Guide to calculating the space you’re really going to need

As we enter the hybrid era, using headcount and standards to calculate requirements for office space does not provide a holistic insight into workplace culture, morale, productivity and wellbeing. Could there be a better process?

What is the significance of data when space planning? Head counts, seat counts and space standards are all typical ways to start generating square-footage requirements, but these are simply numbers and counts. They do not reflect a holistic view of the ‘heart’ of a company and its staff, or how the work environment should be organised to optimise things like culture and wellbeing, while supporting productivity and creating a space where staff thrive.

So how are things like culture, morale, productivity and wellbeing measured in the first place? Is it even possible? If it is possible, how is that information leveraged to create a sense of community and ‘buy in’ that is tied to company culture? Can that be accomplished through space planning?

The answer is yes. A carefully planned process – unique to each client – is critical to align their elements (space and culture) by successfully engaging the client from start to finish.

Start with client vision in mind

Initial engagement with the client begins with visioning, which aims to host a discussion that enables clients to prioritise what is most important to their company. Topics range from service delivery to sustainability to workplace culture. Questions are posed during the discussion that are intended to not only extract goals and expectations, but also to raise awareness from different angles, points of view and even introduce information pertinent to space needs, such as best practices and benchmarking.

This provides the framework for understanding and prioritising overall client needs, requirements and wishes. We can then use the framework throughout the subsequent phases where more specific, detailed information is gathered from a strategic variety of sources.

For the subject of culture and morale, it is important to establish an environment of psychological safety when approaching focused groups of employees. Creating a safe space for employees to express potential disengagement or cultural voids will yield more valuable data and feedback. Morale and culture are very difficult to measure without the necessary context of a company’s organisation and structure. Since culture is typically what people do when nobody is looking, it grows into unspoken social norms and will often affect employees more than formal written policies.

Design by the numbers

Sure, the end goal is usually to collect as much data as possible within a limited window of time. How the data is collected is just as important, if not more so, and will inform the entire conversation and the resulting dataset. This data will also form the development of an accurate representative baseline of required space needs.

Collecting data from individuals of similar management levels will provide context to the data and can be paired with company hierarchy. Example: do managers think everything is okay, while everyone else thinks the ship is sinking? Recognising a potential disconnection of cultural perspectives can highlight the need for increased engagement, communication or leadership shifts.

‘Do managers think everything is okay, while everyone else thinks the ship is sinking?’

In the context of evaluating an organisation’s workflow or productivity needs, most companies will focus heavily on the type of work a group performs. However, it is just as important to understand how the work is being performed. Approaching this topic requires a curious, open and exploratory mindset. Using exercises that investigate ‘A Day in the Life’ will allow employees to think about their work activities through a different lens.

What postures do they prefer for different tasks? Upright and focused? Lounged and relaxed? Open and noisy (collaborative)? Dark and enclosed (head down)? Providing options for employees can empower them to be more productive by allowing them to choose the posture type or environment that suits the immediate task. Employees that have options express increased efficiency, engagement and wellness.

Investigating how people work within the physical environment can sometimes break down stereotypes of different groups within the organization. Why do we assume all accountants are drawn to towering cubicles? Do lawyers always want to be in enclosed offices with their massive mahogany desks? or would they prefer spaces that allow them to collaborate on cases with colleagues? Breaking through stereotypes and asking these questions in a safe space can reveal insightful data, which we can then use for creative problem solving and planning.

Plan with all the facts

Asking the right questions produces the raw data necessary to begin space planning. Holistic analysis of the data collected requires constant oscillation between micro and macro lenses. How do staff members interact daily? How do departments or groups perform at their best? What type of ‘worker/persona’ can we assign that begins to speak to the type of work environment we’re planning for?

For example, a group might function best when they have ample choices of work points to use. This may range from working at home to a focus space provided within the office to a social café-style meeting space. The characteristics associated with this persona type can then be assigned a set of parameters based on specific standards and requirements, which can then be represented through visual graphics and analysis.

‘Holistic analysis of the data requires constant oscillation between micro and macro lenses…’

One of the parameters may include work point sharing ratios. Based on the understanding of this group’s preferences of work-point sharing and a desire to hotel, head count to work point ratios can be generated. Perhaps it is a 10:1 hoteling ratio for touchdown spaces, 35:1 hoteling ratio for focus spaces, and a 6:1 ratio for work point sharing at a workstation. Because this group would require fewer seats than their head count, further analysis is needed to cross-check the data that relates to the number of in-person meetings and collaboration requirements. This helps determine what kind and how many support spaces are needed.

Another consideration is support space requirements for peak occupancy—the largest anticipated number of staff that would be in the office at a given time. This may be determined based on the need for collaboration or policy requiring staff to attend the office on a particular day.

For example, there might be a meeting that requires everyone to attend in person on a weekly basis. This would indicate a peak occupancy data, which would then necessitate a re-examination of the support spaces provided to accommodate the additional influx of staff. Spaces like huddle rooms, focus rooms and collaborative space can provide enough seats for everyone to have a place to ‘plug and play’ while they are at the office.

Keep it custom

Each organisation has a unique blend of persona types. Once these have been identified and analysed, the next layer of evaluation investigates interactions between personal types. This not only helps to nurture productivity, but also to reinforce company culture. Can some groups share spaces? Is it conducive to collaboration and/or workflow? By examining the data collectively, we can then begin to understand the bigger picture of how each individual group’s needs relate to each other. and to the larger company vision to build a holistic programme.

Even with diligent and comprehensive data collection and analysis, inevitably there will be variables to contend with before determining a final programme. Variables could be anything from future growth projections to alternative workflows. Whatever the variables are, they can alter the total square footage need significantly. Developing a baseline scenario allows for comparison of alternative scenarios that include the variables.

Alternative scenarios can be represented in several ways. A stack diagram not only gives an idea of how much square footage any group may require in relation to the amount of available square footage on a floor within a building, but can also illustrate other data collected, such as: adjacencies, ideal support spaces and proximity to social or focus spaces on that floor.

‘Visualisations enable the client to understand the complex network of data…’

The visualisations produced are manifestations of the data gathered over the course of the project, both qualitative and quantitative. They enable the client to understand the complex network of data in an easy-to-digest manner. Workshops with the client utilise visualisations to highlight various possibilities and further help prioritise space needs. In the end, the data collection and analysis process builds trust from the client – which, in turn, creates a successful workplace design.

Brad Robichaux is a Senior Associate and Interior Design Lead at Stantec’s office in Plano, Texas; Stephanie Wood is a Workplace Strategist at Stantec’s Denver office. Their guide to workplace metrics, data and research was first published in WorkDesign Magazine. Stantec is a Corporate Member of WORKTECH Academy. Read more on rethinking the measurements of office space here.
Find exclusive content in the


Premium content for Global Partners, Corporate and Community Members.
The latest analysis and commentary on the future of work and workplace in five distinct themes: Research & Insights, Case Studies, Expert Interviews, Trend Publications, and Technology Guides.