Workplace Strategy for Mobile Work Styles

Workplace strategists are asked to help solve complex and urgent issues for commercial real estate and the modern workforce.

“Is our workplace supporting the way people work now?” “Our workspace is out of date!” “How much space should we project for our next lease?” “We’re out of space for our growing headcount.” “We have a corporate mandate to reduce operations costs.”

To oversimplify workplace strategy, three approaches can increase utilization and effectiveness: 1) Shift underutilized spaces to different uses, 2) reduce the size of meeting spaces used by too few people, and 3) shift assigned desks to shared desks.

Wait! Did that third strategy just take people’s desks away?

On the one hand, switching to hot desks can backfire when company culture and change management are not considered. Especially when the way people work is not even known.

On the other hand, the ways of work are changing and the workplace needs to keep up. Employees love the flexibility to work from home a few days a week. Getting better focus time and creating more work-life balance are important benefits.

But then, when a company notices that their fully allocated workplace has many empty desks day after day, questions arise whether the cost of the real estate is truly serving its intended purpose.

Over eight years ago, Gensler’s workplace consulting teams started proposing alternative workplace strategies that took a mobile workforce into account. But they didn’t simply propose to replace assigned desks with hot desks. They gathered objective data about the utilization of the workplace, among other research methods, and analyzed the results to determine four categories of employee work styles:

  1. Those in the “anchor” group were at their desks most of the time, four or more days of the week.
  2. “Roamers” came into the office almost every day but were away from their desks more than half the day, e.g. in meetings.
  3. Workers were defined as “mobile” if in the office 2-3 days per week
  4. “Remote” workers were only in the office one day per week or less

Analytic: Mobility by Department (using demo data)

With this breakdown of data on work style based on mobile behavior, they could confidently propose alternative workplace strategies supported by company culture. Their client could then proceed with trials that used unassigned desks.

Keeping teams together: Due to a recent acquisition, a media company in San Francisco was already at full capacity when they moved into newly designed open plan office space. There were no adjacent spaces available; all floors of the building were occupied with leases extending 5+ years.

The company was had a hard dilemma: lease more office space in another building and break up core team adjacencies, or find ways to better utilize the existing space through alternative workplace strategies.

Despite being at full capacity, the client felt that the space was still underutilized, with many desks sitting empty throughout the day.

The goal for a new workplace strategy was—at a minimum—to buy time in the current space until additional adjacent space could be found. But ideally, they would find a long-term solution that better used the current space.

To explore their options, the company launched a workplace study with Gensler to evaluate how mobility strategies could support the way that their teams were working. The study included a week of data gathering to show space utilization. The space utilization study revealed that more than 32% of their employees exhibited a mobile work style, spending more than 50% of their time out of the office.

With the research results informing the approach, the team proposed three options for adjusting existing support spaces and implementing shared desks. All of the options opened up room for additional headcount and kept team adjacencies intact.

A mobility strategy based on objective data can be a win-win. A company that understands how its people work can embrace mobility and give employees flexibility. In making decisions about who and how many people are mobile enough to desk share, it’s helpful to first know—and show—what the actual usage is.

Gathering observed utilization data (hourly throughout the day, for 1 week) convincingly documents how many people are in a space (e.g. at a desk, or in a conference room or break room) and what activities they are engaged in. These utilization studies were pioneered by Gensler almost a decade ago and are still a gold standard today.

FacilityQuest was the technology that optimized the process for Gensler, both then and now. The difference now is that as workforce change accelerates the need for new workplace strategies is more urgent. The skills to get actionable insights from utilization study data are also more commonplace, both from facilities managers and via services from commercial real estate and furniture suppliers. But understanding the process with the ability to minimize the logistics of an observation study is usually missing. A software and service company like FacilityQuest is an important partner for making space planning decisions based on hard data.

Many thanks to Devin Koba, who assisted with this article.