Article

Why office workers are hiding out in meeting rooms

In the evolving workplace, some spaces aren’t being used as intended

February 17, 2020

Meeting rooms have become more important than ever, a consequence of the rise of the open-plan office.

But chances are that, at least in most offices, they’re frequently not being used for meetings.

In the hubbub of a modern workday, meeting rooms have become a place of refuge, with a recent study showing that they are routinely occupied by just one person.

“We see it often,” says Michael Taggart, Head of Digital Solutions, Australia, JLL.

“Rooms that are never booked in the system but are constantly occupied. That’s people making a call, finding space to focus on a task, or getting away from a noisy office.”

The discovery paints a compelling picture about what workers are craving from their office environment: private space.

“In a nutshell, workers need a place to retreat,” Taggart says. “Right now, if they’re going to stay in the office, that’s usually a meeting room.”

Learning what people want

In the current raging battleground for talent, providing an office where people want to work each day has become paramount. Businesses that invest heavily in the employee experience are 11.5 times more likely to appear on employer review site Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work List, according to Harvard Business Review. 

There is also a clear commercial imperative. By eliminating just four interruptions a day, employees could increase productivity by US$9 million a year, according to the whitepaper In Search of Intelligent Space. By optimising their workplace, an organization could save US$1m a year, or accommodate another 250 people without adding real estate, typically a business’s biggest cost.

The meeting-room study by sensor company Density – which monitored 60 meeting rooms over six-months and crunched more than 10,000 hours of data – found that just one person was using meeting rooms 36 percent of the time. It also found that 40 percent of meetings had between two and four people; and the capacity of smaller rooms was exceeded twice as often as rooms designed for five to seven people.

When global healthcare firm, MSD, monitored usage of three large training rooms in its Australian office, similar revelations led the company to convert one of the rooms into workstations to accommodate a growing headcount.

While large meeting rooms are probably unnecessary most of the time, there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all, Taggart says.

“The meeting room demands of a government organisation might be very different from a financial one, and those demands could be different again across their own business units,” he says. “But at the end of day, if a workers’ only option to take a call is to leave the building because there are no appropriate spaces, business will find they have an issue of productivity on their hands, and this cannot be separated from the performance of an organisation.”

Gather the data

For businesses, the only way to accurately know what kind of rooms and how many, will adequately accommodate their workforce, is to gather data. Though no single source – including digital room booking systems, or sensors – will provide all the required information.

A booking system for example, won’t tell you when a room has been vacated early. A sensor won’t tell you who has booked a room and for how many people.

“If you are only looking at one data stream, then you are only getting half the story,” Taggart says. “Essentially you want to know, is a room being used? Is there a corresponding booking? How many people are using the room? And for how long?”

Design and dynamics

If there was any question over the influence of design on peoples’ behaviours, consider Taggart’s anecdote about the office where the 10-person meeting room was the only one consistently occupied. The reason, it turns out, had nothing to do with the size of the space, but the fact that it was the only meeting room with frosted glass.

“Every other room felt like you were sitting in a fishbowl,” Taggart says.

Installing booths made from sound-dampening technology can fix this. Many offices are now using these booths as a cost effective way to provide their staff with a place for unplanned meetings, to make a call, or eat their lunch.

Meanwhile, retractable walls between meeting rooms makes them adaptable to various group sizes, while also optimising valuable commercial space, says Alan McKay, Head of Project & Development Services, Victoria, JLL.

“The rise of flexible working, mobile working, and the sheer pace that workplace dynamics are changing, means fixed elements such as walls and furniture barely feature in any new workplaces these days. The office has to mould around the people that use it, and from one month to the next, that can shift pretty dramatically,” McKay says.