Room to Move: Research on workplace space

New research shows the office workplace is a poorly used asset

New research by management consultants and workplace specialists AWA shows the office workplace is a poorly used asset

Offices are available for occupancy 365 days a year, but only open 12 hours a day most days and are unused at weekends says management consultant and workplace specialists AWA. Even when office workplaces are open, desks are used only on average 59% of the time and meeting spaces 39%.

AWA also reveals drop-in desks aren’t widely used and that London offices work a bit harder than workplaces outside the capital. The good news is that well-designed programmes for agile or advanced working can boost desk utilisation to as much as 80% without adversely affecting productivity.

The Utilisation of the Office report, based on AWA’s work with organisations over recent years, sets out some frightening truths about the way in which the workplace is being used (or not) and points at ways underutilised capacity can be used to get a better deal for people and shareholders.

AWA says one reason for the poor use of office space is the architectural and interior design professions tend to follow a ‘data less’ approach. Too often briefing starts with what people want, as opposed to what is demonstrated to be needed through thorough analysis. “We would implore architects and interior designers to adopt an evidence-based approach to briefing and design, so a proper understanding of how people work and their use of and need for different spaces is considered,” says AWA MD Andrew Mawson.

AWA has been consulting on advanced working for nearly 20 years. It advocates that people should be provided with the tools and spaces needed to give them the best chance of doing their best work; while through the deployment of agile working practices, make the best use of space to maximise the use, flexibility and sustainability of office assets.

“In recent months we’ve been considering the relationship of space utilisation to sustainability,” says Mawson. “We’ve concluded independently that the most powerful way to reduce CO2 is to use fewer buildings by consolidating occupancy and increasing utilisation through agile working.”

Behavioural change challenge

Many new, small organisations are able to adopt an agile workplace model from their inception, because the leaders set out the model as part of the vision for the firm. For large organisations, with engrained rituals, cultures and attitudes, the challenge is much greater requiring substantial, well resourced and well thought through behavioural change strategies.

AWA says the transition to agile or advanced working can be a substantial behavioural change challenge for large organisations.

Information technology is a key enabler in supporting mobility, both in and out of the office. Staff needs to be able to make and receive calls and access their information and applications from anywhere inside the office and in some cases outside too. IP telephony and desktop ‘virtualisation’ are key technologies in supporting increased office utilisation.

AWA recommends real-estate and FM professionals build good relationships and alliances with their colleagues in IT, to influence and support, sometimes financially, plans to create a platform for agile working. In support of an evidence-based approach AWA says the first thing organisations should do to understand the use of their workplaces is to carry out regular (at least once a quarter) studies to assess the utilisation of space through time.

This will draw management attention to new opportunities and can support consolidation of space or in a growth situation, avoidance of the need for more space.


The Utilisation of the Office report sets out the background to office utilisation; definitions of measurements; average utilisation levels for desks and meeting spaces; reasons for utilisation ‘leakage’; comparisons for London against the rest of the UK and mechanisms for increasing workplace utilisation without impacting on personal productivity.

Over the past 20 years organisations, largely driven by cost pressures, have been improving the efficiency of their space by conventional means, introducing open plan accommodation and reducing the number and size of individual offices, reducing the size of desks and so on. However, there is a limit to what can be achieved in taking this conventional approach to increasing building capacity.

For some time, enlightened organisations have recognised the capacity of a building is measured not only in terms of space, but also in the time it is made available. Each desk, meeting room and ancillary space is available for occupation around the clock, yet in practice most buildings are unused at weekends or outside a 12-hour daily window. Worse still, AWA’s research shows that during the time when buildings are open for occupation, the desks and meeting spaces within them are used for only a fraction of the time they’re available.

For most people we’d estimate they may not be at their desk for 20% or more every year. Further inefficiencies come from the departmental ‘ownership’ of space in offices, where typically a department is allocated an area of the building or number of desks and it regards them as its own to do with as it wishes.

In addition to these inefficiencies, the way traditional architects and interior designers go about determining the number, size and type of spaces (which is largely on the basis of asking managers what they want) has led to further inefficiencies. AWA’s research suggests meeting rooms are generally too large for the size of meetings that take place and poorly used.


AWA suggests we’re now seeing a transition in the use of information and communications technology. Until recently, ICT developments have been deployed for more mobile workers who work a substantial part of their time outside the office. Now technologies such as IP telephony, cloud computing, and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) are increasing the opportunity for mobility for all staff working in offices.

Agile working

In an agile working regime (sometimes referred to as free-seating, unassigned desking or hot desking) people come to an area in the office where their team is located and use available desks around what AWA calls an ‘anchor point’. With this regime people still have access to their colleagues, papers, telephone calls, IT applications, electronic files and desktops.

The anchor points mark the central point of occupation for a unit, team or department and instead of allocating space to a department, people are simply asked to sit close to their anchor point and use space on a first-come, first-served basis. This approach is entirely analogous to ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing.

The benefit from a space utilisation standpoint of this approach, is that all the unused ‘time slots’ of capacity are now usable and because ‘owned’ areas aren’t being created for each department, the ebbs and flows of each department’s occupancy can be accommodated within the whole of the space.

Over the past five years AWA has undertaken many workplace utilisation studies for major UK organisations. The consultancy now has extensive data covering about 75 buildings, 36,100 desks, 542 hot desks and 728 meeting rooms. The percentage of desks observed to be actually occupied is just 48%. Average utilisation where the desk is occupied or there are ‘signs of occupancy’ rises to 59%. Unsurprisingly occupancy dips on Fridays.

In 11 of the workplace utilisation studies AWA was able to examine utilisation before and after the implementation of agile or advanced working programmes. Across a range of measures, including workplace utilisation and the use of hot desks and meeting rooms, the research shows agile working increases utilisation. Typically, for the initial transition to advanced working we see an improvement in utilisation (occupied) on average of 7%, based on 12% reduction in workplaces.

At the outset of the journey to higher utilisation, it’s normal to move to a 12:10 ratio of people to desks. AWA says this can rise to 14:10 once staff have become used to the new way of working and can often transition further if some managed home working is introduced for those staff and jobs for whom it is feasible. At these levels, 80% desk utilisation is achievable without detriment to productivity.

AWA also compared London workplaces with those in the rest of the UK, concluding that space utilisation is slightly higher in the capital. This may be due to the pressure in London to increase utilisation because of the higher level of rent.

SUBHEAD: Hot desks not-so-hot and under-used meeting rooms Some organisations provide ‘hot desks’ for short-term use by staff dropping in. AWA’s data show that where hot desks are provided, their utilisation is on average just 16%, surprising given the nature of their supposed use. It seems traditionally hot desks are used as a last resort or for travelling/visiting staff.

Meeting room utilisation in most buildings is very poor with on average 39% of meeting rooms being used for the time they are available. This picture however becomes even worse when the degree to which the seats in meeting rooms (ie their total capacity) is examined. Just 19% of meeting room capacity is being used. So in general, meeting space capacity is poorly used but the worst-used spaces are meeting spaces located in open plan areas where average utilisation falls to 9%.

AWA says this is because those who could potentially use them are concerned they will distract others or that their conversations may be overheard by colleagues.