Real estate and facilities managers around the globe are dealing with unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19. From immediate work-from-home mandates to the implementation of staggered office hours, organisations are resorting to various tactics in the effort to create social distancing and make their office a low-risk environment.

There has arguably never been a story that has monopolised the media’s attention as much as the current pandemic, and the vast amounts of coverage related to COVID-19 has also led to a wide spectrum of opinions, viewpoints, and even conflicting reports. In confusing times like these, can data help us try to get an objective understanding of the current reality of things?

Looking at data points over the first three months of 2020, we calculated the average weekly peak utilisation in an effort to see how offices around the world are responding to COVID-19 challenges. Here is what we found.

Weekly Peak Office Utilisation in Asia

The dashed line denotes when the number of reported COVID cases exceeded 100 in the country

Although in part due to offices shuttering for the Lunar New Year, we can clearly identify when employees stopped coming into the office in China. Since then, the weekly peak utilisation has been steadily increasing, albeit never surpassing 25%.

With corporate buildings never being more than a quarter full, data gathered from Chinese offices are an early indicator of the chilling reality that it may still take several months before employees return to their desks in full force.

Outside of China, Singapore was the quickest country to react to the rapid spread of COVID-19, with office utilisation plummeting to less than 15% in the week of February 10th. In the case of Singapore, we see that office utilisation came all but to a halting stop preemptively: one week before the first Stay-At-Home Notices were issued on February 17th for residents returning from China. Since then, as in China, office utilisation in the city-state has remained for the most part low.

Offices in South Korea began to see a drop in utilisation the week of February 17th, after the 30th confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country. By February 20th, the number of cases jumped to 104, furthering the decline of employees coming into the office. However, what’s curious to note is that even at its lowest point, peak utilisation was around 30%. This is most likely a reflection of the South Korean government’s approach to embrace infection transparency and enable widespread testing rather than completely locking down cities and restricting movement.

Compared to the response of China and Singapore, the reaction from corporate offices in Mumbai and Bangalore was swift but more moderate, spread over the course of two weeks. India reported its 30th confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 4th, and since then, office utilisation has dropped steadily. As the Indian government ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days beginning March 25 that includes the closure of commercial and private establishments, utilisation has dropped to almost 0%.

Weekly Peak Office Utilisation in Europe


The dashed line denotes when the number of reported COVID cases exceeded 100 in the country

When looking at office use in Europe, all the countries from where data was collected observe a similar pattern: low utilisation at the beginning of the year due to the holiday season, a rough plateau, and then a precipitous drop in the number of employees coming into the office. Compared against offices in China, South Korea, and Singapore, corporate offices in Europe are more or less sitting empty, with peak utilisation under 10% across the board.

It is no surprise that Italy responded the earliest, as the region of Lombardy was Europe’s first hotspot for COVID-19 transmissions. However, initial response from corporations in the UK was also surprisingly swift, ahead of other European countries. This may have been facilitated by key new government measures laid out March 13 which specifies that individuals should work from home if they can. 

Even though office utilisation has already been hovering between 0% and 10% for the past three weeks, a look to the data coming from Asian offices can prepare us for at least another month of low office usage. In an optimistic scenario, countries like Spain and Italy who have resorted to the lockdown approach can probably expect offices to reach 25% peak capacity only at the beginning of May. European countries like Sweden which have rejected a lockdown, like South Korea in Asia, can expect their office utilisation to be higher but still experience a reduced overall capacity.

Weekly Peak Office Utilisation in Africa, Americas, and Australia


The dashed line denotes when the number of reported COVID cases exceeded 100 in the country

The office utilisation timeline for the rest of the world all follow roughly a similar trend, with the exception of Brazil. The Latin American country was ahead of the curve in emptying out of the office in no small part due to Carnival in Brazil, where an overwhelming majority of employees take several days off to travel. What’s interesting to note is that office utilisation remained low after Carnival even before the first preventative measures were taken by the government in mid-March.

As the last full week of March saw the office utilisation of Brazil, USA, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa all dip below 10% at around the same time, it would be realistic to assume that overall office use will follow a similar pattern in terms of returning to stability: a long, steady climb that extends well into and beyond May.

There are of course many assumptions which have been made in the preceding analyses, and there are as well just as many factors—scientific, political, societal—which will have profound impact on office space utilisation and the rate at which employees return to the office. For real estate managers and facilities managers, the coming months will not only require planning and strategising, it will also test a company’s ability to be agile, nimble, and responsible to the current events. 


* Locatee gathered anonymised workplace occupancy data from a sampling of workplaces across 24 cities in 15 countries. Thus, the information and interpretations presented in this article should not be taken as definitive representations of workplace occupancy patterns for entire countries. 

For more information about Locatee’s workplace analytics solution, download the Locatee Product Overview.

 

Product Overview:

Why measure workplace occupancy?

Companies today feel the increasing squeeze to track how much they spend, and the objective of reducing and streamlining operating costs have become a Sisyphus-like struggle of neverending optimization. Apart from pecuniary pressures, another reason for finding the best technologies for measuring workplace occupancy stems from leaders and managers seeking to understand their workforce in the greater mission to create a better future of work.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the largest investments made by organizations today are in the realm of office space. However, creating an optimal, effective, and ultimately smarter workplace requires more than thoughtfully designed form and function. It requires information and data. Enter workplace analytics solutions.

Albeit still somewhat of a niche topic, critical discussions surrounding workplace analytics solutions are gaining a fast foothold in the to-dos of Corporate Real Estate Managers and Workplace Experience Directors. Although measuring working patterns to determine space requirements and needs for offices is becoming an imperative, the flexibility and mobility of today’s workforce present a formidable challenge to obtaining reliable data.

This guide will help you navigate your complex smart building landscape >

The decision fatigue of seeking a solution

Traditionally, companies have relied on manual counting and surveys to measure the utilization of a workplace. A tactic not only prone to human error, but also incredibly time-intensive and unfit for scaling across large corporate real estate portfolios. Furthermore, manual studies do not satisfy demands for continuous data. Instead, they only reflect information gathered from a single point in time.

More recently, reliance on technology, namely motion sensors, LAN and Wi-Fi, and room booking systems are changing the way workplace occupancy data is collected—used. But the availability of so many options coupled with a lack of general information leads to much confusion around the topic of choosing a method to go with. Are motion sensors and Wi-Fi used to measure the same thing? Is using Wi-Fi better than using LAN? What data is actually being measured? Which method is best? Answering these questions requires a better understanding of how each measurement technology works.

Technologies for measuring workplace occupancy and how they work

The section below provides brief explanations on each of the technologies used to measure workplace occupancy. An important thing to keep in mind is that while technologies like LAN and Wi-Fi measure data using devices, sensors and room booking systems collect data by counting occupants. Keeping this distinction in mind will help decide the most suitable solution later on.

LAN (Local Area Network)

Measurement data from LAN is collected whenever a device is connected to a network using a physical cable or docking station. Because LAN requires a literal connection, the technology offers quite precise measurements, as it is easy to determine the whereabouts of a cable or a docking station. A downside of using LAN as a workplace occupancy measurement method, consequently, is that it requires a physical connection to the IT infrastructure. This is not always an option in modern offices with spaces designed for activity-based working.

Wi-Fi

In the case of Wi-Fi, the signal strength of wireless access points are used to determine a device’s location in a process known as trilateration. A minimum of three access points are required to perform a trilateration to determine the location of a wireless device.

Three overlapping circles which represent WiFi coverageThe level of precision offered by Wi-Fi solutions depends greatly on access pointplacement and density. A Wi-Fi setup with high access density will provide more granular insight than a Wi-Fi setup with low access density, as more signals are used to deduce a more accurate coordinate.

 

Sensors

Sensor technology is probably the most straightforward and easiest technology to understand. Mounted on various locations throughout a building, sensors are used to measure noise levels, temperature, air quality, and employee presence. While they provide precise and granular level of data, the main drawback of sensors is their costly setup, maintenance, and difficulty to roll out across a large real estate portfolio.

Room Booking System

Room booking systems cannot be considered a method for measuring workplace occupancy and utilization on their own. But they can provide invaluable insight into how meeting rooms are used when they are integrated with other measurement methods. By accessing calendar data, room booking systems reveal the number of people in a meeting room at a given time, how long a room was used for, and even how many people declined a meeting but were originally expected to attend.

Learn more about each different measurement method here >

Determining the need and use case

When weighing different workplace utilization measurement options, the most important thing to keep in mind is what will be measured and to whom the analytics may be of value.

For example:

  • A CFO who oversees the company’s finances and corporate real estate strategy may primarily be interested in comparing the overall performance of different buildings in his or her real estate portfolio.
  • A Real Estate Manager may want to find out more detailed information on the usage and foot traffic in a certain lounge, meeting room, or floor.
  • A Director of Workplace Experience may be looking for detailed information on the individual utilization of desks, phone booths, or seats in a meeting room.

In all the above scenarios, the knowledge workers are looking for a “workplace analytics solution”, but the scopes of their needs are entirely different.

Looking at the use case for each individual, it’s clear that the CFO is looking for a workplace analytics solution which provides data on a building level. Although having additional information on floor- and desk-level workplace utilization is nice to have, it is not a business-critical need. On the other hand, neither the Real Estate Manager nor the Director of Workplace Experience will be satisfied with a bird’s-eye overview. They require more granular data. The Granularity Overview below visualises the level of precision and insight each measurement technology is able to provide.

Locatee Granularity table for overview and recommendationsSource: Granularity Overview and Recommendations from Locatee

Download the document

What is the best practice for you?

Taking the information into account, we begin to form a better picture of who needs which technologies for measuring workplace occupancy.

  • The CFO who wants to compare overall building utilization across his or her portfolio can most easily do so using the enterprise LAN or Wi-Fi
  • The Real Estate Manager who wants to measure utilization in large areas across floors can also do so using enterprise LAN or Wi-Fi, although he or she would need to integrate a sensor solution in meeting rooms in order to measure their utilization.
  • The Director of Workplace Experience who is looking for desk-, phone booth-, and seat-level occupancy data must rely on the help of sensors, as LAN and Wi-Fi measurement methods are not able to provide such precise measurements on a small scale. Additionally, he or she might want to consider integrating data from a room booking system to analyse the usage of meeting rooms.

When it comes to choosing technologies for measuring workplace occupancy, each solution offers its own advantages (and drawbacks). The real key to choosing the best solution is to understand the business need and then selecting the most appropriate technology.

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