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August 18, 2021

Making Spaces Fit People: An Interview With Kate Lister

Saltmine virtually sits down with Kate Lister--a recognized authority on the future of work and president of Global Workplace Analytics.

This week’s blog post features an interview with Kate Lister, president of the research-based consulting firm, Global Workplace Analytics (GWA). For nearly two decades, GWA has helped companies optimize flexible and distributed work. 

Kate is a recognized authority on the future of work. She is frequently quoted by news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and dozens of others. She was one of the three witnesses invited to testify before the U.S. Senate committee on the potential for remote work in government post-COVID 19. More recently, Kate partnered with Saltmine to create our new Hybrid Calculator which provides companies with actionable insights for optimizing their workplaces around hybrid work. 

Throughout the conversation, Saltmine’s Ryan Tidwell asks Kate about her vision for how organizations can use the calculator to envision the potential for hybrid workplaces to work better for people.

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Ryan Tidwell (Saltmine): Hello, Kate! Thanks for joining me today. 

Kate Lister (GWA): Hi, Ryan--thank you for having me! 

RT: To start off, I’d like to hear a little bit about yourself, your background, and how your experiences led to the creation of the Hybrid Calculator.

KL: I’ve been helping organizations maximize the results of their remote and hybrid workplace strategies for nearly two decades. Of course, in the old days we called it telework or flexible work, but it’s really the same thing. My approach has always started with understanding the business case for whatever change a client is hoping to make. At the c-suite level, that typically involves using facts to demonstrate how changing the way they do things can improve organizational performance. 

Over the years we’ve built a number of calculators to make it easy for company executives to understand the potential bottom line impact of workplace flexibility, employee engagement, health and well-being initiatives, and more. So when, at the height of the pandemic, Saltmine approached me about collaborating on a calculator, that would help organizations envision how a hybrid-remote work model would impact their space needs, I jumped at the chance. 

RT: In your own words, what is the Hybrid Calculator? 

KL: Right now, organizations all over the world are trying to envision how their people will use their offices once the pandemic is behind us--and most know their spaces were grossly underutilized before the pandemic. They have now seen for themselves that the many advantages of remote work folks like me have been touting for years are real. But they also see that people miss working face-to-face with their colleagues and customers. To get the best of both worlds, the majority of organizations will adopt a hybrid model, one that combines in-office and remote work for a large portion of their employees. However, picturing what that might actually look like and what it will mean to their spaces of work, is a challenge. It’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. 

Whole books have been written about how to twist and turn the Rubik’s Cube until all the faces of the cube are a solid color. The hybrid workplace puzzle is similarly multidimensional and interdependent. Each change you make affects the rest of the puzzle. 

Let’s say you have four types of hybrid workers, one group will come to the office largely to collaborate. Another group will come because they prefer it to working from home. They will use the office as they always did; likely for a combination of heads-down and collaborative work. A third group really doesn’t want or need to be in the office. When they do come in, it will mostly be to connect with others. A fourth group will come to the office to use special equipment or access resources that aren’t available to them at home. 

Figuring out how to best accommodate all those different users is something CRE, FM, HR, and workplace professionals are pondering a lot these days--and Saltmine’s free Hybrid Calculator was designed to help solve that problem. 

The calculator asks the user to provide answers to just five questions:

  • What is the cost of your space?
  • How much space is currently allocated to each person?
  • How many people occupied the space before the move to hybrid?
  • What is the breakdown of the workstyles of the people who will work there?
  • How often will people be in the office?

With the push of a button, the calculator offers an estimate of how much of each kind of space the organization will need (e.g., individual, collaboration, connection), the average daily occupancy by workstyle, what that would look like for each day of the week, and more.

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RT: With hybrid and remote workplace strategies being the biggest buzz right now, what struggles are you seeing companies face?

KL: They’ve struggled with a lot of things over the last year, but right now the real estate and facilities folks are desperate to figure out how much and what kind of space they will need to accommodate how and where people will work in the future. 

Team leaders are struggling for a vision for how it will work for their team. What their days and weeks will look like, what the workplace experience (whether in-person or virtual) will be like, and how all this change will impact productivity and team dynamics.

HR is wringing their hands over how these new ways of working will impact the organization’s culture, the attraction and retention of talent, employee engagement and well-being, and the implications on diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Organizational leaders are thinking about all that unused office space and trying to get a handle on how they will operate in the future.

RT: What type of pain points does the Hybrid Calculator alleviate? 

KL: Firstly, the truth is that we don’t really know how this will all play out. We know people have a high desire to be remote. Were it not for the fact that employers are struggling to attract and retain talent right now, organizations might not be as willing to give into those desires. After all, employees have wanted workplace flexibility for years, but most did not have it or even feel they could ask for it. But will people actually do what they say they want to do?

Undoubtedly, some employees will find they want more or less of the office than they thought they would. This will be a learning experience for all of us and while we all need to learn to deal with ambiguity and change, that doesn’t mean we should blindly stumble forward. Tools like this calculator make it possible to model and plan for a variety of scenarios. 

Secondly, employers are worried that a gradual return to the office will sour the experience for those who come back early. If employees come in to collaborate and there’s nobody else there, they may question why they bothered. A slow return also adds to the complexity of office cleaning, provisioning, and more. Who would want to come to the office if the barista isn’t there, the local cafes are closed, and the trains aren’t running as often?

Third, the path of the pandemic is unpredictable. While many hoped to start to repopulate their offices after Labor Day, the D Variant has delayed those plans for many. When indoor mask requirements were relaxed, it was easier to envision a wholesale return to the office without the need for social distancing, which greatly complicates occupancy planning. 

Fourth, there’s the real estate market to consider. Organizations with near term lease expirations are feeling the pressure to make decisions about whether to keep all the space they have, let some go, or even relocate. Others worry if they wait too long to sublet unused space, lease rates will fall and they will be stuck. 

Things are pretty complicated these days.

RT: They certainly are. Let’s circle back to the calculator. What are some of the actionable insights a user can get out of the Hybrid Calculator?

KL: While saving money in real estate isn’t the top driver of change right now, it’s never too far in the background. The calculator can give organizational leaders a rough idea about how much they could save through the adoption of remote work and/or hoteling. For those who are stuck in long term leases or in a high-growth mode, it offers an estimate of the number of additional people that could be accommodated in the existing space. So for example, it might show a company could either reduce its space by 60,000 square feet and save $4M a year, or add 350 people at no additional cost. 

The calculator also provides an estimate for the post-hybrid:

  • Employee to desk ratio,
  • Percentage and square footage of individual, collaboration, and social spaces that will be needed, 
  • Effective square footage per person,
  • And the daily headcount, by workstyle, that offers a maximum overlap between workstyles. 

Before COVID, the vast majority of offices had maybe 60% to 70% of space that was “me” or individual space, and only 30% to 40% of “we” or collaborative, social space. Now that employees have found working from home to be significantly better for heads-down work, we may need to flip that ratio. Because in the future, workers will largely go to the office to collaborate and connect with others. 

RT: Interesting. As a last question, and to take a step back to look at this whole scenario holistically, how should companies approach this idea of reimagining workspaces?

KL: This is our opportunity to hit the reset button on not just the where, but the who, what, when, why, and how as well. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine our work practices, workplaces, and work processes around what’s good for people. They are an organization’s most expensive and valuable asset and the drivers of organizational success. If we make spaces work better for them, the profits will follow. 

RT: Making spaces work better for people, I like that. Thanks for talking to me today.

KL: My pleasure.

Click the link below and try out Saltmine's Hybrid Calculator for yourself.

Start Calculator

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