How do you calculate room capacity in a flexible office? And just as important, how can you use room capacity calculations to improve your space?
Measuring room capacity and using this data to make better decisions for the office is a key facility manager (FM) responsibility.
Employees use the physical workplace far differently today than in the past. And the rise of remote and hybrid work can dramatically change the number of people using the office at the same time.
That’s why good room capacity calculations aren’t just about finding the maximum number of seats. Or the maximum number of people you can fit into a space. They’re about making the most of your square feet for your employees and your given situation.
In this article, we explore how and why to calculate room capacity in different areas of the office.
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Like you’d probably guess, room capacity refers to how many people can safely use a given space. Ideally, how many people can comfortably use the space will be given equal weight in these calculations.
Even if you wanted to, the fire department wouldn’t let you jam too many people into too small a space. There will always be ‘official’ guidelines, set by the fire marshal and others, about how many people can fit in a given room size.
And of course, how we’re using our space has been dramatically changed for the foreseeable future. This is primarily thanks to new pandemic-related needs for social distancing. Even if local guidelines are technically relaxed, people’s feelings about being ‘too close’ will likely stick around for a while. This is why workspace strategist Angie Earlywine, Senior Director in the Total Workplace division of Global Occupier Services at Cushman & Wakefield, recommends companies not be too aggressive in putting everyone close together right away, no matter what your floor space.
“Have options for people so spread out,” she says. “Take a few chairs out of conference rooms and give each other some space. We are all going to bring a certain level of anxiety with us for a little while around personal space. We don’t yet know for how long that’s going to last. Densifying a conference room or cramming people into a training room is probably not going to be the social norm for a while.”
In other words, while every room will have a maximum capacity that is dictated by overarching ‘official’ health and safety concerns, organizations may choose to even further limit their maximum capacity, if they want to keep occupant load low in certain areas of the office.
Every space is unique.
Boardroom and meeting room capacity will be calculated differently than a collaborative space or the break room.
Event planning for auditorium style ceremonies will look quite different than planning for round tables or hybrid meetings.
And even companies with the same number of employees using the same square footage may have dramatically different seating capacity. This will depend on which work environment type they’re using.
Specifically, teams heavily reliant on collaboration and communication will have different space needs from graphic designers who need to spread out over their workstation or from customer service reps primarily arming the phones. And flexible working arrangements like agile working and office neighborhoods all present different challenges for using your given floor area.
When planning to return to the office, don’t be aggressive in putting everyone right next to each other. Have options for people to spread out.Angie Earlywine
When planning to return to the office, don’t be aggressive in putting everyone right next to each other. Have options for people to spread out.
Ultimately, calculating room capacity isn’t about cramming as many sardines as possible into the can. It’s about creating an inspiring work environment that helps people do their best work.
The most successful workplace teams are those who have the right amount of space provided to them. In this way, getting room capacity right is part of creating a better workplace experience. And potentially even fostering more employee empowerment.
Given the costs and headaches associated with corporate real estate, of course companies want to get their capacity and room set-ups right. Running out of space is disruptive and expensive. This is why smart companies use regular headcount planning. This helps accurately predict what positions they’ll need in the future (along with the future space requirements they’ll have).
That said, thanks to the post-pandemic boom in hybrid and remote working, many companies now find themselves in the opposite position: having too much space. This is due in large part to the changing nature of the physical workplace.
“The office is becoming more of a destination,” says OfficeSpace CEO David Cocchiara in discussion on the hybrid office. “Employees don’t go there just because they have to be there. They go because there’s something they’re trying to accomplish. Whether that’s collaboration with another team or within their team, planning, reviews, brainstorming and similar activities.”
This usually means you can cut back on the number of traditional seats offered. But only when you have the right insights into how employees are using those seats. Facility planning that uses real-time analytics is how you do this.
In the OfficeSpace Insights Hub, you will see dashboards on how employees are utilizing the offices, what days they are coming in the most, what rooms are being booked the most, and if you have the right capacity of seats and rooms during peak times.
When FMs are able to see their actual occupancy rate, especially on a granular level—i.e.: when they can see which rooms, areas, and even desks are actually being used, and when—they can use it to improve space utilization.
With good facility planning software, you can improve how employees are actually using the office on a day-to-day basis. This is the key to reducing the size of your real estate portfolio without sacrificing employee experience.
Despite the amount of IoT sensors and other options now widely available, many companies still rely on self reporting when it comes to their space calculations.
Take the manager who thinks the main meeting room is always busy—but only because they only think to check it in the morning, when all the meetings take place. This manager might think the space is in great demand—even though it sits empty every afternoon.
The reality is that self-reporting doesn’t cut it. Good reports and analytics, derived from facility planning software, are what cut through the noise to give a real picture of how space is really being used.
Determining your maximum occupancy capacity is fairly straightforward. Most space calculators allot 36 sq. ft. per person—a space that’s 6 feet wide and 6 feet long. You can get to this number in three simple steps:
That said, remember that max occupancy is just that. It’s the absolute maximum occupant load factor that the building code and fire code will allow for. The number of occupants you actually want in a space may be quite different. Especially given how people will be using the office.
Earlywine and many other workspace strategists are proponents of making space for employees that are ‘fit for purpose.’ For example, employees who are primarily heads-down, individual contributors don’t need the swanky, collaborative meeting spaces that let innovation-based teams do their best work.
“If it’s not fit for purpose, down to the team level and down to the individual, you could be misappropriating funds, resources, space, and technology,” says Earlywine.
This means truly understanding how employees are using space. Companies and FMs are often best able to understand this by using a badge system and/or other smart building/IoT technologies. Combining this data with the three basic elements of space management—space planning, proper implementation, and continual space tracking—can help ensure that companies are maximizing their space vis-a-vis hybrid and flexible working policies.
One of the most important things we have to do as workplace strategists is figure out what is fit for purpose, down to the team and down to the individual and how does it align to the short and long term goals of the business.Angie Earlywine
One of the most important things we have to do as workplace strategists is figure out what is fit for purpose, down to the team and down to the individual and how does it align to the short and long term goals of the business.
It also means talking to employees to determine how much space they feel they need. Not to mention how much space they’re comfortable sharing with employees.
“It’s best to conduct employee surveys and focus groups regularly to check in with everyone in real time. Then adjust based on that feedback,” says Earlywine. “The antidote to figuring out how to reduce risk is in ensuring you’re aligned with employee sentiment and the company’s vision for supporting a hybrid workplace experience.”
This is a trick question.
The straight answer: a capacity of 100 means 100 people can fit in the space.
But the reality is it depends on who will be using the space, and how they will be using it.
In the early stages of your return to the office plan, employees might appreciate it if you cap that number at 80.
But if you’re having a special reception style event, you may be able to fit more people in for a limited amount of time. This is assuming you’re still in compliance with health regulations.
In other words, the size of the room isn’t nearly as important as what people are using it for. Especially when it comes to improving the hybrid experience.
Photos: Christina @ wocintechchat.com, CoWomen, Scott Graham, Magnet.me