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Our new data shows: The office is not becoming a social clubhouse, quite the opposite actually.

  • Managing Occupancy
  • Workplace Data & Insights

A deep dive into pre- vs. post-COVID office occupancy

Merlijn can tell you everything about workplace data. Contact him via: +31610338230 or merlijn@measuremen.io

Introduction

Most organisations are allowing employees to work at the office again. And some managers are trying to attract employees to the office to socialise and collaborate. Organisations embrace hybrid working with a clear goal in mind: the office becomes a place of collaboration and socialising, while individual work is done from home. The office as a “Social clubhouse” speaks to the imagination of many facility managers: a space with many nice meeting rooms, social spaces, and open floorplans. While (HR-)managers also see the benefit of this: collaborating in the same space together really adds the human touch. They aim to facilitate unplanned encounters at unexpected places that the online environment does not facilitate. Coming up with new innovations while chatting during lunch, or developing social community while bridging the time between meetings together are some examples.

But is the office really becoming what they hoped for? At Measuremen, we measure. With our Workplace Observation Studies, we make rounds across the offices multiple times a day (and week) while measuring occupancy, utilisation, and the activities of the people present. So, next to counting the people present, we also collect data about what type of work people do and where they choose to do that work. This gives us data-driven insight into what employees decide to come to the office for.

For this research article, we included 20 post-COVID studies from 2022 in Europe and compared them to 128 pre-COVID studies. In total, we observed 12,979 workstations and 2,889 meeting facilities post-COVID, compared to 93,434 workstations and 18,391 meeting facilities pre-COVID. For this research, we’ve grouped all meeting facilities (e.g. closed meeting rooms and break out areas). And we also grouped all workstations (so this includes desks in open spaces as well as desks in closed spaces).

We expect that the relative occupancy of meeting facilities will be increased and that people will schedule more meetings in these facilities. Secondly, we are curious whether there are changes in the activities of employees at their workstations. We expect that they have more meetings while sitting behind their individual desk.

Occupancy: pre- vs. post-COVID

First, it’s important to understand the occupancy change pre- vs. post-COVID. It is clear that post-COVID occupancy for both meeting facilities and workstations is still much lower than pre-COVID (see figures 1 and 2). For meeting facilities, the average occupancy dropped by 10.6 % (from 33.8% to 23.2%). While for workstations the average occupancy dropped by 11.3% (from 47% to 35.7%). This similar drop in the occupancy of both spaces suggests that there is no increase in the popularity of meeting facilities post-COVID. This is the first sign that the office hasn’t become a social clubhouse (yet).

Interestingly, the average peak occupancy (highest measured occupancy of each day divided by the total number of days), did not really change between pre-and post-COVID. This means that the office still experiences similar peaks of busy moments, although the overall average occupancy dropped. The overall drop is probably because of the continuation of remote work. But the similar peak is more curious, it seems that people prefer to cluster at the office on specific days and moments.

Figure 1. Occupancy change in meeting facilities pre- and post-COVID.

Figure 2. Occupancy change in workstations pre- and post-COVID.

 

Activities in meeting facilities

To dive deeper into the question of whether the office is turning into a social clubhouse, we looked at the work activities in meeting facilities and behind workstations. When in use, we looked at the type of activities people were performing in these spaces. First, we looked at the meeting facilities. The data shows a big drop of 17.9% (from 59.0% to 41.1%) in meetings people were having in the meeting facilities (see figure 3). On the other hand, we saw strong increases in people doing ‘mobile computer work’ (+6.1%), ‘video conferencing’ (+7.3%), ‘individual calling’ (+2.4%) and ‘reviewing’ (+1%) in these meeting facilities. These statistics strengthen the evidence that offices aren’t used more for socialising. In fact, it seems to become less social and that now, people are using meeting spaces more for individual activities and/or to communicate with remote colleagues.

Figure 3. Change in activities in meeting facilities pre- and post-COVID.

 

Activities at workstations

If there is no increase in social interaction in meeting facilities, we might find it at individual workstations. But in fact, data shows that this is also not the case. We measured fewer in-person conversations at workstations, dropping from 8.3% to 6.3% (-2%) while video conferencing has increased from 0.2% to 3.5% (+3.3%) and individual calling has increased from 1.9% to 3.8% (+1.9%). So, also at workstations, we see a drop in on-site social interaction and a shift towards more “online” social activities through video conferencing and calling.

One other interesting find is a massive reduction of ‘computer work’ (-19.7%) that seems to be compensated with a similar increase of ‘mobile computer work’ (+11.1%). It seems that many employees got used to working on their laptops, or preferred working on their own devices while working at the office.

Figure 4. Change in activities at workstations pre- and post-COVID.

Discussion

Contrary to our expectations, we found that the office became less social post-COVID. Meeting facilities didn’t become more popular over workstations post-COVID, regardless of the drop in average occupancy. The analysis of the activities in the meeting facilities and workstations confirmed this finding once more. Fewer meetings in the meeting facilities and workstations were replaced by more individual activities like video conferencing, calling or reviewing. It seems that people more often searched for meeting facilities to do their “individual social work”. The fact that people do this might be because many of their colleagues still work remotely and they need to communicate with them. Next to that, lower occupancy levels allowed them to do individual work in meeting facilities or even do video conferences at their desks. Nevertheless, it seems clear that currently, people are in need of spaces where they can have (digital) calls. If offices get busier, the need for spaces designed to have individual calls might become the most important to facilitate. The low occupancy levels at the moment might also be a factor in the low number of in-person conversations at workstations. A few people present in a large space might result in fewer social interactions in general.

So, instead of introducing the office as a social clubhouse yet, it is now rather a work environment where people are adjusting to working hybrid effectively. Many of their colleagues are still working remotely while spaces don’t seem to be optimised for hybrid meetings and/or (individual) video conferencing. If remote workers participate in meetings with people at the office, this warrants different behaviour from people at the office. Sometimes, this forces people at the office to sit down behind their laptops as well, even though they might have hoped for real-life physical interaction. This is one of the reasons that prevent the office from becoming a social clubhouse. Nevertheless, facilitating spaces for having effective hybrid meetings, like video equipment and/or call booths could be a way to embrace hybrid working instead of a forced focus on introducing the office as a social clubhouse. 

However, it is good to notice that for this research we grouped all meeting facilities, including meeting facilities like closed meeting rooms as well as open break-out areas. The popularity of these spaces, and for what purpose they are being used, could be changed post-COVID. We do have this data as well, so we might dedicate another research article to it. Nevertheless, in general, we see the pattern that the office is not yet a social clubhouse. 

Overall, it seems that in order to support and enable employees to do their best work, there is still some coordination needed. There are multiple ways to achieve this:

  1. Synchronise the schedules of (related) teams so that they can have full physical meetings by installing policies and/or booking systems.
  2. Reduce the office size to stimulate social interaction (and save money).
  3. Change the office plan to accommodate hybrid working and social interaction. 

Nevertheless, the best solution for your organisation might be very different from other organisations. The industry, company culture or current office plan are big factors that influence your office dynamics. It’s what your employees need to work effectively while being at the office or while being at home. Take a look at our Workplace Observation Studies to improve the use of your space by understanding your workplace use, or at Habital® to improve the well-being of your employees through understanding their needs.

Want to read more? Check out our latest blog for more insights!

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