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Winning the space race

Effective space management has become a key driver for organisations seeking to optimise resource usage. Alan Rose of CAD Management explain why space utilisation is now a more important dynamic than occupancy

Your occupancy is already out of date

If you manage corporate real estate you’ll know how much floor space you have and probably have a good idea of headcount. This makes global density simple mathematics and if you’ve recorded all of the individual workstations and assigned people to them, you’ll have occupancy figures for each floor of each building, broken down by business function.

Keeping this information current month-to-month can be a full time job but if it’s going to be any use in determining actual space requirements it needs to be combined with a much better understanding of actual utilisation which can, infuriatingly, change daily.

Some jobs have always been less desk-bound but in recent years greater flexibility has extended to large numbers of office workers. Globalisation and technology are encouraging new ways of collaborating, and removing the need to be in the same space to engage in effective communication.

The traditional ‘anchors’ that kept people in one location, such as a fixed computers and telephones are, for the most part, no longer relevant. Commonly, an employee can log-in to any free workstation or IP-telephone and have the same resources that were available at their “own” desk. And of course, most of us now have more flexible working practices in place such as hot desking, hotelling and home working. So the modern workforce is out there, hard at work within neatly delineated floor plans and completely ignoring the boundaries that have been drawn around them.

It’s interesting to look at the results of a number of utilisation studies carried out by global architectural consultancy HoK Advance Strategies, which reported: “We have consistently found that workspace utilisation is well below 50% of capacity and overall space utilisation is well below 70% of capacity.”

The current economic climate has led to frequent re-structuring/downsizing resulting in a significant increase in the number of staff moves as firms seek to optimise space usage. Accurate space forecasts are therefore at a premium but with central resources like CRE also bearing the burden of cuts, there are fewer people producing and managing this information.

Catching up

The starting point for getting resource planning back under control has to be gathering more information and analysing it more quickly.

The first major difficulty is that too many assignment methods still rely on a space planner drawing a line around every single desk in a CAD plan and adding up/assigning each of these “poly-lined” areas. With desk numbers in the thousands, this can take weeks at a time so figures produced at the end of a month/quarter are based on outdated information, while the ‘real’ situation may have changed significantly.

So this approach is not only slow and expensive, it can also lead to even more expensive decisions in relation to retaining or acquiring space that you don’t need.

As an alternative, a location based system records each space consuming item (desk, meeting table, filing unit etc) as it is inserted by a CAD planner, without requiring them to either draw a line around it or record which cost centre owns it. The planner only needs to draw the large areas which contain these objects (gross internal area, fixed offices etc) and these areas change much less frequently.

The number crunching takes place away from the CAD environment which is just used for layout and global measurements. This reduces the dependency on CAD specialists and allows instant access to near-live data for all users.

A major banking firm used this alongside traditional methods for a six month period and found that the individual allocation figures showed a variance of only +/-3% but that the monthly reporting and allocation functions went from six man-weeks to two man-days!

What’s the use?

Making the allocation/names-to-desks function more responsive will tell us where people are “supposed” to be on any given day but not necessarily how those spaces are actually being used on a day-to-day basis.

The onerous and unpopular manual option to is have the facilities team walking the floors and counting heads – so-called ‘bed checks’. However, staff may be in meetings, training, on leave, or simply at the coffee machine so this only provides a hazy snapshot of the true picture.

Technology is a significant driver in the increased mobility of staff so it’s perhaps a good place to start looking for some sources of hard data. If a building has a swipe card access system, this can show which people are in the building. Incidentally, we know of one FM who used this data to determine how many desks assigned to external lawyers were actually being used, this proving to be around 20% of what the lawyers were charging for.

However, even if we know someone is in the building are they actually using their allotted desks – and for how long? Do they normally sit elsewhere as it’s easier for team-working? Are meeting rooms being utilised to the extent suggested by bookings?

If workstation codes are mapped to voice/data points (another advantage of a location-based system), network and telephone logs show which workstations are in use and by whom. It won’t provide hour-by-hour utilisation but for headcount purposes it tracks impromptu moves and identifies unused areas.

There are systems that can track people leaving and entering areas by recognising “person” shapes, for example Abintra and Peoplecounter. This extends door-access data to show the flow of people in and out of any defined space such as a meeting room or Hot Desk centre.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags linked to staff and visitors can provide an even more accurate picture, traditionally the province of high value assets or for people in defence establishments (and spy movies of course)  but now becoming more widely available and cost effective. Whether an organisation’s most valuable assets, namely its people, will take kindly to having every movement tracked around a building is another matter.

Another weapon in the arsenal is tracking ‘Cold Desks, where a workstation has an allocated user but has no one sitting at it. The BGM Group have developed a system that combines desk utilisation, geographical certainty (who is occupying a space) and managed power modules to monitor the time that a desk is cold..

A winning strategy

If this additional information is feeding a central database rather than requiring constant CAD updates, it can be processed quickly so it becomes possible to create a picture of the actual use of a space and to plan accordingly. For example, an under-utilised space may benefit from a mix of fixed workstations for people who are nearly always there, and hot desks for those who come and go. Ultimately, this will free up space for other purposes and potentially enable the organisation to divest itself of space and reduce costs.

Just as importantly, this approach gives the real estate team the tools to identify the levels of support required by individual members of staff. The HoK study showed there are generally three types of users of a space – high, medium and low – each requiring different levels of support from the infrastructure.

In addition, there are knock-on benefits from a sustainability point of view, as understanding how the space is being used can help to avoid large unused areas being fully serviced with heating, lighting, air conditioning and power etc.

Crucially, given the rate of change, it’s vital for the FM or estates manager to stay on top of the situation by implementing a system that continues to provide an accurate picture through timely and accurate information. When managed properly, this aspect of facilities management becomes a dynamic process that maximises resource usage, drives down costs and adds value to the FM role.

Further information can be found at www.cadm.co.uk