Knowing how your people use space is key to staying nimble.

Last month, workplace professionals from across the globe gathered at the Agile Workplace Conference in Washington DC to present, learn and discuss the latest innovations and best practices in workplace strategy.

Attendees brought a wide spectrum of experience, from seasoned experts in the world of workplace to organizations just beginning a transformation of their own. This year’s topic focused exclusively on innovation and how to stay agile in the quickly shifting landscape of workplace design.

What is an agile workplace?

At its simplest, an agile workplace is one that successfully balances the people, places and processes of its organization. And when the balance is off, an agile workplace can adapt. It provides the room and resources that occupants need, or flexes to meet them when it doesn’t.

The key to adaptability, of course, is knowing when the balance is off and having the insight to back your adjustments. Knowing how people use your space—through utilization studies and careful monitoring—is critical to innovation. It’s the data that creative ideas spring from.

Utilization: the forgotten necessity

More and more organizations are paying close attention to employee experience, adapting for new technology and shifting their workplace strategy in thoughtful and innovative ways. And it’s usually to great success.

However, the effectiveness of a new space often receives far less attention than the planning. That is, until it noticeably fails.

What does a failed workplace look like? Feel like? Cause?

Humans react to being overwhelmed by fight, flight, or freeze. At work, that manifests as hoarding, apathy, attrition, resistance or worse.

Too many people, high energy and loud noise all impede productivity. But the same is true of the opposite.  Too few people, low energy, and a lack of interaction minimize output as well.

Your workplace has a sweet spot for costs, collaboration, comfort and business drivers. Understanding the space ratio for your organization—and your people—is key to managing your workplace strategy as a valuable business tool over time.

Four stages of workplace utilization

Finding the appropriate utilization strategy is based on an organization’s maturity and the building’s capabilities. Many companies start with the simplest, low-cost option, and as their needs, abilities and data integrity matures they shift through the other stages.

Stage 1: Measuring

This is your starting point to get a snapshot on utilization. Conduct “bed checks.” Count how many people are in each space for a week or two. This phase is time-consuming, but inexpensive. And while only the baseline of monitoring, it’s effective and provides a level of behavioral detail not possible through sensors.

Note whether people are sitting, standing, on a computer, talking, etc. With whom and in what area? Are they using the white board? Even after advancing to higher levels of utilization, many companies return to this stage for the value of observational studies.

Say an employee survey reported that people spend 60%-80% of their time at their desks, but a bed check reveals that number is really closer to 40%-50%. Though it may feel like they’re at the desk more often, in reality employees are using shared spaces or not in the building at all. With this insight, you can rightsize your space and provide a better mix of focus and collaboration areas.

Stage 2: Monitoring

In this stage, monitoring is automated through technology that collects a massive amount of data. Sensors are built into light fixtures and WiFi access points to detect internet use and movement. Badge swipe data and security footage determine how many people are in the building, and when and where. Once you measure the activity, you can use the data to understand and manage occupancy over time.

Spots that need to be monitored closely are collaborative areas. Say you’ve built a coffee bar and living room area to encourage both social collision and desk-free work—but WiFi use reveals that nobody’s bringing their laptops into them. The space, while collaborative, is underused as a workspace because no one’s been given explicit permission to work there.

Utilization alerts you to the uptake of new space so that you can manage people through the adjustment. In this case, it lets leadership know that they need to be better beacons for change.

Stage 3: Passive Manipulation

At this stage, the building can make minor adjustments based on the data that’s gathered. It’s able to do this because the utilization sensors are integrated with an advanced building monitoring system.

If no one’s using a space, the lights will turn off—and back on when someone enters. Same goes for temperature. You can save on energy costs by only heating and cooling the rooms that are used. And with a desk reservation portal, your workstation will re-route your phone before you even sit down.

Stage 4: Active Manipulation

This is your most advanced smart building with integration across all systems. It connects HVAC, technology, mechanical systems, real estate utilization data and more to collect data and react in real time. It’s using temperature, lights, occupancy and heat mapping to adjust the environment as it’s monitoring.

At this stage, your workstation is prepped as if by a personal assistant. The building senses your badge as you enter the building—or even based on where you parked. It knows where you are expected to be based on your calendar, will notify key people of your arrival, and set up your phone and A/V systems based on your needs for the day.

Holistically, it manages power consumption based on anticipated and actual demand. The holidays may usually bring lower occupancy and colder weather, but if an event brings people in, or it’s unseasonably warm, the building can adjust temperature, lighting, etc based on internal and external conditions. All in real time.

Smart building systems impact the entire infrastructure, so investment is at the building owner’s discretion. Because many companies rent space, they’re not able to spearhead these improvements on their own. That said, this kind of efficiency brings huge cost savings over time, and price points are coming down.

Real-time data answers big questions

Utilization studies deliver data that can help you create an environment that better supports the way your people work. To get there, you have to translate data into decisions. That’s where your workplace strategy team comes in.

They make meaning out of metrics so that you know which space is working well, and what you need to rethink or evolve. Until you fully understand how space is used, anecdotal evidence is your best answer.


With utilization baked into your workplace strategy, you’ll make better decisions with more reliable results. Whether it’s a question of adding, shifting or shedding space, you’ll have the data and insight to answer with confidence.

Understanding the use of your space over time is critical, not optional.  In the dynamic workplace climate, staying nimble means more than good design. It’s about investing in a space that drives value for the organization. One that supports your people for the long term, not just on move in day.

Your employees are voting with their feet in every space they use. Do you have the tools to measure and understand what they’re telling you?





About the author

About the author

Kim Vanderland, Senior Vice President, Workplace
Ensuring workplace and design can be positive on the bottom line, to workforce morale, productivity and to the corporate brand.

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