The office without an office has become an increasingly disturbing phenomenon. You may work in an office where management is scrambling to increase density in the workspace, or you may have heard an in-the-trenches story from a friend whose cubicle shrank in size overnight or disappeared altogether to be replaced by an open workbench. These anecdotes are part of a real trend. The usual amount of square footage per employee has gone from 400 square feet in 1985 to 250 square feet today.
As employers from large corporations to government agencies seek to cut costs to remain competitive in the new economy, offices are shrinking to minimize the overall cost of real estate underfoot by increasing the density of team members in that space. By doing simple things like moving desks closer together, shrinking or eliminating cubicles and adopting open plan workspaces, companies can increase the density of their office space by a third. In real terms, this allows them to lower the cost of their real estate footprint by a third over the long run as leases run out and team members are shifted around to accommodate these changes. There are, however, hidden costs to this increased density and not just in the grumbles or potential loss in morale that reducing a worker’s footprint may instill.
A workspace is a social space both in the contemporary and the anthropological sense. In many ways, taking down cubicles and moving to an open office plan allows for increased communication and collaboration and a more open feeling to a workspace, but this also has its downsides. Opening up offices as a way to eliminate furniture that takes up room also leads to a lack of privacy. Workers can become distracted by the coworker who speaks loudly on the phone, or someone is trying to work on a deadline as a small group of people hold an impromptu meeting five feet away. When two people working very close together are attempting to do two different things, both of them legitimate (or not), conflict arises. As psychologist Cynthia McVey noted for a BBC article on this subject, “In the animal kingdom, overcrowding leads to aggression, more fighting. If there is a personality clash between people at work, and there is enough space around them, it can be dealt with. But if they’re sitting on each other’s shoulders, you’re much more likely to get aggression. They can get obsessed with the person who is annoying them”
Thus, while cutting real estate costs by a third sounds like an attractive option and often is, employers should consider how far to take office space downsizing if they can help it. For a decision-maker who is tasked with decreasing office space, one should consider the type of work employees will be doing in this space. Do some workers require privacy all of the time? Do some of them require privacy at specific times? It is important to designate more private areas that team members can retreat to in times of stress, or if they need to really focus on a specific task.
A number of companies make interesting and visually striking privacy booths for these more crowded, open offices. These range from areas to work or meet, to soundproof areas where people can simply stand up and carry on a personal cell phone conversation.
A lot of these booths and other workspace configurations offer great design with interesting curved shapes, comforting materials like felt, and striking colors. Good furniture design and layout can go a long way towards dissipating negative social energy in a room by facilitating and adapting to their needs. In a well-conceived high occupancy work floor, a person might start the day at an open area workbench catching up on e-mails and having a couple of quick meetings for scheduling and tracking projects. Then, they might move to a private work area to focus on some project that requires significant concentration and attention to detail. They might then reserve a private phone booth to catch up on calls with their clients or drop by a booth for five minutes for a personal phone call to counsel a family member in crisis.
A person working in a relatively crowded area that is well designed might find that moving around a bit to use their workspace to fulfill their needs is interesting and empowering. Others might prefer just to remain in one place that facilitated their needs all along – the private office.
In the end, we are adaptable, fitting into new environments and creating different tools to help us to address the needs that change creates even if, increasingly, we are creating this change ourselves through innovative workplace design.