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Space Allocation: How Do You Know What You Need?


Photo collage showing office workers
Image: metamorworks -
When the COVID-19 threat dissipates, employees returning to corporate offices from home exile will undoubtedly come back with new ideas about how they should communicate, as social researcher and office design strategist Melissa Marsh shared in my previous WorkSpace Connect post, “Teleworking in Troubled Times.”
If all goes as she hopes, people will return to their offices more thoughtful about what’s valuable to them when co-located with colleagues, as well as which desired experiences are better supported from remote work environments than within an office, she said. And IT and facilities are going to have a lot to think about, too, added Marsh, who is the founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm, as well as senior managing director – occupant experience for Savills, a global real estate services provider.
One takeaway for IT will undoubtedly be the need to reassess the use of desktop computers, Marsh said. You’d be surprised how many companies she visits that still have substantial desktop deployments and large CPU technology in place rather than laptops, even though the smaller, portable devices have been on the market for decades, she said. “Post this moment in time, the desire or ability to rely on laptops instead of desktops … becomes obvious and paramount.”
Without laptops, people are limited in their ability to take a video call in a cozy corner near the café or in an enclosed space that doesn’t have an in-room video system, for example.
For facilities decision-makers, space allocation will continue to weigh heavy on the mind — especially as people return to the office with fresh ideas about what works and what doesn’t work based on their work-from-home experiences. No matter what those ideas may be, facilities need to apply the same sort of rigor around space decisions as ever.
Toward that end, Marsh said she recommends any workspace decision-maker consider sources of information as a starting point.
  1. People Perspective — The first source to turn to is people themselves. This isn’t to say you should ask people what sort of spaces they want. Rather, ask them what they do, and to think about how their work could be better supported by spaces, Marsh said. Note, however, that people aren’t always “accurate instruments when measuring ourselves,” she added. “We tend to overestimate certain parts of our work and underestimate other parts of our work when it comes to talking about how long it takes to do this, that, or the other thing — but nonetheless, the first approach is to survey or interview people, digitally or in person, to understand how people work from their perspective.” From her perch as a social researcher, Marsh advised to take care that you’re asking questions properly and interpreting results accurately — neither of which is guaranteed when using freemium survey tools, for example. This is important “if you’re going to be turning results into real investments and solutions for people,” she added.
  2. Anthropological Insight — The second source comes from observing — perhaps shadowing — people as they go about their work. To Marsh’s point about people not being the most accurate source of data about themselves, the goal here is to get a third-person viewpoint of the work getting done. You might think about this like sports training, with coaches and athletes reviewing performance and discussing how things might be done differently or better, Marsh suggested.
  3. Measured Metrics — The third source is data collected from sources such as building occupancy and room utilization sensors or usage stats from technology infrastructure solutions, such as Microsoft Office 365. From the latter source, IT can get information such as who’s communicating with whom, which files are in use and who’s working on them, and where people are working and how many hours they’re working.
Each of these sources provides a view of people’s current work. But, of course, if you’re going to be investing in interior design or real estate, you’re also going to need to consider the future of work, Marsh said. For that, conversing with corporate leadership, other executives, and even outside parties in the same industry about what the future of work looks like not only in the organization but in that sector “really helps people think through what the next version of the office environment might look like.”
Don’t expect any set answers, though, Marsh said. “The way people work will be “constrained by number one, the organizational culture, like how does that particular company operate, and number two, the individual preferences and choices of the worker — every situation is unique.”