Managing the hidden headcount in modern offices

Real estate teams can't plan for every possibility that comes with a contingent workforce, but there are ways to manage their hidden headcount.

October 10, 2015

The call comes in on a Monday morning. Twenty-five people will be descending on the office for a project that kicks off in a week.

They all need a place to sit. They all need a place to connect to the network. And they all will be there for two months. 

Scenes like this are playing out in offices across the country more frequently now. The cause can be largely attributed to a rapid acceleration of the use of contingent workers. Whereas 93 percent of employees were either full- and part-time in 1995, contingent workers now make up a quarter of the total workforce.

And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of these independent contractors, freelancers, consultants, seasonal workers and on-call workers will jump by another 20 percent in the next five years. In fifteen years, more than half of the workforce could be contingent workers.

“There’s obvious benefits to an on-demand workforce,” says Bernice Boucher, JLL’s Managing Director of Workplace Strategy. “It’s good for the balance sheet. You’re more flexible. Some younger workers even prefer the freedom of being part of the just-in-time workforce. But there’s also an obvious challenge for corporate real estate teams. I view it as managing a hidden headcount.”

Predicting the unpredictable

Certain industries have long relied on contract labor to fill in gaps in finance, human resources, information technology and other functional areas. The banking and technology sectors have grappled with sudden staffing fluctuations for years. But within the past five years, the trend has spread and gained significant momentum.

It could be auditors or regulators who were supposed to visit for a week but stayed for two. There could be knowledge transfer that requires an entire team to be on-site for weeks or months. People are hired for a short-term project that suddenly becomes a long-term assignment. Whatever the reason, these people need one basic thing – space to call their own.

“More and more of our clients are experiencing this,” Boucher says. “This idea of a hidden headcount is something that all real estate groups need to be thinking about now. The thought of planning for a large influx of people on short notice is daunting. But this is a trend that will continue and can be managed with a little planning.”

When the hidden headcount surfaces

Real estate teams won’t be able to plan for every possibility that comes with a contingent workforce, but there are ways to take the wraps off of the hidden headcount – or at least manage the situation when it surfaces.

Account directors, for example, need to stay close to business contacts. “It helps to engage with the business regularly to better understand the nature of workflow and demand,” says Boucher. “Are there patterns? Is it cyclical? Could this have been anticipated?”

Companies must also remain flexible. “Create space in your office that is agile enough to accommodate more people,” Boucher says. “Have touchdown and drop-in space that is used every day but can also be converted to a semi-permanent work station if need be.” A free seating environment can also help accommodate more people without incurring the costs associated with moving people and equipment around.

Yet having a flexible response doesn’t mean cannibalize all collaborative work space. “Sometimes, you don’t have a choice, but you do need to understand the implications,” says Boucher. “Get creative. Ancillary space can be sometimes be turned into something that works. Is it always ideal? No, but the key is being able to make accommodations for a short period of time without causing a lot of long-term pain.”

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