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More than one-third of desks in offices around the globe are unoccupied all week, according to a new report, raising questions about how well workplaces are currently designed as companies struggle to get employees back into them.

The report, from Australian workplace sensor provider XY Sense, found that 36 percent of so-called work points — cubicles and desks — are never occupied, “indicating a general oversupply.” Of those that are used, 29 percent were for three hours or less on a given day. Just 14 percent were occupied for five or more hours, according to the study that tracked 24,855 unique work areas in nine regions including the U.S., UK, Hong Kong and Singapore. Among the spaces used the most are meeting rooms for two or three people, which are 90 percent full on average. Overall, office utilization is stuck at about 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

The findings illustrate the challenges faced by organizations as they assess office-space needs. Workers and managers both say they should be on site at least one-third of the time, according to research from Boston Consulting Group, but much of that in-person time is no longer spent tethered to a desk.

Spaces for small, private huddles, more open collaboration and sound-proof enclosures for individual head-down work are all more relevant today compared with old-fashioned cubicles. Yet 80 percent of total floor space is taken up by individual workstations, with just 20 percent left for collaboration, XY Sense found.

“It’s time to rethink the humble desk,” said Alex Birch, co-founder and chief executive officer of XY Sense. “They dominate space in our offices, they’re expensive, and we’re just not using them the way we were pre-pandemic. Companies just need less of them now that people do the majority of their focus work at home. Companies should either re-deploy that desk space for better workplace experiences or pocket the savings, but they can’t ignore the waste that’s going on.”

Other data support the shift away from desks. Research from office-furniture maker Haworth found that 85 percent of employees had their own individual workstations before 2020, yet less than half do now. Following years where companies simply crammed as many employees as they could into static cubicle farms or long rows of workstations, some see the changes wrought by remote work as long overdue.

“For far too long we designed offices as if we’re potted plants,” said Kay Sargent, director of the workplace practice at architecture and design firm HOK. “Are you really inviting people back to the office to have them sit at a desk all day? Or do you want to encourage them to connect, mentor and innovate?”

The dearth of desk usage could also prompt employers to rethink their real estate needs. More than nine out of 10 big organizations reported low office utilization rates in a survey by CBRE, and more than half expect to reduce their real-estate footprints over the next three years. According to XY Sense’s data, office utilization didn’t change much between the first and second quarters of 2023. But about one million U.S. desk workers face mandates to return to offices more often by the end of the year, according to brokerage JLL.

“We need to address the fact that we’ve accidentally created call center environments with the acres of large open workstations that are a feature of most offices these days,” Domino Risch, a principal and co-leader of the workplace and commercial sector at architect Hassell, said in the report. “The sea of repetitive banks of open plan workstations that typical knowledge-based organizations have just aren’t fit for purpose anymore.”

Photograph: An office worker at a desk in London. Photo credit: Jason Alden/Bloomberg