February 1, 2024
A while ago, Antony Slumbers asked me why I thought firms had never done anything much about the underutilisation of their offices. This was in the first throes of lockdown-driven remote work hysteria, prompted by one of those headlines about how offices being half empty was some signifier of hatred for them.
This ignored the fact offices had been half empty, or perhaps more accurately over a third empty, for at least the previous thirty years. DEGW established its reputation on the back of this and other revelations in the 1990s. Go check out Frank Duffy’s The New Office for evidence. Empty desks are a feature of functioning offices as well as remote workforces.
More evidence of this and the general misunderstanding of how offices work came when Lord Bufton Tufton declared in 2022 that all civil servants at the Department for Education and elsewhere should be in the office full time, only to discover that there weren’t enough desks for them.
Empty desks are a feature of functioning offices as well as remote workforces
The reason was simple. The DfE office – specified before the pandemic – was designed to be underutilised. It was never created for full occupancy. Rees-Mogg’s conception of the office as a Dickensian room full of clerks at desks wasn’t even true in the 20th Century, never mind in 2022. But he probably thinks that way about lots of things.
In the nascent digital age of the 1990s, the question of how to optimise the utilisation of offices drove the advent of new ways of working, the facilities management profession, new space planning models and less office-y design idioms. The conversation we continue to have about all of this began a long time ago.
Even so, the underlying inefficiency of offices has persisted. They are generally full of underused spaces, moribund meeting rooms and ignored breakout areas. Hence Antony’s question.
The answer to it is twofold, I think. The first is that people like to have their own spaces. This is true even for hybrid workers, who will gravitate towards the same space when in the office and even prefer to have their own dedicated desk, regardless of how much time they spend in the office. That is human nature, although not generally a deal breaker. People are willing to trade it for something else. Although if something else is not offered the desk may become precious to them. The movie Brazil understood that.
The second issue, and I think it’s one that is often overlooked when we consider the inertias of working life, is that managers couldn’t be bothered with it. This is also down to human nature, but CBA may explain more about why things don’t change than we might care to admit. It took a pandemic to prompt at least some action on something that we had known for a long time.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.
Image by Peter H