“Get closer…” – UK workplace density increasing further

With the tune of this song by Ne-Yo stuck in my head,  I return for the British Council for Offices (BCO) launch of their “Occupier density study 2013”.

The survey, which analyses the sq m per workplace ratio across 381 UK office properties amounting to nearly 2.5 million sq m of space, confirms what many of us have felt or seen happening around us:  We are getting closer together in the office ! In fact, it shows that on average the UK workplace provides just 10.9 sq m of space per FTE and that on average two-thirds of us have between 8-13 sq m. Workplace allocations of less than 8 sq m remain the minority (10%) – however this proportion has doubled from the 2009 survey.

The drivers for increased density are not new. Occupiers in both the public and private sector remain under pressure to manage costs effectively. As office rents usually represent about 60% of occupancy costs, reductions in space offer significant savings potential. But it’s not just economic pressures. Technology is another game changer: Laptops, tablets and smartphones have transformed the way we work and enabled flexible and mobile ways of working (see for example our “Offices 2020” research). To be able to work from home, on the train, at a client’s office, or wherever necessary, whilst seamlessly connecting to the company network is now standard. Even small solutions such as more efficient use of meeting rooms by using booking software reduces requirements for meeting room space. Many corporates have also discovered, that stimulating collaboration between employees is increasing innovation and have taken profound workplace change programs.  This – among other factors – has changed our working culture and made us all less chained to our desks.

The results of the survey also show slight, but noticeable differences between sectors, with employees in the financial and insurance sector being the most crammed together. This is an important point to note, particularly for landlords and developers. Occupiers from different sectors have different needs and working styles and hence will use offices differently. The key to a successful development is hence flexibility.  The survey (in conjunction with the analysis of IPD data) offers however also some conciliation for those, that might feel a bit claustrophobic: The rate of the increase in occupation densities has begun to slow and I guess there is indeed a point where a level is reached and the benefits of increased efficiency diminish – at some point you do actually need a desk for a bit.

The most important point, in the survey and the debate in my view, is around what the BCO calls “effective density”. The key element here is utilisation. While density has clearly increased and while we are getting closer, there is also more space for formal and informal collaboration.  And being mobile inside the office and outside means we don’t spend as much time at the actual desk as we used to. So while density ratios are going up, our reduced fixity to the office means that in reality we might actually not be getting that much closer.