January 11, 2019
- Design & Construction
By Kevin Klier
It wasn’t long ago that workspaces were considered utilitarian, and little thought was given to how they served the people who work within them, as long as the work was getting done. You can imagine an early 20th century office with rows of workers slouched over typewriters, paper piles, and stacks of books on wooden desks inside a vast, cold, industrial space. Or you can also visualize more recent clusters of cubicles with the tops of heads peeking above and the sound of furiously clicking keyboards. Both scenes harken back to eras long gone, each relevant to its time. But what worked just five or 10 years ago is now antiquated in today’s workspaces.
These days, companies recognize not only the importance but also the necessity of a human-centered workspace, where thoughtful design and integrated technology support people, not the other way around. Enter the new age of “real estate optimization.”
Ask several people what this term means, and you may get several different answers. At its core, real estate optimization is a strategy that maximizes a commercial property’s efficiency and productivity to create a space that contributes to rather than hinders an organization’s bottom line. To maximize the effectiveness of a space, the focus must remain on the people who work there. Not surprisingly, technology is at the front and center of this strategy.
The application of sensors is one way technology is playing an important role here. Sensors are used to measure a space’s occupancy and usage and provide evidence of its effectiveness and efficiency to drive action. When a large conference room is monitored by a sensor, for example, companies often find that the space is wasted.
Access to this type of business intelligence is critical to company margins. Beginning in 2019, companies must report the cost of their lease (and thus the full extent of their real estate related debt) on their balance sheets, rather than simply in the footnotes of financial reports. Since investors will have greater visibility into the kind of data a sensor can provide, companies will need to demonstrate how real estate is working for them or make changes when data suggests it’s not.
Workplace data can also support a company’s long-view plan for spaces beyond what they currently occupy. Case in point, sensor-based technology enables companies to test and measure the results of a new design or furniture installation before implementing similar installations in another location. This approach saves both time and money on potential renovations or acquisitions.
Speaking of time, the insights technology can provide into a space’s effectiveness are often available immediately; without technology, this can take months to observe and interpret. These insights also empower employees to do their best work in spaces best-suited for that work. Even though sensors are tracking anonymously and not tracking specific people, managers can gain a better understanding of the when-where-what-and-how of their teams’ assigned tasks and can leverage the tools of an agile workplace to make revisions that provide better support.
While this may sound counterintuitive, long-term workspace design strategies work best by using short-term configurations that can shift as needs change. With modular design solutions, for example, adjustments to the space can be made quickly so that it remains functional and effective over time. Furthermore, workplaces remain relevant longer when they’re not static — as if they live and grow with the people who inhabit it.
It’s impossible to ignore the reality that the face of the workforce is changing. What is required of the workplace must change, too. Millennials, for example, often value experiences over other more tangible rewards, which should be factored in during recruitment and retention. Young employees especially look for employers that offer a variety of workspace comforts that support everything from distraction-free focus work to large-group collaboration. They want lounges or café space where they can post up with a laptop or tablet and sip coffee; they want offices connected to a larger community that offers a variety of food and beverage, health and fitness, entertainment and culture. Even elements like clean air and water cannot be ignored.
In addition to technology and design elements, quality of light is another important factor in determining whether a workspace properly serves its occupants. If you’ve ever worked in a dark building or one dominated by artificial light you can appreciate how access to ample natural light boosts well-being and reduces stress, which in turn can ignite productivity.
More and more companies are moving enclosed spaces to the center of their building, allowing natural light to flow around the perimeter where people spend the most time. When walls are required for privacy, glass or other translucent materials are now preferred. True real estate optimization considers the health of the overall building as it directly impacts the health of the people in it and, ultimately, the health of the business.
A company’s real estate is the second most costly asset, just behind its employees. Historically, real estate optimization has always been about fitting more people into less space. This goal certainly hasn’t gone away, but now we have a better understanding of how workplace design impacts productivity, satisfaction, and retention of employees, so workplace strategy requires more than this singular space-saving approach. Companies that don’t adopt contemporary real estate optimization strategies do so at their own peril.
Kevin Klier is the senior executive vice president and general manager at dancker, a leading interior solutions provider.