Planon: Mix and Match - Pierre Guelen

Flexible working means many office buildings are used inefficiently, wasting money and contributing to companies' carbon outputs. Pierre Guelen of Planon tells CEO why the effective measurement of usage and organisational change are the quickest ways to impose order.

The BlackBerry is great for workers keen to stay in contact wherever they are, but it presents office managers with some major headaches. With workers no longer chained to their desks, the demands placed on office buildings are changing.

The way in which assets are used has not kept pace with this new flexibility, leading to wasted space and unnecessary costs. For businesses trying to cut their carbon footprint this is often a double blow as employees continue to consume energy even when their seats are empty.

Pierre Guelen, CEO of integrated workplace management services company Planon, understands the struggle that businesses face: they want to allow employees to work flexibly but worry about the costs.

"Companies are studying the environmental and social impact of their property," he says. "That puts a lot of pressure on owners and managers to deliver results in that area."

Research by Gartner reckons that in the US and Europe, the average office is unused 50% of the time, with employees in meeting rooms, out in the field or taking breaks. In order to reduce the overall environmental impact of offices, companies need to overhaul their thinking about floor space. Planon has developed a concept called Green Workplace Economics to help businesses realise more efficient use of their assets.

The long and short of it

The critical first step is measurement. Planon takes records from entry smartcards and devices installed under desks to build up a detailed picture of how employees move around an office hour by hour. This can then be combined with detailed daily reports from energy suppliers to identify areas of waste.

"It all starts with measurements and knowing what the usage of a building is," Guelen says. "Then it's possible to concentrate on laggard areas with the greatest problems and look for organisational approaches to find a solution. For example, in departments where a lot of people are often out – sales teams or consultants – flexible workplaces can be designed."

"Companies are studying the environmental and social impact of their property. That puts a lot of pressure on owners and managers to deliver results in that area."

The core consideration is density. Guelen laughs at the idea of a manufacturer allowing half of its factories to lie idle, but that is exactly what happens in many offices. With flexibility a major cause of waste, the concept of the workplace needs to be rethought. Hot desking is an old idea but employees should be encouraged to fill up a building floor by floor rather than retreating to a favoured quite corner. On quiet days, unused areas do not need to be heated or lit and can be closed off.

While this is easily done, it can be disruptive to the way an organisation works and Guelen points out that managers have to be willing to sacrifice visibility over their subordinates if it is to be effective.

For companies where such a shift would not be practical, there are still changes that can be made through the installation of automatic lighting and air-conditioning controls. Planon helped the Dutch National Bank set up a reservations system in its conference centre that was directly connected to the air conditioning and the electric grid. When a room is not booked out, the power is automatically shut down.

Such technology can be deployed throughout buildings, restricting energy use to where it is needed. Usage of space remains the overriding consideration.

Guelen believes the advantage of Planon's approach is that it does not require major investment in infrastructure. "Our experience is that the biggest and most immediate gains can be made through the efficient use of buildings," he explains. "Of course, you can have a very complicated technical programme for an ambient heat pump and it will cost millions. I'm not against that, but it's more for the outside audience.

"As with anything, businesses look at return on investment. They don't go straight for these grand solutions; they seek quick and easy wins based on best practices."

Beyond the first steps of improving usage, Planon is also considering the way in which employees work at the office and elsewhere. The company undertook a major project with the City of Antwerp, which was looking to make its 1,000 buildings carbon neutral. One aspect of its programme was to invite employees to work from home one day a week. This cut the carbon costs associated with travel and illustrated that offices can be smaller and use less energy.

Globally recognised standards such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design take these external factors into account and as Guelen points out: "Not using something is always the cheapest way to get results."

While it emphasises 'quick wins', Planon does not operate by simply undertaking a short improvement programme. Instead, the company aims to develop strong relationships with its clients. Over the last decade it has built relationships with a number of Dutch Government ministries and has worked with Dutch telecom multinational KPN for 20 years.

"They have used our software for a long time and lot of our best practices are built with them," Guelen explains. "Our technology development is based on their feedback, we don't just have a few brilliant guys in the office here who try and solve everything."

Getting to grips with large assets

Some of the most significant research Planon is undertaking focuses on how to scale up the Green Workplace Economics concept for clients with large asset bases. Success relies on pulling together information on employee behaviour and energy consumption along with details about the assets themselves. If a system is inefficient and old, it will be a prime candidate for replacement. As with smaller organisations, targeted improvements are the favoured approach.

The ability to pull together disparate information is also having an impact on Planon's other business areas. The company is looking at how maintenance can be improved through careful targeting and a 'just-in-time' approach. It is also examining ways of easing the process for new employees so they do not have to make a tour of numerous departments to be set up on different systems. The assumption is often that older offices, built before the importance of environmental considerations was realised, will always cause problems, but that does not have to be the case.

Planon's approach to workplace management emphasises making the best use of available resources and for companies prepared to be flexible, this can offer a simple route to cutting costs and carbon emissions.