The Rule of Three: Planning your back to work strategy

What will your comeback story look like?  

There are four (4) key questions around the new office normal that deserve your attention. Our space management team of experts weighs in.

Who will return to the office and what will it look like when we get there?

Workspace will look different as we move out of the pandemic and return to our offices and working environments.  Social distancing will remain, what that looks like and how long it will stay in effect is unknown, but space will likely be refitted to accommodate some form of physical distancing. Clearly, virtual staff are now comfortable with working from home, and likely wish to continue this way, perhaps a significant amount as restrictions are eased. Although a return is slowly being implemented around the globe, the Pandemic may simply have accelerated the trend we were already anticipating…the office will need less desks.

What have we learned from studies done on trends and types of use of office space prior to the pandemic?

Multiple surveys of 50+ million Accordant Anywhere users in five (5) continents have been completed with Accordant partners, including CBRE, HOK and Moveplan. Studies on workspace pre COVID-19 were showing signs of decreased usage, floors looked less occupied but staff numbers were not in a decline. In most cases, it was easy to determine how many people were in an office by studying gate access systems, which averaged around 67%. It was then simple to measure desk usage with utilisation surveys. Multiple studies suggest occupied desks average 33% in most environments. From this we can assume that the average workplace has three (3) distinct types of employees:

  1. The first employee is easy to quantify as they are sitting at their desk, regularly seen and heard in the office. 
  2. The second type is never in the office: visiting clients; attending events; working from home etc. 
  3. The third team member is in the office, but not sitting at an assigned desk. They likely collaborate with various teams, attend meetings, occupy quiet areas or socialise at the water cooler. We know they are in the office yet unable to track them down.

Therefore, on any given day we have one person sitting at a desk in the office, one person out and one person in the office but doing something other than sitting at a desk… the rule of 3.

Before Covid-19, studies helped us better understand how space was used to plan productive and cost-effective space. The Rule of 3 displays our struggle to adjust and adapt to pending change. Companies are reallocating desks for a safe return, but are we considering the right type of employee for a return to the office. 

Why will past floorplan designs be an issue for modifying the office tomorrow?

Clearly over the past decade there has been a trend of moving away from traditional models where office workers spend their day behind a desk. Collaborative work was increasing, even in those office environments not suited for spontaneous communal conversation.

In this new world, the 1’s, who would normally be at their desk all day, may continue to work from home, leaving empty space. The 2’s are not normally in the office and many workplaces may have already adapted their space to reflect this.   The 3’s see the office as a destination and want to come back for collaboration and socialisation. Activity based workers thrive in social environments, preferring face to face interaction over web conferencing. 

If average desk utilisation remains in the mid 30%, the 3’s are key to workspace transition. What they do tells us what happens away from their desk, therefore giving us information on what kind of altered space is really needed, whether that’s meeting or quiet space, collaborative or social space, etc. This information helps with effective agile configurations and spawned activity-based work.

Will ‘normal’ ever be normal again? 

Moving forward the workplace needs to adapt to reflect the types of workers that a) want to be in the office, b) need to be in the office and c) thrive in the office environment. To accommodate the right people whilst following social distancing guidelines we need to focus on employee 3, who is in the office but not necessarily at their desks all day. In some ways it will be more difficult to plan for the return of the 3’s who thrive in the office due to collaboration and socialization: reducing touch points and forcing directional flow will prohibit many of the behaviours considered normal for this group. However, by focusing on this type of employee you will likely see an upwards trend in productivity as opposed to group 1 or 2 who’s productivity has stayed steady whether in the office or at home. 

Workspace is a constantly changing environment with trends towards what the dominant/managerial generation considers optimal. Just as we transitioned from the ‘normal’ of cubicles and closed offices to open plan workstations, now the distanced desks with agile and remote working will eventually become our ‘normal’. 

In summary

As we head back to our working environment, management must consider all types of workers. Simply put, the out of office employee won’t change as they will remain out of office. The planning being done now centers on that employee who sits at their desk every day. However, if said employee has since established working from home as a viable option it’s unlikely they will want/need to return immediately to an office just to sit at a desk.

The office which was previously 2/3rd in and 1/3rd out, may now switched to only have 1/3rd in at any given time. There has been a transition from group 1 to group 2. Rather than being evenly split between desk-bound and agile workers, those coming in are there for something specific, space will be reflective of this. It stands to reason that if staff no longer need to collaborate in the office, they won’t need to be there.