In the face of a recession, many companies don’t think to renovate their offices. The prospect may seem impossibly far off as financial pressures mount, but in fact, lean times may pose a real opportunity for a firm to reimagine its office space. The Center for Workplace Innovation (CWI), a business consultancy, pushes clients to look holistically and strategically at the entire working environment, to envision a space that performs better—and allows the people within it to do so, even if square footage is not gained (or is lost) in the process.

The principals at CWI, a wholly owned subsidiary of New York–based architecture and interiors firm Mancini Duffy, have discovered that bringing clients up to speed on best practices in terms of both the type and use of available workspace is often enough to improve efficiency while reducing costs. Workspace itself is increasingly costly to maintain even while its use diminishes: In comparing use at a number of legal, financial, and commercial companies, CWI discovered that most office space is unoccupied 40 to 70 percent of the time. Consolidation, then, can be as much about revising longstanding assumptions about space as it is about physically eliminating square footage.

“No one is going to build the same space they built 15 years ago when they signed their last lease,” says Alan Dandron, a principal with Mancini Duffy. “Any decision about real estate is a big decision, so you want to make sure that space is really going to perform for your organization. The key is to design a space that works for them as well at the end of that lease as it does now,” Dandron says.

CWI was founded when Mancini Duffy acquired the Washington, D.C.–based Liminality in 1999; that company had a workplace-strategy division that Mancini Duffy maintained and bolstered. It is a small operation with five strategic planners, though CWI will pull on other Mancini Duffy design staff cross-trained in CWI’s techniques and methodologies. The group’s clients range from UBS and ANZ in the financial realm to legal firms such as Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto.

When working with commercial, financial, and legal clients alike, sensitivity is a priority for CWI. This effort begins with tools that are more commonsensical than analytical: town halls and coffee hours to help clients adjust to the ostensible loss of personal space. CWI designers will host mock-up tours of new model workspaces—for staff, not just executives—as they design them in an effort to familiarize workers and get feedback. But CWI’s strength lies in its analytical approach, which includes tracking trends for workspace use longitudinally by a variety of industries.

In a December 2010 study, using computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) analysis to generate commercial interior benchmarks for six companies at 10 locations, CWI discovered that the ratio of dedicated workspace to total space (whether that’s open or closed space) has remained consistent over the last decade. Yet the use of workspace has changed significantly. New technologies and patterns governing the way people work have opened a gap between the space needed for amenities and needed for work—a gap that widens as a project grows in scope. CWI’s CAFM projections show that, on average, as the total square footage for a project grows from 300,000 to 500,000 square feet, the space required for work increases accordingly, from about 150,000 to 250,000 square feet. But the space required for amenities grows only slightly, remaining under 50,000 square feet, on average.

And over time, the workspace itself has come to be used differently—less for individual tasks and more for teamwork. “It’s a new model that’s come out of the financial world,” Dandron says. “You’ll see it become applied more broadly across other sectors. It’s a model that requires support space, much more collaborative space, and a little less individual space.”

Needs vary by industry, however. CWI found that among its clients, commercial organizations devoted the most spaces to workstations (as opposed to offices). About 55 percent of commercial interior workspace is devoted to workstations. In the financial services industry, the balance is 45 percent workstation and 55 percent office (with the exception of trading floors). The disparity is greatest in the legal field, where nearly 70 percent of the workspace used by firms in New York and the Northeast is occupied by offices.

CWI’s work with AOL reflects the trend toward more collaborative space. In 2009, for phase II of that client’s consolidation and relocation from Dulles, Va., to New York, Mancini Duffy designed a collaboration-oriented sixth floor with one central pantry that also served as a town hall space. The design emphasized collaboration, including more space for team projects, in part to reflect the needs of the sales group housed on that floor.

Another CWI client, KPMG, has worked with Mancini Duffy for more than 40 years. CWI’s work with the client began in 2001, when KPMG asked Mancini Duffy to help its real estate group reduce its internal construction costs. Dandron says that CWI came to the conclusion that, beyond cost considerations, KPMG’s model did not serve it well.

“The model they had been using more or less forever was principals and managers in private offices, and staff either in segregated clusters of workstations or in staff rooms,” says Lee Trimble, AIA, a principal who manages Mancini Duffy’s relationship with KPMG. “That was fine ... when more of the staff was located in the workplace. But the model was changing to a more collaborative form of work.”

For KPMG’s headquarters in New York, CWI recommended creating an entire conference center and a supplementary training center. The design necessitated focus rooms on each floor for breakaway work. CWI also found that the older model, defined by dedicated office spaces for managers, served to separate managers from staff.

In order to gauge the success of their recommendations for KPMG, CWI has conducted both post-occupancy and utilization surveys. Priyanka Agrawala, a strategic planner for CWI, says that the timing of the post-occupancy survey is crucial. “The first items on everybody’s list in the two-month survey are privacy and noise issues. In a six-month survey, that’s no longer at the top of the list,” says Agrawala. “People have adjusted their behavior, and that becomes a non-issue.”

Beyond simply recognizing the changes that technology has mandated in the workplace over the last two decades, CWI’s recommendations for embracing new uses of space begin with relating to the individual employee: The work to guide KPMG employees through a process of change began two years before the designs were in fact implemented.

“With KPMG, one of the things we did was to ... get people involved in a discussion of how they work, what tools they needed to work, and to get them to think of their office as a tool that supported work rather than a tool that signals status in the company,” Dandron says. “People knew what was coming, and it [the process] got them to buy into it.”