COVID made the office a perk, not a requirement. How do you manage that?

The demand for space has changed.

COVID-19 forced people out of the office in the short term. But don’t expect to see full capacity anytime soon — if ever again.

Employees now dictate where work happens.

Some employees want to work from home. Others prefer the office. Most want to come to the office sometimes — but few want to sit at the same workstation all day.

Calculating 150-square-feet-per-employee is no longer useful in the new, dynamic workplace.

“We understand when people come in to the office, they’re coming in for a purpose, and we need to address those needs.” — Izzy Sanchez, Head of Global Workplace and Real Estate at Twitch

Our industry’s response has been to double down on the flexible workplace. Flexibility is a nice way of admitting ignorance. You have to be flexible when you don’t know what’s on the horizon.

No one is immune to this uncertainty.

Last year, Salesforce announced a 4-phase return to work policy. The fourth phase, once a vaccine was available, would bring all employees back to the office. They’ve since shifted gears. Now, two-thirds of employees will come to the office only one to three days per week (1).

“Gone are the days of a sea of desks,” Salesforce said in a release. “It no longer makes sense to expect employees to work an eight-hour shift (to) do their jobs successfully.”

Many of us might not want to admit it, but we’re relying on hunches and hopes to navigate the new workplace.

But your job doesn’t have to depend on guesswork.

Building a responsive workplace rooted in data

The new workplace needs to be agile, yes. But a better word is responsive. Responsiveness suggests an intention behind the agility.

The new workplace responds to its employees’ validated needs.

Validated is a crucial word choice. Asking employees what they want is not the same as validating what they need. This is why data is at the heart of the new workplace.

For example, you’re about to bring 30% of your workforce back into the office a few days a week. How do you manage that? What space configuration works best?

How do you maximize space without maximizing space?

Your employees will tell you by how they interact with your space. The challenge is determining how to observe this interaction.

The status quo tools we’ve used to manage and measure space are not up to today’s challenges.

Badge data doesn’t tell you how many people are in your space — or how they use it. Workplace studies are snapshots in time. But who’s to say data captured three months ago holds true today?

The new challenges in space management need unique solutions. The future of space management will rely on real-time, ongoing data.

The reality of the return to work

We talk about the return to work like it’s the final act of a yearlong play we’ve lived through.

It’s not. The return to work signifies a paradigm shift in space planning. We can no longer think in concrete, immovable ways.

The return to work signifies a paradigm shift in space planning.

Who’s to say 2022 isn’t the year of the office? And who knows what 2023 will bring. Maybe you’ll need more space. Maybe less. Maybe all you’ll need to do is reconfigure the space you already have.

You don’t know the answer — yet.

What is clear is in this first phase of return to work, don’t do anything. Don’t sign a lease, don’t shed space — not until you get people back into the office and measure how they use your space.