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The incredible shrinking workspace

RICHARD HAYES
RICHARD HAYES

By Richard J. Hayes, Sr. Branch Manager, ABM Onsite Services

The “open office” environment has become increasingly popular as many corporate clients have made a concerted effort to reduce their real estate footprint while increasing collaboration among employees.

The traditional “walled” exterior offices with “pens” of cubicles for support and administrative staff have been replaced by open rows of work stations and glass walled break out rooms.

This environment has given rise to many variations such as “hot desking” and “hoteling” which further reduce the corporate footprint in a mobile work environment.

If you are contemplating reconfiguring your workplace, careful consideration should be given to many factors in order to assure a productive and healthy work environment for your employees.  We will discuss the types of open office environments and address the pros and cons of their respective configurations.

The open office environment was conceived to reduce space and/or create a more collaborative environment amongst the workforce.

Where space requirements were previously 175-200 s/f per employee, the open office reduces this by a third to a half of this space.  Assuming the open office reduces the space by a third, an employer with 500 employees would reduce its space requirements from 87,500-100,000 s/f to 58,333-66,667 s/f.

At a cost per square foot of $75 for Class A space, (for example only), this equates to potential savings of almost $2.5 million per year.

When considering a triple net lease, corporate operating expenses are also reduced.  Lower energy and operating cost expenditures are a direct result of the reduced footprint.

Another added benefit of the open office is a more productive and collaborative work environment.  Some of the inefficiencies that contribute to employee down time result from: difficulty tracking down employees, waiting to obtain information and locating a space to meet.

If configured properly, the open office can potentially remove the inefficiencies from the office environment.

It is imperative that, as an employer, you perform a time-motion study and have a firm understanding of both the work habits and population of your current work environment before embarking on a transition to the open space configuration.

Many innovative interior design/architectural firms have questionnaires that can be distributed to employees in order to get a census of how each employee allocates their time in the office and their preferences as to what type of setting best suits their interactions with other employees.

In the traditional configuration, employees who typically occupied walled offices with doors are situated in a bench, workstation environment.  Their respective subordinates and/or administrative support are generally co-located so that an open team environment is created.  Each employee in this scenario is assigned a unique, dedicated workstation.  The workstation is composed of a phone, computer, chair and possibly a storage unit/file cabinet.  Office supplies and garbage cans may be shared by teams and neighbors.

Some open office environments employ collaboration tables where workers in the team can gather in the immediate, open work environment.  Conference and/or private break out rooms are necessary so that meetings can be accomplished in privacy and where the ambient noise level would disturb neighboring employees.  Depending upon the configuration and space constraints of the work stations, the employees may each be assigned a locker to store their personal effects.

A hot desk environment allows space sharing.
A hot desk environment allows space sharing.

In an effort to “haphazardly” share office space in a mobile work environment, many employers have opted for “hot desking”.

In the hot desk environment, nobody is assigned a dedicated work station.  The space is allocated on a “first come first serve” basis.  The hot desk employee is identified by his colleagues upon logging into his/her work station and/or desk phone with unique credentialing.  When an employee completes their “stationary” work tasks and returns to the field, the work station is available to another employee.

It is the transient use of the same work station by multiple employees that presents struggles in providing a safe, clean and healthy work environment.  The implementation of this office environment requires a thorough analysis and time motion study of employee census data so that the space can sustain the needs of the workforce at all times.

If adequate space is not allocated to address the maximum census threshold, both employee productivity and morale will drop precipitously.  This office arrangement lends itself particularly well to transient employee populations that are based in a single location.

In a “hoteling” environment, space is reserved and is not allocated on a first come first serve basis. The hoteling configuration works well in a mobile work environment where employees have access to an on-line repository of available workstations which they can reserve based on their specific needs.

If an employee, based in the D.C. area, will be in the NYC office for several days, they can reserve a work station for the duration of their stay.  Typically, the turnover of work stations in this configuration is not as frequent as in the hot desk environment.

It was mentioned previously that studies should be conducted on the employee population in order to determine if the open office environment is suitable.  It is recommended that a carefully prepared questionnaire be distributed to determine the type of office environment that that is most conducive to common tasks that are performed each day.

For instance, an employee’s work day may consist of group meetings, conference calls, “heads down” or solo work, collaborative meetings, field visits, private/one-on-one meetings, etc.  In addition, certain IT and infrastructure needs may be required to support the employees in these various environments.  The questionnaire solves two issues; it identifies the most common tasks and needs of the employee population and aslo provides a venue for consensus on the transition to the open office space.

Regardless of the precautions taken in transforming the workplace, other challenges arise in this environment and must be mitigated.

New ground rules must be established in the open office to assure that a productive, healthy and safe environment is maintained.  One of the obvious changes that arise when “the walls come down” is the ambient noise level in the workplace.  Group conversations, conference calls, the use of speaker phones, heated discussions, etc., should be conducted in the break out rooms so as not to disrupt your neighbors.  There is a fine line between healthy, open collaboration that is not disruptive to employees involved in “heads down” work and disruptive, open discussions that impede worker productivity.

Signs that are similar to those found in libraries are often helpful in gently reminding your employees that it is important to maintain the noise level of the open environment.  In addition to noise levels, the open environment puts an added emphasis on maintaining a clean and healthy workplace.  This is highlighted in the hoteling and hot desk environment where work stations are shared.  Common touch points such as the keypad, phone, mouse and chair can transmit germs and bacteria if not cleaned between each use.  Employees who decide to eat at their desks pose an additional concern to the space.

Employers have implemented many measures to combat some of the health concerns noted above.  Anti bacterial wipes are often distributed throughout the work stations in an effort to “self clean” a space prior to use.  Dedicated Day Matrons have been assigned to hot desk and hoteling environments to assure that work stations are properly cleaned and maintained between uses.

Still other employers have employees use their own personal, portable keyboard, mouse and handset.  It is important to establish ground rules and procedures before making the transition to the open office so that employee expectations are set correctly.  These ground rules are as unique as each company that incorporates them and should be tailored based upon the expectations of the employees and the overall company culture.

No matter how successful the transition to the open office may be, there will always be dissenters who resist change.  Employees may feel that they lose a sense of identity as they are now “portable” and do not have the ability to personalize their workplace.  The removal of family photos, favorite “nick knacks”, etc. render the office impersonal and sterile in many employees’ eyes.

Workers are being allocated less and less work space
Workers are being allocated less and less work space

HR should identify employees that they feel are likely to have a negative opinion of the transition and do their best to mitigate and/or “accommodate” their needs.  Many employers provide the employees with a community bulletin board where they can personalize their respective work environment.  The bulletin board provides a venue to post new baby pictures, articles of interest, thank you cards, etc. and can go a long way in creating a sense of belonging to the disgruntled employee.

As CRE facility managers are tasked with realizing increased savings from their portfolios, many of them will be considering transitioning the workforce to the open office environment.

The potential for reduced footprints and the commensurate operational savings represent some of the most dramatic cost reduction measures available.

These savings can be recognized but proper due diligence must be performed in order to assure a seamless transition and justify the cost-benefit paradigm this transformation represents.

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