Space is a powerful tool to foster engagement, inspire innovation, and drive productivity. But what exactly does an optimal space look like? In the Science of Space, we explore how the science of intentional design can turn any work environment into a holistic experience.
The traditional way we plan and measure efficiency in the workplace used to make so much sense: Total usable square feet (USF) divided by the total population. It’s a simple and easy-to-understand formula.
The problem is, this logic is no longer compatible with building the workplaces of the future.
For years, real estate teams have been tasked with optimizing their portfolios by shrinking square footage as much as possible—with the goal of cutting costs. But now, after years of seeing the industry densify the workplace and USF per person, many people feel less productive than ever. Yet the traditionalists have not changed course.
When we get down to it, measuring efficiency as we have for years is inhuman. Total USF divided by the total population is an abstract formula that looks great on paper but, while it makes my analytical and organized heart sing, it doesn’t account for how people actually experience their workplaces. As head of the activity-based working practice at WeWork, my team examines the modern workplace to determine what a human-centric workplace should look and feel like.
How do we define experience for employees?
Experience can mean a lot of different things when it comes to employees and the workplace. In some cases, it means a level of hospitality. In others, it means sharing a meal and gathering as a team. But for our conversation, let’s define experience as access—or being able to find what you need when you need it, whether that’s a quiet place to get work done or space to collaborate with peers. Balancing efficiency and experience is critical as we work toward creating the ideal office space. But it isn’t easy—efficiency and experience are often at odds with one another.
At WeWork, our belief that experience and efficiency must be balanced was put to the test last year. Our New York employee population had exploded in the space of one year. We had to quickly take stock of what mattered more to us: efficiency (more people in less space) or experience (people finding what they need when they need it). And we weren’t willing to compromise on either one.
Membership vs. experience density
At WeWork, we call the typical USF/total population measurement “membership density.” Membership density isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete; it assumes that 100 percent of the total population shows up every day. Even without data, we all know this never happens. Average show-up rates for most large companies represent about 65 percent of the population—and WeWork is no exception.
We put this data to good use. When redesigning our HQ, we planned based on the average show-up patterns of our employees—believing that total USF/total present population better represents what people feel when they are in the office. At WeWork, we call this “experience density.” With the goal of transforming our headquarters into a shared, activity-based environment, we used experience density as our logic anchor.
But it shouldn’t be too surprising that experience density—just like membership density—gets us closer to reality but is still inhuman. That’s because total USF/present population equals a “theoretical user” who has access to everything—and more important, they know exactly what they have access to and feel empowered to use it.
When you show up to the office, do you feel like you have access to every inch of your workplace? I definitely don’t. So we kept pushing forward. If experience density is still stuck in theory, where are the spots that humanity and reality break through? When we started to reflect on our own scenarios and employees, experience density began to refract—and that’s when we knew we were onto something.
Our research showed that workspace users tend to fall into one of three categories:
- The bold user, who feels welcome everywhere and takes advantage of every shared space. These people are rare, but they do exist.
- The typical user usually sticks close to their team, primarily leveraging the shared spaces on their floor and occasionally ventures to other floors when they need to. The majority of people are typical users.
- The limited user, for one reason or another, stays very close to their team, rarely going beyond their immediate area to shared spaces throughout the workplace. Limited users are the second-largest group in the workplace, which is a problem because these people believe that they have access to only a small percentage of what we plan for them.
Agnostic of job function and workstyles, the way that people interact with the space around them hinges entirely on what they believe that they have access to. Our perception, not a formula, shapes experience density.
My team spent many an evening sitting in front of a whiteboard working to make sense of everything we’d discovered. We realized our goal wasn’t to find the holy grail, the utopian planning ratio; we just would have unwittingly created another inhuman formula to follow membership and experience density. Instead, our goal was to establish stress tests to help us make ideal plans a reality. We began to ask ourselves questions such as:
- When does a limited user experience the feeling of “crowdedness,” versus a typical user in the workplace?
- How does an environment—sound, light, and aesthetics—influence someone’s perception of crowdedness?
- At what point is something so far away that it results in people perceiving lack of access?
Rather than developing a brand new framework, asking questions that challenge assumptions is how we continuously get smarter about programming and designing our spaces—so they work better for everyone.
Designing people-first workplaces
Our responsibility is to continue challenging conventional wisdom and keep our people at the center of everything we do. Today, from enterprise level companies utilizing entire floors, to a one-person business trying out hot desking, we are translating what we’ve learned into actual practice and training our design teams to use data to create more thoughtful and comprehensive workplaces. Our work is ongoing. We’ve tested and learned from the outer limits of where efficiency and experience come together, and by testing on ourselves, we will continually improve the workplace for all.
Special thanks to WeWork team members Kaylie Wilson, director of design research and research strategy, and Macaulay Campbell, director of information design, for contributing to this article.
WeWork offers companies of all sizes space solutions that help solve their biggest business challenges.
Corinne Murray is the activity-based working and change expert at WeWork, where she develops and tests new concepts that unlock greater potential and better experience for her colleagues and clients. With a background in religious philosophy, Corinne is committed to understanding and facilitating the evolution of the relationship between space, design, people, and culture. Prior to WeWork, Corinne has helped advocate for people and systems for Gensler, American Express, and CBRE.