Mar 18, 2013
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THEME: Workplace

Be Careful What You Ask For: Post Occupancy Evaluations and the Need for Adaptive Change

Post occupancy evaluations, or POEs, should come with this disclaimer. As budgets continue to tighten and corporate real estate leaders seek further justifications for real estate investments, some turn to design firms to ‘prove’ that the design solutions provided are actually working as expected. Much like medical practice, there is a search for evidence to guide design decision-making and a search for measurement following occupancy to demonstrate that the expected return on investment is actually captured. What happens when results suggest that the design solution didn’t actually solve the entire problem? To answer that, it’s important to understand the research perspective for POEs.

A researcher would argue that conducting a post-occupancy is of limited value. As the name suggests, these are evaluations that follow the occupancy. From a research perspective, a successful POE is one that begins with a pre-occupancy evaluation to establish a shared understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in an existing situation. By analyzing the findings of a pre-occupancy, the team is then guided toward areas that require design improvements as well as those areas that are working just fine. Those same issues, down to the specific research tactics used to measure them, should be repeated after at least a three-month settling in period following initial occupancy. In this way, it’s possible to understand more about the impact of the new environment.

Unfortunately, too often the research is limited to only post occupancy evaluations. Worse still, often those evaluations are limited only to online surveys, a point-in-time tactic that only captures individual input on that day, in that hour and frankly, in that mood. To be successful, evaluations must measure both pre- and post and use multiple tactics, allowing the team to compare responses and evidence from field visits, interviews, focus groups, and other complementary tactics. In our industry, there is a great deal of work to do here as too many firms use surveys alone to tell the story. However, let’s assume for a moment that the research protocol issues are solved. What happens when after measuring pre- and post and rigorously comparing the findings we find that the solutions don’t quite solve the problem? What then?

Companies should consider a POE for two purposes: to improve the current project and to inform future projects. Results that indicate the need for tweaks to recently completed projects come with an associated cost:benefit analysis illustrating the value of retrofit. By comparison, results that suggest future changes for planned projects drive teams toward better future solutions. Both of these outcomes provide value to companies seeking the best possible solution for their workforce, but value comes with a price. If a company is interested and willing to be this rigorous in its real estate decisions, it must in turn provide a complement of financing and planning to address outcomes that may be less than perfect.

The reality in corporate workplaces today is that the work itself is shifting far faster than the workplace. Expectations for how the workplace as a tool support those evolving work processes are fungible at best, volatile at worst. That’s simply the way that it is. So, in lieu of seeking a uniform solution, we encourage our clients to accept some degree of volatility and to budget projects to allow for adaptive change. The timeframe from conception to occupancy varies widely, often with the most complex industries requiring the greatest amount of time. However, those very complexities drive the more significant changes. As a result, it’s highly likely that there will be some requirement for tweaking of a design solution after occupancy. The question is whether the company has prepared for it with an agile plan in place for adjustments. Has the company prepared for possible changes? If not, to quote that famous actor, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!”

Our recommendation is to always provide both a mechanism and a budget for real estate improvements post occupancy. Planning like this includes a timeframe and an approach for capturing issues identified in the POE. Budgeting provides a means for addressing those issues. By planning and budgeting in this way, real estate leaders are enabled to deal with the volatility of work and to meet their financial obligations for cost management. Moreover, by setting the expectation that some tweaks may be required, there is much less pushback when in fact those needs are identified. This isn’t a failure, but an evolving process that requires real estate to be as agile as the businesses that it serves. POE results provide an opportunity to refine approaches on a rolling basis, much like real estate updates leases or evolves standards. Leases and standards aren’t fixed, but active, negotiable, and modifiable as business changes drive different priorities. The challenge is to create the POE framework that is the same. Otherwise, be careful what you ask for.

  1. Ruma Som
    1:34 pm on April 21, 2013 | Reply

    For projects where I have written specification, I have started offering architects a walk through during punch list. This is following cases where Owner after occupancy has faced issues relating to poor installation but perceived it as poor design and specification.

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