An oft-quoted truism is that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Because of this, more and more architects are incorporating post-occupancy evaluations (POE) into their practice.
POE is a mechanism for providing feedback, assessing metrics such as occupant health and comfort, space utilization, energy consumption and productivity, among many other factors. It has become a standard tool for owners, operators and employers trying to track user experience.
For architects, there are two basic approaches to POE: project-based and topic-based. In a project-based POE, the firm typically cooperates with their client from the very beginning to benchmark how the space is working and how it may be improved. In a topic-based POE, the architect takes on a more advisory role, consulting on a space that they may not have even been involved in designing, to address one or several specific issues.
“It’s always project-specific,” said Cynthia Milota, CID, LEED AP, director of workplace strategy at Ware Malcomb. “We want it to be driven by what the client needs are and what goals they are trying to achieve.”
Projects often establish key performance indicators (KPIs) at the beginning, setting expectations in the pre-construction phase for how the space should operate. For this reason, project-based ventures make up most of the POEs that architecture firms undertake. Tracking, tweaking and tackling how an office space is or isn’t hitting a particular KPI cannot be achieved without evaluating how the space is operating and how employees operate in it.
Usually, the cost to conduct a POE is built into the initial contract. This makes it easier to have the POE approved by the end user’s finance team. Having a POE in place from the get-go not only leads to an optimized space for the client, it also helps the design professionals understand the full scope of a project.
Topic-based research is seldom done in association with a project or a real estate transaction. In these instances, a customer may be exploring ways to address specific issues in their space, sort of like a wellness check on their workplace.
No space is effectively designed in a vacuum, which is why building commissioning has become a tried and true methodology to verify that mechanical, water, energy and other utility systems are performing as designed once people are actually using a space. POEs go further.
Maybe employees avoid certain desks because of window glare. Maybe there aren’t enough conference rooms for the number of work teams. The point is to collect quantitative and qualitative data and use both to inform how occupants react to a space and perhaps what changes can be made to improve their experience.
“Numbers only tell part of the story,” said Milota. “We are very insistent on looking at qualitative as well as quantitative data so that we can understand the ‘why’ behind our findings.”
POEs can and should be implemented at various stages in a project. For example, Ware Malcomb handled a phased POE for a large client that was undertaking a capital improvement project in their Chicagoland office space.
“We used what we learned at the beginning to inform subsequent phases of the project. After a while we just kept learning the same things over and over, so we were pretty sure that that we had solid data,” said Milota. “It certainly impacted the design and helped us to fine tune how employees were using the space.”
A POE can take a number of different shapes, depending on what questions the team is looking to answer. Occupant surveys and focus groups are informative, but self-reported data isn’t always reliable for certain types of information. The POE may include material gathered by HR from exit interviews, direct observations of the space or training sessions, badge data or information culled from the integrated workplace management system.
A POE can greatly affect operational outcomes and employee satisfaction. But they are not universal, nor are they static.
“Business changes over time. When you do these kinds of studies, you have to be careful that you’re not making a bunch of recommendations and hanging your hat on one dataset or over one time period,” Milota said. “We know how dynamic business is and we know that the research that we come back to is probably going to be dynamic as well.”