A workplace occupancy planning guide for the modern office

A workplace occupancy planning guide for the modern office
August 22, 2023
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The workplace has been in a state of flux since 2020. As companies try to find a new equilibrium for the office, many are struggling with how to forecast space requirements and optimize workspaces around new modes of working. Updating the office for this new era of work is made even more challenging by costly employee turnover and increased competition for talent.

The workplace is in a state of flux.

Occupancy planning is the indispensable tool you need to encourage productivity, engagement, and retention among employees while reducing costs and staying adaptable to future needs.

Occupancy planning gives you a deep understanding of your assets, utilization data, employee sentiment, and expenses. Armed with this information, you can begin making data-backed decisions and testing their effectiveness until you develop a thriving modern work environment. 

What is occupancy planning?

Occupancy planning is the practice of analyzing how your space is being used and making adjustments to maximize current and future utilization. It’s an effective strategy to improve any space, from a single office to an entire corporate real estate portfolio.

Specific occupancy planning tactics will vary depending on your company’s unique needs. However, it often includes:

  • Reconfiguring office floor plans for improved efficiency
  • Updating the ratio of workspaces to employees to account for hybrid work
  • Providing amenities and incentives to draw workers back to the office
  • Monitoring maintenance needs, and
  • Projecting future space requirements

Below is a look at quick look at occupancy planning in action:

The 5 main principles of occupancy planning

While occupancy planning is a robust system for space optimization, it can be broken down into five core principles.

1. Understanding expenses and assets

To make good decisions as a space or occupancy planner, you have to know what you’re working with. A comprehensive audit of your office assets and expenses will establish this. You’ll want to identify things like:

  • What are the overhead costs for the building? 
  • How many employees do you have? Are they all full-time, in-office employees, or are some hybrid?
  • What’s the total amount of usable square footage
  • How many conference rooms and dedicated desks do you have? 
  • At what stage of the life cycle are assets such as laptops, printers, and furniture? When will they need to be replaced?

These details will help you identify benchmarks for your occupancy planning, anticipate upcoming maintenance and replacement costs, and project how much square footage is needed for future hires.

2. Using real-time and historical data 

Real-time data gives you a current headcount and tells you where people are in the building right now, and historical data shows utilization trends over time. The combination of these two data sets is invaluable for smart space planning. 

Real-time data is important for making immediate changes, such as ensuring a room doesn’t exceed its maximum capacity. It’s also essential if you plan to use software for wayfinding or workspace reservations. 

Historical data is key for future planning. For example, do you need to add square footage to accommodate new hires, or does your average peak utilization rate leave enough room to integrate new employees without expanding? Looking at your past trends can clarify these questions. 

3. Soliciting feedback from employees

Space management doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It directly impacts the people using the environment, and it's essential to understand their opinions. If you optimize your space with only cost-cutting and efficiency in mind, you risk creating a work environment that employees don’t want to be in and that doesn’t allow them to do their best work. 

You can collect employee feedback easily through workplace experience surveys. Surveying employees before you begin any occupancy planning strategies will provide a baseline you can use to measure whether future changes have had a positive or negative impact. These surveys can also identify the areas of the workplace that need the most attention. 

Dive Deeper: How to use employee feedback and workplace data together

4. Optimizing space utilization 

This principle of occupancy planning focuses on the actions you take to improve the performance of the work environment. Space planning revolves around change and measurement. Whether you introduce a catered Taco Tuesday to boost low utilization rates or add office pods to help employees do their focused work, the steps you take to improve the work environment are a critical aspect of occupancy planning.

Reducing costs (reducing capital investments and ensuring space isn't wasted)

Capital investments are one of the top expenses for most businesses, so it’s important to get good value from your physical office space. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. 

“In the US, there are 10.9 billion square feet of leased or owned corporate office space, and 41% of that is vacant but paid for, meaning about a trillion dollars worth of space is essentially sitting there with nobody in it,” says Andrew Farah, co-founder and CEO of Density.

Not only is this underutilized space paid for, in terms of leases, but companies also waste money on utilities. Approximately $3.36 billion is spent annually on electricity to power, heat, and cool spaces that aren’t used. 

Occupancy planning helps companies reduce these unnecessary costs by increasing the utilization of these spaces or determining where they can safely downsize their capital investments without impacting day-to-day operations. 

Hear more from Density CEO Andrew Farah: Axios What's Next Summit

Why does your office need occupancy planning? 

  • Cost savings: Occupancy planning can show you how to repurpose underutilized space and improve resource allocation to ensure you’re getting value for your money and avoid unnecessary new expenses. Once you’ve evaluated your assets, expenses, and occupancy data, you may find that you can downsize to a smaller office space without sacrificing comfort or productivity. 
  • Improved employee experience: A better workplace strategy means happier employees and better retention. Considering the high costs associated with recruitment and onboarding, it's wise to maintain a positive workplace experience so employees feel comfortable and supported.
  • Sustainability: Sustainability is not just a buzzword; it's a top concern among millennial and Gen Z workers. These two generations will soon make up the majority of the workforce, and 65% of workplace leaders report they’re already feeling pressure from employees to adopt more sustainable initiatives. Occupancy planning can improve your carbon footprint by identifying when you can downsize or repurpose square footage and ensuring utilities aren’t wasted on unused spaces. 

How to improve your occupancy planning in 4 steps

Optimization is one of the primary goals of occupancy planning, but it’s important to apply that to your facilities management process, too. Below are four ways you can enhance your occupancy planning for better results.

1. Invest in a system to track space utilization 

Occupancy planning is built on utilization data. If you don’t know how people are using your space, you can’t make informed decisions about how to improve it. 

Most modern offices use technology such as occupancy sensors to track utilization. There are many clear benefits of choosing utilization technology over traditional, observation-based tracking:

  • Provides real-time data for the entire office or building
  • Tracks trends over time
  • Can monitor offices across a portfolio
  • More accurate than manual methods
  • Automates the process
  • Collects unbiased data
  • Provides visual data that’s easy to understand at a glance

The tracking method you choose to deploy will depend on your budget and space planning goals. A manual option can work for organizations with tight budgets and small office spaces. For larger operations and those that want to stay competitive in today’s world of work, utilization technology is a must.

2. Identify your target metrics and KPIs

Metrics and KPIs are important tools to check the overall state of your occupancy planning and track progress toward specific goals. Common metrics for space planning include:

  • Peak occupancy identifies when your space is busiest. You can break this down by building, floor, or room. 
  • Average utilization shows the typical usage of your office. High average utilization translates to more value from that space.
  • High-traffic areas are those that see the most action throughout the day. Pinpointing these enables you to predict inventory and cleaning needs.
  • Meeting room utilization shows how frequently employees use meeting areas and for how long. This data shows whether the number of meeting spaces is sufficient to meet demand.

Unlike metrics, KPIs aren’t universal. These are specific to your organization’s utilization and workplace experience goals. For example, if your meeting room utilization is only 30%, you can set a KPI to increase it by 10% within three months. Your team will review utilization data and employee feedback to determine the necessary changes to reach this goal.

Using a combination of metrics and KPIs will keep you informed about workplace performance and provide clear areas to measure and improve. 

3. Take a human-centric approach

While reducing costs is always a goal of occupancy planning, it's also critical to take a step back from the numbers and consider the people who use the space. 

How can you optimize occupancy planning while providing a good experience?

Simply keeping the human aspect in mind will go a long way toward ensuring your utilization strategies are employee-friendly. It’s tempting to want to maximize your space utilization by squeezing as much occupancy as you can out of each square foot, but in practice that translates to employees who are cramped, less productive, and likely looking for a new job.

You can take the human-centric approach a step further by always balancing the data provided by utilization technology with the feedback you get from employees. Data provides an unbiased look at the utilization of your space, and feedback gives context to the numbers. Both are needed to create a positive, efficient workplace.

4. Workflow automation for repetitive tasks

There’s an enormous number of tasks involved with operating an office, but thankfully, many of these tasks can be automated. To make the most of occupancy planning, look for any repetitive tasks that can be done with technology. 

Here are just a few examples of automations that can benefit your space management services:

  • Provide software for employees to make their own room or desk reservations.
  • Use sensors to automatically turn off lights in unoccupied rooms.
  • Schedule recurring appointments for routine maintenance of equipment or building needs such as pest control.
  • Use software to assign tasks to your team, track work orders, and store important documents such as vendor contracts.
  • Install programmable thermostats to automatically adjust temperatures as needed throughout the day.

The more tasks you can automate, the more time you and your team can spend on higher-priority work such as reviewing employee feedback and brainstorming new ways to improve workplace utilization and experience.

Make occupancy planning a priority

Office space is expensive. Beyond the upfront cost of the lease, there are numerous operating costs including utilities, maintenance, and supplies. Optimizing office utilization is critical to reducing expenses and ensuring your organization is getting value from this investment. 

The office can also be a strategic advantage for successful recruitment, higher retention, and better employee performance. Occupancy planning can help you cut costs while creating a positive, productive work environment that can give your organization an edge over the competition.