Perception

The earlier definitions of OccupancyUtilization and Availability are based on objective facts about the physical or virtual state of a Space. It is also important to consider how people perceive occupancy, as it is perception rather than reality that is likely to drive people’s engagement with the workplace and their opinions about it.

Perception – the way in which something is regarded, understood or interpreted – is an individual experience. It will be influenced by many factors, only some of which can be reasonably understood and influenced by the workplace design. Management styles, life outside of work, and interaction with colleagues, customers or suppliers are amongst many factors that will impact on how someone perceives their workplace.

These effects described below are critical to the success of occupancy analytics because ultimately it will be people – managers and leaders – who will make the decisions about the workplace, and they will be sensitive to the views of their people.

Reservation

One area where the workplace technology directly impacts perception is reservation systems. Reservation systems can be used for a range of workplace facilities – workplaces (desks and offices), meeting rooms, collaboration spaces, food and beverage services, equipment etc.

Although reservation may be made ‘just-in-time’ (in other words immediately prior to use), they are more commonly made in advance. How far in advance a reservation is made varies: meeting rooms are often booked weeks and sometimes months in advance; workstations may be booked hours or days in advance.

No matter how far in advance a reservation is made, at the point of reservation some form of search will be conducted for a suitable Space. This search represents a Space Demand and will yield options that are constrained by availability of Spaces that meet the search criteria.

A user’s experience when conducting these searches will contribute to their perception of availability.

It is important to recognize that this perception of availability may not necessarily be aligned with the actual availability.

A commonly occurring example of this misalignment is with meeting rooms. Most organizations experience a perceived lack of availability of meeting rooms because users typically find it difficult to find available rooms for meeting they want to hold. However, in these same organizations, observational studies (or indeed occupancy sensors if fitted) demonstrate that actual use of the meeting rooms suggests significant availability (often as high as 50%). This misalignment is driven by two factors:

  1. Reservations that are made but not used – this is a very well-known problem in many offices and can be as many as 50% of reservations; and
  2. Reservations that are cancelled – this is an issue because cancellations overwhelmingly occur much close to the actual time of a reservation than do bookings, and this means that reservations that will ultimately be cancelled nonetheless act as a constraint while they exist for other reservations that are sought.

Another example seen frequently is the perception of availability of desks that can only be reserved on the same day as they will be used. To reserve such a desk, the user must therefore make a reservation at some point before they use it. The misalignment of perception and reality here arises based on the reservation habits of the users:

  • Users whose habit is to book early – perhaps they rise early and reserving their desk is an early part of their morning routine – are going to have a wide choice because, by definition, most people have not made their reservations yet. These users may have a preferred desk that they try to book first and find that it is always available. These people will therefore have a perception of high availability.
  • Users whose habit is to wait until they arrive in the office, and then look for an Apparently Available desk, or use a kiosk to make a reservation, will likely be doing so after most reservations have been made. If using a kiosk, they will be able to see all reservations that have already been made in a striking visual way (almost certainly a floor plan with the reservations shown in red). Their perception will be of (relatively) low availability.

Neither of these perceptions necessarily corresponds to the actual availability, which may be high or low. They are merely facets of the time and process of making a reservation.

There are many techniques that can be employed to help manage these misalignments, including:

  • Use education and communication (see below) to impact users’ behaviour, for example to reduce late cancellations or no-shows;
  • Consider the user experience when making a reservation and consider alternatives if the process itself is creating an unintended perception (for example, consider removing kiosks in favour of more directed, mobile device-based reservation process – or vice-versa!);
  • Review the mix of reservable and non-reservable spaces to shift both the users’ behaviour in making work setting selection and their awareness of actual availability. You may be able to retain the benefits of a reservation management system (which, as seen later, is a very valuable source of occupancy measurements) by using a ‘just-in-time’ reservation technique.

Work setting selection

The process of an individual selecting a work setting for a specific Activity is part of a larger field of study that considers the likely social effects of space design. This work was pioneered in late 1970’s and early 1980’s at University College London (Hillier & Hanson, 1984) and is now referred to as ‘space syntax’.

One of the more recent areas of development of space syntax is the combination with transport engineering models, and the use of visibility graphs (Turner, Doxa, O’Sullivan, & Penn, 2001). Visibility graphs describe the set of points that are visible (can be connected with an uninterrupted straight line) from a given point.

In the context of an office environment, visibility graphs can be thought of a describing the Spaces that are visible without moving from a given Space. This may be important because people seem to exhibit a preference for Spaces they can see when selecting a work setting. This approach to choosing a space we shall call Visual Selection:

VISUAL SELECTION

The process of a user selecting a work setting based on their ability to see the chosen work setting from their location at the time of selection, and to be able to establish the work setting’s Apparent Availability.

Although there is little evidence yet of the degree to which Visual Selection affects perception, it does seem likely to play an important role. The layout of offices already takes this into account, and increasingly digital signage and sensors are being deployed to enhance the ability to establish the Apparent Availability of a Space even if the line-of-sight to that Space is oblique. Not all Spaces are equal in these graphs because work setting selection does not occur uniformly across all space types: for example, users are likely to make work setting selections from their desks and certain communal areas more often than from formal meeting rooms.

Inevitably, not every Space can be visible from every other Space in anything other than trivial arrangements, and therefore attempts are being made to establish a Space availability without a line of sight using technology:

VIRTUAL VISUAL SELECTION

The process of a user selecting a work setting based on their ability to understand the nature of the work setting and its Implied Availability using technology to a similar degree of understanding as would be possible if the user were physically able to inspect the work setting. This includes the ability to search for a Space using a computer system that can provide adequate information about the work setting (for example size, photographs, facilities) and real time information about its use (both in terms of people physically present in the Space and any reservations that the Space may be subject to).

Individual behaviour is driven by values and beliefs, both of which are subjective. A more formal way of representing this (taken from “Dissecting the Social, by Peter Hedstrom) is to say that decisions are the outcome of Desire, Belief and Opportunity (DBO).

If people desire a favoured outcome (D), and if they believe that a particular action will lead toward that outcome (B), and if they have the opportunity of taking the action (O), then they act; otherwise they do not act.

This applies even when the beliefs are mistaken. For example, if an employee desires a workstation to work on a report, but believes that there is a high risk of not finding an available workstation in an office with shared workstations, then the employee decides against working at the office – even though there may in fact be many available workstations.

Beliefs rely on experience and evidence. Sometimes undue weight is given to individual experience. For example, if an employee found a shortage of available workstations on a particular Tuesday, it might lead to the belief that all Tuesdays are busy and the subsequent avoidance of Tuesdays. This means that the employee never discovers whether the particular Tuesday was typical or exceptional.

Decisions based on mistaken beliefs are likely to result in suboptimal outcomes, so the dissemination of reliable information should improve decision-making and outcomes; for example, real-time information about availability of Space and resources in an office.

Communications

An often-misunderstood aspect of perception is the extent to which internal communications to an organization’s people can impact behaviours in the workplace. Once understood, these impacts can be focussed towards desired behavioural changes.

People naturally tend to interpret communications in such a way as to maximize the benefit to their goals and objectives (whether those be individual or team). These goals may be organizational – delivering a certain project or achieving a certain saving – or personal – maintaining a work life balance, getting a raise etc.

The following example show how these interpretations can have unintended consequences:

  1. During an occupancy analysis of a central location in a major US city, the validity of historic badge data was questioned as recently there had been several redundancies. The assumption was that these redundancies – which of course reduce the Assigned Occupancy – would have had some corresponding impact in reduced Physical Occupancy, and therefore including data before the redundancies would give an artificially high Occupancy measurement. When the badge data was examined, it was found that the Physical Occupancy increased after the redundancies, not decreased as expected. It seems very likely that the communications about the redundancies (both explicit and perhaps even more importantly implicit) created a perception that people should be in the office – whether to spend more time with colleagues and managers or simply to be more ‘visible’.
  2. To improve efficiency, a global corporation undertook a review of the roles based at their corporate headquarters with a view to seeing which of these roles had to be based at the expensive headquarters and which could be equally well performed from other lower cost locations in other countries. When the review was announced, Physical Occupancy of the headquarters increased immediately by more than 10%, and this increased level of Physical Occupancy was maintained for at least three months. It seems likely that the announcement prompted people to spend more time in the office and less working from home, presumably to emphasize the need for them to be based at the headquarters and to avoid a relocation to another country. See out story ‘Unintended consequences‘ for more details of this kind of situation.

In these examples, the communications themselves were necessary but their impact on people’s behaviour in the workplaces was not anticipated. Considering the impact can as a minimum allow the workplace team to be prepared for any likely changes in patterns of behaviour, and at best influence the communications to direct the impact.

The converse of these unintended consequences is recognizing how communications can be used to shape workplace behaviours. Just as with the examples above, significant shifts in behaviours are likely to be achieved when people can see a direct connection to their personal or organizational goals and objectives.

However, care must also be taken that any proactive communications of this kind do not in turn have their own unintended consequences. For example, it may seem reasonable to tell people that any reservations that are made but then not used will be charged back to the reservation owner’s cost centre. The intended consequence of this would be to raise awareness of the cost of having to carry surplus inventory to achieve desired levels of perceived availability. However, such a communication might have the unintended consequence of people having colleagues go and ‘check-in’ to meetings that aren’t taking place to avoid receiving a charge.

Similarly, a large corporate in the US instituted a policy that desks could only be reserved on the day they were required. This was intended to avoid people making reservations days or weeks in advance and then forgetting to cancel them on the days they were not going to be in the office. Note that this intended consequence was in part to address the issue of perceived availability – these desks required check-in and so when someone was a no-show, their reservation was automatically released and the Space became available, but this release occurred after almost everyone who wanted a desk for that day had attempted their reservation, and so the check-in and reservation release did not have any impact on perceived availability. The unintended consequence of this policy was that a small group of users felt the need to stay up (or wake up!) at midnight every night so they could be first in to the reservation system and secure the desk that they wanted – a process that did achieve their appetite for choice but also created a very negative feeling towards the process and workplace.

Measuring and analysing the impact of communications generically is beyond the scope here, but communications should always be reviewed to consider their impact on workplace behaviour and how these impacts can or cannot be accommodated by the existing workplace.


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