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Chasing the Value of Desk Occupancy

remote work Workspace data and technology

In the first post of this series, Understanding the Impact of Workplace Data & Technologies, we have seen that, in order to reduce 30% of the office facility cost by combining open seating and remote work, Real Estate decision-makers need to accurately know how nearly 100% of the office spaces are utilized.

In this post, we are focusing on the forces that prevent Real Estate stakeholders from achieving space optimization at scale.

The undisputed occupancy detection technology is still a clipboard and pen!

If you are employed by a large company that adopted an open space layout, chances are, you might have noticed, more or less every quarter, a Real Estate planner who walks by your desk with a clipboard in hands, looking for signs of life on desks; literally: a bottle of water, food packaging, personal devices, jackets, and so on.

What are they doing?

They are trying to collect an occupancy snapshot of the entire office to be able to answer simple space-related questions, for instance:

  • Can we move Team X from building A to B, and therefore join Team Y to work on the same project?
  • Can we close building D and distribute its people across building A, B, and C?
  • Are we able to reduce the number of desks in an open area and repurpose some of the space for different activities?
  • Can we transform a large boardroom into a couple of smaller rooms plus few desks, without affecting productivity?
  • Do we need to add more desks?

Despite the advertised benefits of a more fluid work environment, workplace transformation comes with its issues. Facility Managers suddenly lost control of the spaces they manage, and they are struggling to make decisions due to a lack of data.

They don’t know the extent to which the desks are utilized, and, to make the right decisions, they have to manually check occupancy desk-by-desk. A big effort to obtain an imperfect snapshot. A picture that may be used for a very limited time frame: until enough people invalidate the data by changing habits, relocating, being hired or laid off. The problem is: it is nearly impossible to determine how much is “enough” without checking all desks again.

Value of Solving the Desk Vacancy Tracking Problem

For the purpose of this post, we will define Desk Vacancy Tracking as the process of tracking desk occupancy over time.

We estimate that tracking the desk vacancies of a single 800-employee building may cost up to 12 Facility Planner workdays a year.

Now, elevate your point of view to campus level and imagine how long it takes and how many people are involved in figuring out whether you can close a building and redistribute its people among the remaining ones. A campus-level Facility Manager needs to chase each Facility Planner to make them track vacancy manually and report their count in an Excel spreadsheet, resulting in a considerable effort and an average of 5 business days to come up with the decision.

Why are Facility Planners still using pen and clipboard, and can’t switch to sensor-powered technologies that allow them to make immediate decisions and capture the 30% cost savings from unassigned desks and remote work?

A Pitch for Half of the Audience

Pretend to be a salesman who is pitching the latest workplace technology to a large customer. Usually, your audience is made up of Real Estate and IT stakeholders, seldom HR.

While you are encouraged by the shiny eyes of overexcited incredulous Facility people trying to cool down by waving the clipboard, IT folks appear wary and self-possessed. Don’t get me wrong; they nod while you tell your story and get it; they also agree on supporting Facilities with a small scale PoC.

The issue arises when you think about expanding that PoC. Why? Too much IT involvement:

  • IT and Real Estate have different goals

Real Estate aims at providing employees with the best possible workplace experience while minimizing the Facility cost. IT’s goal is to make sure people have all the tools and technologies to maximize their productivity.

  • Workplace solutions imply a high involvement of IT, which considers IT-intensive workplace projects as a waste of time and resources not in line with their primary goal.

In fact:

  • Solutions are too complex

Multiple vendors are involved in providing heterogeneous parts of the overall solution: occupancy sensors, IoT Gateways, front-end applications, back-end applications, user devices, and more. Typically, all these parts are glued together by a system integrator.

This complexity generates a high overhead for IT in terms of coordination cost, deployment cost and effort spent in making sure the overall solution meets the security requirements.

  • Solutions are too expensive

With complexity comes a cost, both in terms of price and OPEX. The complex nature of workplace solutions, which often imply heavy system integration and new HW, results in an unaffordable price tag at scale. IT usually has a limited team and a budget 3 to 10 times smaller than Real Estate. These limited resources must be used for different types of projects. 

  • Projects are too long

Here cost takes the shape of time needed to implement the solution at scale. We have encountered situations where implementing and deploying workplace technology for a 5-building campus required 12 full-time months of a 7 person IT team, simply not viable.

  • Maintenance and continuous improvement are not sustainable

Let’s say that, for some sort of miracle, a company has deployed a workplace solution at scale, incurring all the above costs. In addition, IT would have to dedicate resources to maintaining and updating a complex solution made of multiple heterogeneous parts. Even simple battery-operated occupancy sensors, whose charge would last 3 years, when deployed in the order of tens of thousands, will have to be physically changed out within 3 years, resulting in a considerable amount of manhours.

A Better-Looking Future

Companies started to pay attention to the goal mismatch between Real Estate and IT. They began tightening their relationship by placing the two organizational functions in the same business unit, usually under the same Vice President.

While organizations chasing the value of occupancy adapt to turn their savings dream into reality, technology companies must focus on removing the barriers of adoption for workplace technologies.  They have to minimize IT involvement and design their solutions with the right persona in mind: The Real Estate Managers and Planners.

Stay tuned for the next article of this series, where we will drill down into the value of room occupancy.

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