Office space is a revenue enhancer, not an expense

On the corporate balance sheet, real estate is usually a hefty line item -- an expense that many corporations would like to reduce. Of course, compressing space and placing more people in the same or less square footage are common ways to reduce real estate costs. Beyond these obvious tactics, it is often difficult to find ways to achieve a cost savings.

However, the space in an office is a tool that can be leveraged to improve business results and help achieve the corporations objectives. It can be viewed as a revenue enhancer, bringing value to the corporation. This involves evaluating the company's real estate objectives along with the goals of other corporate departments, such as facilities, human resources and information services. By integrating efforts, the real estate can be optimized for all groups involved.

For example, if facilities and information systems have realized that people are not working at desktop computers as much but are working more in teams, then maybe fullsize workstations are not necessary. Instead, that space could be restructured to incorporate more mobile tables and data ports throughout so that employees can move about and select various work settings to accommodate the work they're doing. This new approach to planning is called task specific or user-centered design, and the impact on space is that it could mean a significant reduction in real estate.

The bottom line is that people are working differently today, but quite often the office environment has not changed to support this new way of working. Therefore, productivity and effectiveness are lost because it may be taking employees longer to accomplish a given task than if they had the space, technology and tools designed to support them and the way they really work.

For example, experience has shown that companies have been able to dramatically shorten product development time as a result of redesigned space, which breaks down the walls and brings project teams together for greater collaboration and faster decision making. Getting a product to market faster translates into a competitive advantage as well as an increase in sales and revenue.

It's important to examine the tasks that individuals perform and then tailor their work environment accordingly. For example, are they doing concentrated computer work, phone work or writing? Do they work alone or in teams? Do they have different places within the office to support these varying activities?

In many cases, employees do not need to be in the office everyday, all day or do not need to be sitting at a desk with a personal computer all day. Sales teams that are on the road a great deal could use the hoteling concept. They can reserve a workstation in the office on an as-needed basis, much like we do with hotel rooms. But when they are not in the office, this space can be used by other employees. Otherwise, they operate outside the office with laptop computers and mobile phones.

Similarly, employees who work within the office all day, may find they can also function with a smaller workstation or home base and a variety of other settings. Instead of a personal computer, they have laptops and mobile phones so they can move about, selecting the settings within the office to support the work they need to do.

This may sound like more real estate devoted to each individual instead of less. In fact, the opposite is true. The key is that these new flexible spaces can be shared. So while an employee may have access to several settings, he or she shares these settings with colleagues and uses a home base as a personal workstation. However, this home base can be reduced in square footage because the employee is not spending the majority of his or her time in this location. The home base could even be a mobile cart that holds the workers' project files and can be moved to different settings. Often a smaller work-station or radically different concept (e.g., mobile cart) is more acceptable to employees when they realize they have a choice to work in three or four different settings throughout the office.

As organizations continue to move from hierarchies to more flat management structures, teams will increasingly be used for projects, decision making and product development processes. In the future, companies will need to support these teams with an environment that is conducive to working together effortlessly. For example, a team should not have to worry about reserving conference room space in order to meet. They should have the opportunity for spontaneous meetings and information sharing.

A case in point is the traditional conference room. The conference room in many companies is an inefficient use of space. From a work process standpoint, the conference room is not designed to support the type of work teams are asked to do. The conference room support the hierarchical structure of a boss at the head of the table and subordinates circled around.

Instead, project rooms make more sense, with flexible, mobile tables that can be re-configured for large group discussions and brainstorms, as well as broken apart for smaller group meetings. The rooms should accommodate technology by providing several outlets for laptops and modems for plug and play capability and display technology for sharing information from a laptop with a group. Also, the project room or team space allows the team to put information on walls and marker boards and leave it there because they will own that space for the duration of their project. This continuous exposure to information is key to building on one another's ideas and learning.

By redefining the work settings, space from large private offices and conference rooms can be freed up for smaller home bases, team areas, project rooms and quiet enclaves for concentration.

The key to reducing real estate costs may be to avoid looking at real estate in isolation. Rather look at real estate in conjunction with what other areas of the corporation need to accomplish and make changes that together will translate into a smarter workplace and dramatic bottom line results.

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