The Office through the Eyes of an Outsider
The floor is quiet but for the distant tip-tap of a keyboard echoing down the dark hallway. The cloyingly sweet scent of hazelnut coffee wafts in invisible clouds from the pantry. A flickering fluorescent light alerts the floor’s occupants to its quickening demise. I walk the floor, tablet in one arm and sheets of floor plans in the other. My eyes dart up and down, from floor plan to spreadsheet to room numbers to the lone secretary diligently typing. Before long, this tranquil scene gives way to the pitter-patter of heels on carpet, the thrum of copy machines, the frenzied opening and closing of doors, and freshly caffeinated morning chatter. The first hour of the observation study is almost complete.
Observing the Office
The OPX observation study is an integral part of our Integrated Operating Environment (IOE) process. Typically following a leadership vision session, employee survey, and focus groups, our observation study uses on-site observation to research and better understand how an organization’s employees interact with the various physical and social systems in the office environment. The study provides both quantitative and qualitative data on space utilization and behavior patterns and allows the OPX team to gain insights and discover unexpected opportunities that may not be readily apparent from survey data or focus group anecdotes. Additionally, what people say they do and what they actually do are not always the same. Recognizing these discontinuities can provide a more accurate view into how an organization operates in practice as compared to in principle, further informing our space and process oriented recommendations.
Hourly observations of occupancy, space types, usage, and behavior patterns are recorded on a tablet-based spreadsheet or plan by OPXers walking through the entire workplace, and subsequently analyzed. The observed day(s) are typically chosen to highlight an average day of activities for an organization. We often hear anecdotes in focus groups about particular spaces or work processes, and make a note to observe these during the course of the day. Occasionally, we will observe an atypical day of unique events to analyze how particular spaces are used under special circumstances or by more than the usual number of people.
The Cost and Cultural Ramifications of Underutilized Space
Some of the most valuable data we collect during the observation study is the utilization rate of spaces and activity data. Utilization rates tell us how often and when a space is used, and activity data tell us how people are using the space and whether they are using the space for its intended purpose. During our studies, we often come across swaths of floor plates that are either vacant or not being used efficiently. Vacant or underutilized space can be expensive for an organization, and understanding how much space is not being used efficiently can lead to substantial cost savings.
In addition to substantial savings opportunities available through eliminating unused space, there are work process, cultural, and design ramifications as well. Through an observation study with a recent client, we found that over the course of the day, an average of 54% of all space types and 40% of private offices were vacant at any given time. There were entire banks of cubes with empty desks and nothing but stray Ethernet cables poking up from below. There were lengths of walls stacked with file boxes and reams of unused chart paper. There were dark corridors lined with empty offices creating a subdued atmosphere that lacked the energy that you would expect mid-day in a large organization.
Check the Facts
In focus groups, we commonly hear that meeting rooms are in short supply and that people schedule rooms weeks in advance. Without verifying, it would be easy to respond by recommending a substantial increase in meeting rooms for an organization’s new space. However, with one client who reported constantly booked conference rooms, when we walked the space, we saw only a handful of rooms in use throughout the day. Looking into the issue further, we gathered that people were reserving rooms in case they might need them, but never cancelling unused reservations. Those people looking to reserve a room at the last minute thus found all the conference rooms booked, when in fact most of them were available. This discovery led us to propose a revamped conference room reservation system which more clearly displayed which rooms were in use and made rooms available if reservations were not fulfilled.
Observation studies provide us with more nuanced information about an organization’s culture than survey or focus group data would allow us to collect. They allow us, as outsiders, to gather information first hand, without the implicit biases and miscalculations that may appear in self-reported data. When walking the halls, we pick up on the degrees to which collaboration and activity levels vary throughout the course of the day and what those interactions and activities look like. We see where people congregate when they’re regaling people with stories from their kid’s soccer game (copy machine) versus discussing a particular work product (office doorway). We observe the group of people spilling out of the pantry at 10 am as they refill their coffees and discuss the impending snowstorm. We observe the trio crowded around a desk in a misshapen office, their necks craned and eyes narrowed on the tiny spreadsheet on the screen. We observe the shadowy, uninviting hallway that creates an unintentional separation between HR and finance. We observe the claustrophobic phone booths that sit vacant throughout the day as people step into the pantries to make calls. We observe how the fifth floor’s atmosphere is more like a library, whereas the third floor’s is more like a coffee shop.
By the end of the day, our soles a little thinner and our spreadsheets much fuller, we’ve created a rich data set of quantitative and qualitative observations to pore through. These particulars, unique to every workplace and even every department, along with our survey and focus group findings, inform our customized recommendations so that an organization’s new space addresses the intricacies of their needs.