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Math Is Not a Four-Letter Word When It Comes to Open Office Design

by Pam Kendall / November 17, 2016



As someone who has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in statistics, you would expect me to argue the importance of math when planning space and designing an open office. I also know that just mentioning the words mathematical forecasting would make most people want to stop reading this blog. But stick with me for a few minutes and give me the chance to show you just how important the application of math to forecasting personnel growth and policy change is in space planning. (I promise not to start rattling off a bunch of statistical terms or arcane formulas!)


No one wants to admit that their 8th grade algebra teacher was right, but let’s face it math is everywhere and we use it every day. Basic math can help you calculate restaurant tips so you don’t embarrass yourself when you are out on a blind date, convert ounces to cups when trying out that new recipe you found on Pinterest, and assist you in building a level storage shelf in the basement so you can finally cross that task off your honey-do list.

More advanced math can help you plan for retirement, maximize the profit your small company earns in any given year, and optimize your open office design. Yet, despite its obvious everyday uses, there are still instances where we can clearly say that math doesn’t always work, at least not as it was intended.


Math tends to be a black and white tool thrown into a grey world. We have all seen instances where, despite careful planning and analysis, math and the real world don’t always mesh well together. The local school district builds a new high school only to have it busting at the seams two years after it opens. The Department of Transportation spends millions of tax dollars constructing a new road with the hope of alleviating rush hour traffic, but the traffic jams are back after a few years. You go to pay at the recently renovated supermarket and end up waiting in line for 20 minutes because there are not enough checkout lanes and registers to accommodate the number of shoppers.

In each of these situations, the planners and engineers had to rely on math and extensive analyses to develop their plans and come up with the best solution for the community, or road, or grocery store. So, why are these frustrating outcomes often the result of what should be careful planning and the best mathematical analysis? There can be many reasons.

Perhaps the estimated student population was projected for five years, but the school board forgot to factor in the new 500-home subdivision being built at the edge of town. Maybe the Department of Transportation knew that traffic was going to grow, but did not consider the explosive growth in the region’s high-tech industries. And the grocery store with the agonizingly long lines while checkout lanes sit empty? It’s possible they tried to calculate the right number of cashiers to keep wait times to a minimum, but forgot to consider that the renovation might result in a growing number of customers attracted to the new shopping center.


So, how did presumably well-intentioned, math-based planning efforts fail in these situations? In a word, well several words; faulty or no mathematical forecasting.

Our prior article, Easy as Pi, about using math to quantify facility needs in an open office, addressed issues such as:

  • Workstation sharing ratios due to time spent teleworking
  • Workstation sharing due to collaborative work practices
  • Space requirements for circulation
  • Space utilization rates
  • Top-down and bottom-up space planning

The article explained the mathematics involved in all these issues, but approached each explanation from a static perspective. It did not take the next step of considering math in forecasting future facility requirements. Today, we pick up at this point and proceed to do just that; explain the benefit of mathematical forecasting in achieving success in open office planning and design.


Designing an open office isn’t typically done in an entirely empty workspace with no current employees to consider. Rather, it usually involves a transition from a traditional office with current employees. And to forecast future needs, it is essential to start with a baseline.

Here’s how we use math to set a baseline:

Gather quantifiable data input from current employees

There are many methods to gather employee input on space layout and design. We typically use a combination of surveys, focus groups, and interviews to gather employee feedback.

Analyze the results

We use the quantified survey, focus group, and interview results to categorize employees into predominant workstyles: deskbound employees, internally-mobile employees, and externally-mobile employees. In an open office layout, each of these workstyles would have different types of workstations, desk-sharing ratios, and need for collaborative or private spaces.

As an example, let’s assume the following for an organization comprised of 100 employees:

There are 30 deskbound employees who would be provided a dedicated workstation, including five private offices and 25 8’x6’ workstations with low-rise dividers to provide a modest amount of visual privacy.

These employees would also need a mix of collaborative spaces for small and large meetings and, the 25 employees in workstations would need a mix of private spaces to deal with personal matters or to perform work requiring intense concentration. In our example, let’s say that the deskbound employees’ needs can be accommodated by one large conference room, three smaller collaboration rooms (huddle rooms), and five small private offices (phone booths).

There are 50 internally-mobile employees who would not need a dedicated workstation. Let’s say they can share at a ratio of two workstations for every three employees. Thus, their needs could be accommodated with 33 6’x6’ workstations.

The internally-mobile employees would have a higher need for both collaborative and private spaces than their deskbound counterparts. Let’s say they would need two large conference rooms, six huddle rooms, and 10 phone booths. They would also likely need some open workstations (touchdown stations) in case a higher percentage needed a work surface at a given time, and an informal area with comfortable seating to meet in a more relaxed environment.

There are 20 externally-mobile employees who spend most of their time outside of the office, and could share work services at a more aggressive ratio, such as one workstation for every three employees. Their needs could be accommodated through seven 6’x6’ workstations.

They would need a higher percentage of touchdown stations given their aggressive workstation sharing ratio, yielding seven touchdown stations but would have less need for collaborative and private facilities: two huddle rooms and three phone booths.

Thus, through analyzing the survey, focus group, and interview results and applying different sharing and support space ratios, math is used to determine an office space needs baseline.


But don’t stop at the baseline; let’s consider how your workforce is going to change over time.

Personnel increases

Will your office increase in the number of people? Look at your historic growth rates and consider how your functions may change in the future. In our example, if our 100-person office has been growing on average by three people per year, at a minimum, you should consider planning for 10 years and adding 30 people to the mix. You can break these people down by the same percentages of deskbound, internally-mobile, and externally-mobile as your current employees, or you can weight one or more of these areas higher if you think that you will likely hire certain types of employees.

For example, you may be planning to expand your staff of IT programmers, who are typically deskbound. You can analyze your existing labor categories by work style using the survey to get a better sense of which labor categories fall into the three workstyles.

Policy changes

Is your office planning to change your telecommuting or remote work policies? If so, you might want to factor in a higher number of externally-mobile employees in the future. In the survey, you can ask how many employees would take advantage of a more aggressive telecommuting policy to obtain guidance for this calculation. Based on the survey results, you might calculate that anywhere from 60% – 70% of your employees will physically be in the office throughout the work week. Further analyzing the survey results could help you determine what percentage of your deskbound, internally-mobile, and externally-mobile employees will be in the office on any given day. This information can then be used to adjust the baseline number of workstations, desk-sharing ratios and needs for collaborative vs private spaces and design your office to be more suitable for your future needs.


So, it looks like you have two options to plan an open office. Option 1 – use your quantified survey, focus group, and interview results to plan only for the open office you need today; or option 2 – embrace the power of mathematical forecasting to plan for the future. I’d say your best bet is to go with option 2, but I’m no statistician. Oh, wait – yes I am!

Tags: Open Office Design

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Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall

Pam Kendall is a statistical data analyst and web developer who likes to spend her free time playing guitar, hanging out with friends, and traveling.