, one of the most sought-for benefits of flexible working is to create the potential to reduce office costs.  But moving from aspiration to implementation can be tricky.  How do you know what can be achieved, what are the steps you need to take to maximise the benefits and how do you get everyone to buy into the process?

The first thing is to have a clear understanding of how space is used at the moment.  Most managers and staff habitually over-estimate how much office space is really occupied in traditional working environments.

We've undertaken many space audits where at the outset managers imagine a desk-utilisation rate of 100% for admin staff and around 60-70% for managers and professionals.

When we measure, this is usually far from the case.

The following chart, with desk occupation measured every half hour over a 2 week period, shows desk utilisation in a finance department (all grades and job functions):

Desks are actually used about 45-50% of the time.  Why so little? Well, there are always a few empty desks from people who are on holiday, who are sick, who have left, etc.  Then there are often full-time desks for part-time people.  And people are in meetings - often long ones - and away working with other departments or with external clients, on training courses, etc.  And some are probably working - illicitly - from home too.

And here's a team of fieldworkers (including their support staff):

There's a different pattern of occupancy, here, with higher occupation at the beginning and end of the day.  And a total of just 38% desk utilisation.

And I would say these fieldworkers still aren't getting out enough: administrative, rather than business issues, are bringing them into the office at the beginning and end of the day.

As well as average occupancy, you need to look at the peaks.  When is everyone in the office at the same time?

The answer is - almost never!  Different teams tend to have different moments of peak occupancy.  Even admin staff rarely reach 100% occupancy.  And overall in traditional offices, I'd say show me a department of 100 people, and I'll show you average occupancy of around 40-45%, with a maximum peak of 60%.

But before you go lopping 40% off the space, there are some other things to think about too.

Rethinking desk layouts and storage

Actually, there's often a lot that can be done to improve the efficiency of space use even before thinking of flexible working.

Typically offices have:

  • too much circulation space - central corridors flanked by additional corridors inside rooms and open-plan zones
  • a lot of filing - but still (it seems) not enough space to file everything that is actively being used
  • space kept free to get access to filing, open doors and drawers etc
  • desks that are the wrong shape or size and not fit-for-purpose
  • space that is just used to pile things up because we don't know what else to do with them
  • not enough meeting space.

Does that sound like your company? If you look around, you'll probably see offices that are not full of people, but are full of furniture, filing and dead space.

A good space designer can help to use the space more wisely, even while using more traditional working styles.

And it's crucial to tackle the filing.  It is often paper-dependency that draws people back to the office to pick up paper files, dump paper - and, of course, to generate some more.  Moving processes online is key to reforming the use of space and enabling effective remote and flexible working.

Spaces for flexible work

As with all flexible work implementations, those that aim to reorganise space need to involve the people who inhabit it.  Failing to do so is likely to leave them both demoralised and a tendency to be uncooperative.

And if the flexible work project is presented as being primarily about cost-cutting, this too will bring negative responses.

The key is to have all employees' workstyles, teamwork and personal aspirations taken into account.  This includes understanding the spaces in which they work - and which they would like to work in: the spaces for work both in the office and away from the office.

Using surveys and focus groups helps to involve staff, understand their aspirations, and also to get a clear idea on current and potential work styles.

For flexible working, the space issues include:

  • setting up staff with the necessary kit and training to work anywhere, connecting seamlessly to office systems
  • setting up space for work at home, where appropriate - both the physical and IT environments
  • reorganising space in the office - reducing the number of regular workstations; creating better and more flexible meeting areas for when staff do come in; setting up touch-down areas for when more mobile employees need to work for a short period; rethinking recreational spaces (etc)

It is essential to understand the actual need for space of different roles, and to create an environment where people are happy to share space, confident in the knowledge that they will have the best space to get their work done and that their benefits from flexibility justify the changes to their working space in the office.

Space sharing - and in particular "hot desking" - are potentially a can of worms that we explore in this Flexibility article.

So what can be achieved?

How much space saving can be achieved depends on:

  • where you're starting from
  • how radical you want to be
  • the types of work undertaken
  • the bigger picture - are you aiming to sell off older properties, expand numbers in existing space, get staff out closer to clients, etc.

However, having said that, a modest response to the findings in the desk utilisation charts above would be to go for a 30% reduction in the number of desks - having 7 desks for every 10 people.

This also means that you can move more staff into the same space especially when other measures to redesign the office have taken place.  But some of the space "saved" by sharing can also be used for other functions - meeting space, project rooms, quiet work areas, recreational facilities, etc.

Some people may need always to be in the office, and their having their own desk may be a preferred option.  In which case, the desk-sharing ratio applies to the people who are - or should be - more genuinely nomadic.

For the truly nomadic worker, 1 desk for every 2 people is quite possible, though likely to be contentious.  But the provision of touchdown spaces and flexible/informal meeting spaces can be tailored to accommodate peak demand.

Next article: How to Share Space



October 2009


In this article Flexibility Editor Andy Lake outlines the steps to take and issues to consider if you want to get more value out of your office space by introducing flexible work.



Are you still a slave to the office?

Or are you the master of where, when and how much it all costs?

Smart employers are downsizing offices, working flexibly, recruiting and keeping the best people, and reducing their carbon footprint.

The Flexibility Toolkit from HOP Associates is a suite of online tools including Space Auditor and Online Surveyor.  Using these tools you can build a business case for change and start to deliver measurable savings and benefits.

For free demonstrations and trials see www.hop.co.uk or email enquiries@hop.co.uk

HOP Associates - a measured approach
to flexible working


"If you look around your building, you'll probably see offices that are not full of people, but are full of furniture, filing and dead space"











"It is often paper-dependency that draws people back to the office: to pick up paper files, dump paper - and, of course, to generate some more.

"Moving processes online is key to reforming the use of space and enabling effective remote and flexible working"



The Worklife Centre is at 1 Pannells Court, Guildford, GU1 4EU.  Worklife Centre specialists can help to redesign office space for flexible working.

For further information contact Halbyn Rich on
+44 (0)1483 451177









All material copyright Flexibility.co.uk 2009