4 myths of the modern office debunked

April 4, 2024
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The past few years have changed the way we work, and left many employers and office spaces struggling to catch up. From coffee badging to ghost meetings to conference room campers, the challenges of working across an increasingly hybrid, distributed workforce manifest in many ways. To understand these challenges, Density studied a year’s worth of anonymous data  from ~400 US workspaces and came out with The Workplace Benchmark Report for 2023-2024.

To unpack these trends Density’s Director of Analytics, Annie Cosgrove, was joined by Philip Thrift, CBRE’s Global Lead of Workplace Utilization, and Kevin Ahlborn, LinkedIn’s Senior Director of Workplace Data and Analytics. You can check out their thought-provoking conversation in our new webinar, "The Workplace Benchmark: 6 Trends Redefining The Office." 

In the webinar, they debunk four prevalent myths surrounding office behaviors and uncover the truth behind each one:

Myth #1: Coffee badging is bad.

Truth: Coffee badging can be part of a valuable visit to the office.

Coffee badging has grabbed headlines as a negative trend, where employees show up at their office to meet return-to-office requirements, grab a coffee, and leave immediately. However, Density’s insights show peak utilization of offices lasting several hours. CBRE’s Philip Thrift spoke to this trend:

"Coffee badging tends to be linked to a duration of 2-3 hours. An employee comes in, they badge in, they stay 2-3 hours, and they leave. If the workplace is available and enabling employees to get some level of collaborative work or in-person work that they can't get done at home as effectively, is that a bad thing?" 

Employees who engage in coffee badging tend to spend a meaningful duration in the office, indicating productive work sessions. This challenges the notion that 8 hours in the office equals productivity. Effectiveness should be measured beyond conventional timeframes and consider the value derived from in-person collaboration even in shorter spurts.

Myth #2: Employees collaborate more in the office.

Truth: Many employees are just bringing their remote work habits into the office.

The expectation that employees will collaborate more in office spaces doesn't always hold true. With the proliferation of digital collaboration tools and distributed teams, remote work habits persist even within the office. LinkedIn’s Kevin Ahlborn explained how this plays out in their offices:

"The majority of meetings (in meeting rooms) are one person or less. The fact is that most teams are distributed and are doing hybrid work. We're just not seeing a critical mass of the same group of people that work together in the office at the same time."

Thrift shared how this is a larger trend playing out for many companies in the wake of the pandemic:

"Everybody went through this transformation around digital collaboration. Everybody knows how to use Teams, Slack, Zoom, and all these other collaboration tools. People are coming back into the office because they're being told to, but they're still doing the same work they were transitioned into over the course of the pandemic. It is a terrible experience to run or participate in a virtual meeting in an open space."

This creates challenges, particularly in open collaboration spaces, where hybrid meetings struggle to find a balance between physical and digital interactions. Organizations must adapt their space designs and change management strategies to accommodate the evolving nature of collaboration.

Myth #3: Employees want a dedicated desk.

Truth: Desks are being treated as expensive coat racks.

The traditional concept of assigning dedicated desks to employees is losing relevance. Studies consistently show low desk utilization rates, indicating that desks are often underused or repurposed as storage. Here’s what Ahlborn had to say about this practice:

"We've done loads of observation studies from 2016 - 2019, and consistently regardless of team or location, desk utilization was about 30%. The fact that it's still around there doesn't really surprise me because I don't think people's behaviors have shifted that much in the past 4 years. I think when people are going into the office, they're working in a way that they kind of did in the past. They're using their desk as a really expensive coat rack."

Companies must reevaluate the necessity of one-to-one desk assignments and explore agile workspace strategies to optimize space utilization. Embracing flexibility and rethinking space allocation can lead to more efficient and dynamic work environments.

Myth #4: Workspaces should maximize for the efficient use of space.

Truth: High-quality interactions have more meaning than high-efficiency utilization.

Efficiency should not overshadow effectiveness when evaluating workspace utilization. Quality interactions and collaboration, even if infrequent, can significantly impact productivity and innovation. Thrift shares what this could look like:

"If a team standup happens every week, and all those people can be in person together, running through their list of of activities for the week, that's effective, even if the space is only used by 2 to 6 people the rest of the time. I think this conversation of efficiency versus effectiveness, and what we measure and what we track, and how we grade or score real estate becomes a really interesting transition of our mental models. How do we talk about the value of real estate or the value of the workplace?"

It's crucial to shift the focus from maximizing occupancy rates to facilitating meaningful interactions that drive value. This requires a nuanced understanding of how spaces are used and the impact they have on employee experiences and outcomes.

Moving past the myths.

Our workplaces need to adapt to support the way we work today – whether that entails enabling collaboration across distributed teams or enhancing productivity during shorter office visits. By debunking myths and embracing data-driven insights, we can optimize workplaces to better serve employees. Offices should serve as hubs where people can connect, collaborate, and feel inspired to excel in their work.

Want more insights? Learn the 6 trends redefining the office: