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5 Factors Leading to Underutilized Office Space (and How to Fix Them)

workplace analytics, office utilization
Chuck Leddy
Published on

Office space is the second-most expensive resource (after employee salaries) for most businesses, so you’d better be getting a return on that investment.

Underutilized offices cost you money and also result in lost opportunities for organizational connection and culture. People actually like the office experience. An Axios survey of employees found that 74% of them missed having their “office community.” 

This blog post will describe the causes and consequences of low office attendance, and offer advice to fix the problem. We’ll conclude by explaining how the right workplace experience platform can help you transform “lonely” offices into busy, engaging, and people-centered spaces.

Over 40% of companies plan to get more people in the office in 2023.

Office Space Utilization: What Is It?

Office space utilization is the process of effectively using an office environment for work purposes. The main goal of office space utilization is to maximize efficiency, which helps an organization reduce costs and improve productivity.

To achieve this, office space utilization centers around four key areas:

  • Space planning involves analyzing industrial trends, building usage patterns, and customer needs in order to best arrange the workspace for optimal workflow.
  • Asset management looks at how physical resources such as furniture and equipment are stored and used over time.
  • Occupancy tracking keeps track of who is occupying workspaces at certain times throughout the day.
  • And lastly, environmental control ensures that all spaces within a building are kept comfortable with proper lighting, temperature, acoustics, security measures, etcetera.

In recent years due to technological advancements and the global pandemic, flexible working has become a new norm in many organizations. Flexible work gives employees more options when it comes to where they can complete their tasks; they no longer have to stay confined in one area or even be on-site at all times if not necessary.

This not only benefits the company but also its employees since it gives them more freedom when it comes to managing their own schedules. Naturally this has had a huge impact on how companies utilize their office spaces since it’s no longer necessary for each employee to have a dedicated desk or workspace every single day.

How Has Hybrid Work Impacted Office Space Utilization?

Companies are now able to downsize their physical footprints by removing excess furniture from underutilized areas as well as investing more in technology solutions like videoconferencing which allows remote teams to collaborate more easily and efficiently than ever before.

Additionally organizations can now better focus on creating comfortable break out areas that foster collaboration rather than dedicating entire floors full of desks that everyone never uses anymore. Flexible working has also allowed companies to further optimize their office spaces through creative approaches like hot desking or activity-based working (ABW).

Activity based working ensures there are plenty of different types of workspaces.

Hot desking involves assigning desks randomly so that each employee doesn’t need to be assigned one permanently; instead they can just take whichever desk is available at any given moment depending on whether or not someone else is already occupying it.

ABW takes this concept even further by creating multiple different types of workspaces geared towards different activities so that employees can work comfortably depending on what task they’re completing at any given moment throughout the day.

This includes everything from outdoor patios with hammocks for creative brainstorming sessions to quiet cubicles for focused individual work tasks without distraction or interruption from other colleagues nearby who may be having louder conversations or playing music while working on something else entirely altogether elsewhere within the same building or campus premises.

These innovations show us just how far flexible working has come in terms of optimizing office space utilization — businesses are no longer limited by traditional norms when it comes to making full use of their buildings’ interiors; instead they’re able to get creative with how they use the various rooms, corners, walls and furniture available inside them in order to create productive yet enjoyable workspaces for all types of employees regardless of where exactly they choose (or are required) to physically be during a typical day-to-day routine.

What causes office underutilization?

Every workplace and every organization is unique, so the reasons people may not be coming in are complex and multifaceted. But there are definitely some “usual suspects,” challenges all organizations face in getting people to come in:

1. Long commutes to the office

People don’t hate the office, they hate the commute. A FlexJobs survey found that 79% of people believe the biggest benefit of working from home is not having to commute

Little wonder that so many companies have experimented with “spoke-and-wheel” approaches, locating the main office downtown and spreading out other locations closer to where people live. 

2. No defined purpose or process for using the office

Since the global pandemic, the office is no longer the default workplace. People used to get assigned a desk and a table, then were expected to come in five days per week. That world is dead: we’re now experiencing what Apple CEO Tim Cook called “the mother of all experiments” (i.e., hybrid work).

Today’s office needs a purpose, and RTO mandates are not the solution. Your office space needs to “earn its keep” by becoming a desirable locus for collaboration, human interaction, and cultural exchange. Once the office space has a purpose, you’ll need to set up a frictionless, simple process so people can access its value.

3. No visibility into office activity

The biggest office experience killer is commuting into an empty office and sitting on Zoom calls/meetings all day. You can do that from home. People who plan to visit the office need, and organizations must provide them with, visibility into (1) who else is coming in and (2) what else is happening at the office that day, from meetings to social programming and beyond.

If your people don’t have this essential visibility into the who and what of your office, coming in feels like gambling at a casino. Some days you win (Tuesday had tacos in the cafeteria and Thursday had an after-work rock concert) and some days you lose (the office was so empty on Wednesday that I decided to leave after ten minutes and work from the Starbucks down the street).  

Workplace analytics can help leaders understand what is being used and how.

4. A lack of necessary resources and amenities

People want and expect the office to contain the resources, equipment, and amenities they need in order to do their best work. People already have good snacks in their kitchen, so the office had better provide benefits they can’t get at home. That could mean better a casual/cafe’-style snack area for check-ins or social get-togethers, maker spaces with the latest tech (3D printers?), or best-in-class amenities like a health club. 

This problem is further compounded by inadequate technology infrastructure. Poorly designed offices tend to have outdated equipment or technology solutions that create delays in getting work done efficiently and accurately. Employees who need access to certain software applications may find themselves waiting for long periods of time as IT updates applications or troubleshoots problems due to insufficient hardware resources or software compatibility issues. These delays can be highly discouraging for workers who value speed and accuracy in their daily tasks.

5. Undesirable office layout or settings

If the office is uncomfortable, noisy, and unattractive, people won’t come in. Chatty coworkers who talk so loudly that concentrating is impossible can kill the office vibe, as can bad lighting, dying plants, broken furniture, and cluttered 1990s-style office layouts. Nobody’s commuting in for any of that stuff.

Poorly designed workplaces can have a significant impact on employee morale and motivation. A workplace that is unorganized and inefficient, with little attention paid to the physical layout and design of the space, can be a major source of discouragement for employees.

Such workplaces tend to lack adequate storage space, comfortable furniture, natural light, ergonomic workspaces, and other amenities that are important for employee comfort and productivity. When employees don’t feel comfortable in their workspace or find it difficult to be productive, they may not want to come into the office at all or may choose to work from home instead.

In addition to providing an uncomfortable environment, poorly designed offices can also make collaboration and communication more difficult. They tend to be cramped and noisy with no area designated specifically for team meetings or one-on-one conversations. This lack of private spaces may lead employees to avoid communicating face-to-face out of fear that others will overhear their conversations. As a result, important information may not get shared among co-workers or decisions may take longer than necessary because there is no easy way for people to communicate directly with each other.

How to improve office space utilization

Workplace leaders understandably want people back in the office, largely because they understand the centrality of the office for collaboration and organizational culture. 

Leaders continue to worry about getting people back into physical office spaces.

Microsoft Work Trend Index research shows that 82% of business leaders view getting people back to the office as a significant concern. Employees, on the other hand, are justifiably demanding a compelling reason to commute into the office — 73% of them demand a better reason than “because my company says so.”   

Leaders can attract people back by:

Prioritizing people over places.

Pulling (not “pushing”) people back into the office means providing opportunities for people to come together for collaboration, socializing, and other forms of human interaction. 

The more intentional your organization is about facilitating connection, and the easier you make it for people to connect, the more likely your people will come into the office. 

Build Office Spaces Worth the Commute

Designing an office layout that makes people want to come into the office can have a significant impact on employee motivation, productivity, and overall satisfaction. Here are some tips on how to create an attractive office layout:

  1. Provide comfortable and functional furniture: Invest in comfortable chairs, ergonomic desks, and workstations that provide enough space to work efficiently. Make sure that the furniture is adjustable to suit different people's heights and postures.
  2. Add greenery: Plants can help purify the air and create a pleasant atmosphere in the office. They can also reduce stress and increase productivity. Consider adding potted plants or creating a green wall to improve the ambiance of the office.
  3. Use natural lighting: Natural light can improve mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. Maximize the use of windows and skylights to provide natural lighting throughout the office. Additionally, use task lighting to highlight specific areas.
  4. Encourage collaboration: Promote collaboration by designing spaces that encourage communication and teamwork. Create areas for impromptu meetings, group discussions, and brainstorming sessions. Additionally, provide equipment such as whiteboards, markers, and projectors to facilitate collaboration in conference rooms and beyond.
  5. Consider acoustics: Noise can be a significant distraction in the office. Incorporate sound-absorbing materials such as carpets, curtains, and acoustic panels to reduce noise levels. Additionally, provide private meeting rooms and phone booths to reduce distractions and increase privacy.

By incorporating these design elements into your office layout, you can create an environment that encourages employees to come into the office and be productive.

Make coming into the office as frictionless as possible

Create processes and invest in technology tools that make coming into the office “easy-peasy.” If you set up hot desking, as so many organizations have done, provide desk booking software. Do the same with your meeting spaces and conference rooms, making them easy to book with accessible tools. More than 60% of executives see the need and plan to increase their spending on remote collaboration tools, according to PWC.

Support common challenges office visitors face

Figure out the barriers to coming into the office – may we suggest asking your people – and then systematically eliminate and minimize those barriers. The solutions you come up with will depend on your people, their challenges, and your available resources, but might include commuter stipends, parking vouchers, discounted lunches/snacks, and more.

Don't forget to pay close attention to the work-life balance of your teams. Many offices now require workers to adjust to a hybrid work lifestyle where some tasks are done on-site while others are completed remotely at home. This can create an imbalance in personal life and professional obligations, leaving employees feeling overwhelmed and unable to effectively manage both realms of their life.

Employees need good reasons to come into the office.

Office space management software can increase utilization

You’re paying a lot for your office space, and paying even more to your people. You should be combining these two business expenses to synergistically create the most value. How can you bridge the gap between your people and your office?

The answer is office space management software You need technology tools that make it easy to communicate the purpose of the office (e.g., announcing the town hall meeting on Tuesday or the happy hour on Friday), as well as making it easy for your people to schedule their office visits while conveniently booking the spaces (desks and meeting rooms) they need to do their best work, individually and collaboratively. Office space utilization is an important piece of that puzzle.

A poor office design indicates to employees that their employers do not care about them or their work environment. This lack of care causes employees to become resentful and unwilling to put effort into their job. It is important for employers to remember that a happy and engaged workforce is essential for any successful business.

Your office space management tools should also provide you with a continuous flow of workplace data and analytics so you can iterate on your hybrid work strategy. Up-to-date office space utilization data can give you insights that inform your future planning.


Want to connect your people and teams with the tools and support they need to connect with the office? Start with Robin, for free.

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