Amid substantial changes within the sector, the financial services industry has significant potential to make greater use of existing office space, according to a new study of current work space use in New York, Toronto and London.

Unveiling its latest benchmarking report in which it observed more than one million square feet of office space from 11 top-tier financial services firms across the aforementioned cities, international design firm HOK said the sector was undergoing a number of cyclical and structural changes.

These changes include the need to accommodate more workers amid increasingly buoyant employment expectations following several years of turmoil, a growing tendency to hire technology staff as the industry rolls out products such as mobile and electronic banking, and the automation of knowledge work and financial tools as well as a trend toward working outside of the office.

The study also identified a number of opportunities for more efficient use of space, and suggests that with proactive planning, many of the extra workers firms expect to hire in coming years could be accommodated using existing space.

Indeed, despite the fact that 77 per cent of financial service professionals currently work in assigned spaces, almost half (48 per cent) of these seats remain unoccupied during the day, implying that much space dedicated to individual places would be better used as shared space, and that greater use could be made of open floor plans with unassigned work stations. One institution in the study increased its ratio of workers to seats by as much as 2:1 after adopting this strategy.

Furthermore, more than half (53 per cent) of all meeting rooms were medium to large in size (suitable for seven or more participants) whereas almost three quarters of meetings which took place involved between two and four people, suggesting greater efficiency could be gained by making larger spaces adaptable to smaller meetings.

More work could also be performed away from the desk. Of the time they spent within the office, staff indicated that 54 per cent was spent working alone in quiet areas which enable concentration, much of which could potentially be done outside of the office.

The study comes as financial service firms around the world seek greater efficiency in use of space amid increasing levels of competition and recent challenging conditions.

Last year, for example, Canadian insurance giant Manulife embarked on an overhaul of the fifth floor of its Toronto headquarters. Manulife replaced a complex array of traditional offices with smaller workstations, and added more space for meeting rooms, phone rooms and other shared areas.

At the time, the company also embarked on a drive for greater mobilisation of its workforce, with the aim of increasing the amount of time workers spend outside the office or in multiple locations from five per cent to 30 per cent.

Royal Bank of Canada, as well, reduced its need for space by cutting the number of workers who get a dedicated desk space or office.

Still, not everybody supports such moves. In interviews last year with several workers who did not use (and did not support) this kind of arrangement, encountered fears about distractions, loss of privacy and loss of what individuals felt was their own space.

Outside of space utilisation, HOK also found that workers wanted more space for focused work, better ergonomics, space for private calls and adaptable and well laid out workplaces – characteristics upon which it said companies would be advised to focus when assessing their space.