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Let's Talk About "Measuring Building Occupancy"

September 15th, 2022Callan Cameron

Following the impact of COVID-19 and shift to hybrid working, the property industry must rethink the outdated ways in which office space is evaluated and move beyond traditional property data sets.

On 1st April 2022, Mirvac released a discussion paper for the property industry, highlighting some of the new challenges being faced and calling for alternative metrics to evaluate office buildings.

For example, the old “rule of thumb” of applying a workspace ratio of 1 person per 12 square metres to an office building’s total NLA (net lettable area) to estimate the number of office workers within the building, doesn’t apply anymore when people aren’t working in the office full time.

From a leasing and vacancy perspective, we can still simply measure the amount of net lettable area that is either leased or vacant within an office building and express this as a percentage e.g., a building is 80% leased and 20% vacant.

However, given the shift to hybrid working, using a percentage to express how many office workers are within an office building at any given time has many challenges and limitations, as it requires estimates and assumptions to be made for each individual office building. Property groups are adopting different assumptions and methodologies to derive building occupancy percentage estimates for their own portfolios. This still largely includes applying rule of thumb workspace ratios, trying to estimate what their building’s peak occupancy was prior to the onset of COVID and trying to understand what 100% occupancy even means now with hybrid working. Building vacancy levels and fit outs also change over time, so establishing baseline building occupancy estimates is challenging.

With a lack of transparency and these different methodologies and assumptions being applied, our industry is not effectively - and inconsistently - measuring the changing patterns in office worker behaviour through percentage of building occupancy estimates.

At propella.ai, we have derived a standardised metric that provides transparency for the industry and allows comparison of “Worker Activity” levels between individual office buildings, portfolios, precincts and CBD averages, irrespective of building size, vacancy level and peak occupancy prior to (or after) the impact of COVID-19.

The Worker Activity feature in propella.office provides users with visibility into which buildings are attracting more workers back to the office, and which buildings are not. But more importantly, propella.office supports the ability to investigate why office workers are returning to certain buildings, precincts and industries, and not others.

Worker Activity can act as a useful alert for potential upcoming vacancy risk (i.e. a building may be fully leased, yet be under-utilised by workers), to help plan and invest in tenant engagement and retention strategies, as well as identify new leasing opportunities.

Worker activity is measured using the “Worker Activity Index” (WAI), using the below equation. This index is a mobile activity density measure. The measure can be used to compare the relative mobile device activity between office buildings over a variety of building sizes (varying NLA).

For example, 101 Collins St has a higher WAI than the CBD Average, meaning it is successfully attracting workers back to the office, in comparison to the average Melbourne CBD office building.

While the property industry typically has a preference to measure building occupancy as a percentage, propella.ai has determined that this approach is problematic for the following reasons:

1.    It requires building specific data from building owner/managers to specify each building’s occupancy at a specific point in time. This information is typically commercially sensitive, and difficult to acquire at scale across all office buildings within a precinct or CBD region. The WAI still allows this estimate to be made if the user has access to the above information. 

2.   While it is understood that different industries/buildings have variability in the density of workers per square metre of NLA (e.g. law firms typically have lower worker density ratios to IT firms), the WAI can act as a proxy for this density.

The WAI however, allows the aggregation of different office buildings into custom portfolios (e.g. Melbourne CBD average, Western Core precinct, Premium Grade portfolio) that individual office buildings can be benchmarked against. This allows users to explore how building features such as location, quality, tenant industries, access to amenity and other factors can influence worker activity and impact the post-COVID return to the office.

Read some of the fascinating Worker Activity insights that have been generated using propella.office. Or to understand more about Worker Activity in and around your building, a building of interest or the entire CBD, contact us today.

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