How To Get The Most Out Of Your Shrinking Office Space

For those who’ve fought hard to climb the corporate ladder, the ultimate reward for success is a private, corner office. With enough space for a couch, mini-fridge and an indoor putting green, a private office is as much a symbol of that success as the promotion itself. However, recent trends in office design may make the private office a relic of the past.

As the recovering economy causes office rents to surge in cities across the country, the average amount of space per office worker is moving in the opposite direction. Even companies that are rapidly adding staff are shrinking their office space to save on rent, moving employees away from corner offices and spacious cubicles and into shared deskspace in open floorplans. The transition has some workers concerned about a lack of privacy and the additional distractions that come from working in close quarters with one’s peers. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that office managers can take to get the most out of a collaborative floorplan.

Although the open office layout has been popular in pricier European markets for more than a decade, it’s only more recently caught on the U.S.. From 2010 to 2012, the average amount of space per office worker fell from 225 to 176 square feet, according to CoreNet Global, a commercial real estate association. This year, CoreNet expects that number to drop to only 151 square feet of space per worker.

“Every client we talk to, they’re using less space per person,” Kenneth McCarthy, the chief economist for Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate broker, recently told the New York Times.

With coastal cities and other tech hotspots witnessing a spike in office rental prices, cost pressure has been driving companies to better utilize their existing space. At the same time, executives are realizing that removing physical barriers in the office inspires collaboration between departments, boosts innovation and helps build relationships between workers. Startups, by nature of their business, were the first to experiment with unique office layouts—but legacy companies such as Intel and Deloitte are quickly following suit. Today, 68% of North American employees work in an office with an open floor plan or open seating, according to the International Facility Management Association.

There’s also a growing realization among managers that employees don’t need to be tied to their desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. In these collaborative work environments, traditional desk space shrinks in favor of common workbenches and private meeting rooms.

"The individual desk is getting so much smaller," Carrie Hahn, designer at architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz, told the Chicago Tribune. "Firms are trying to provide a variety of spaces instead." That includes office perks like ping-pong tables and comfortable couches where employees can still work off of a laptop.

However, legitimate concerns about the level of distractions that result from having so many employees in one room, as well as individual concerns about privacy and personal space, need to be addressed.

Here are a few easy steps managers can take to ensure that the move toward an open, collaborative office environment benefits all employees.

Design a Hybrid Office

Open floorplans are great for fostering collaboration, but less than ideal for taking important client calls or one-on-one meetings. Providing a number of soundproof, secure offices on the periphery of an open floor plan gives employees some much-needed privacy, even if it’s just to finish a project on deadline, away from distractions. On the other end of the spectrum, providing social areas such as common workbenches or couches so that workers can get away from their desks is key in creating a balanced hybrid space.

Embrace ‘Hoteling’

‘Hoteling’ workstations are unassigned desk spaces that contain tools for employees on an as-needed basis. Made possible by new technologies such as cloud networks and docking stations, hoteling is becoming increasingly popular with companies that have traveling sales teams or large numbers of telecommuters. Docking stations, monitors and basic office supplies are all one needs to set up an ideal ‘hot desk.’ With the correct planning, twenty employees can easily share less than 10 desks.

Encourage Work-From-Home Days

Not everyone is a Type A personality, and working in close confines with a large number of coworkers day after day can be exhausting. Although it may seem logical to managers that workers will be less productive at home, the opposite is actually true. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that employees at a call center who worked from home completed 13.5 percent more calls than those in the office on a daily basis. Plus, even one work-from-home day can drastically increase employee satisfaction.

Not everyone will enthusiastically embrace the open office floor plan, but the trend toward reduced office space per employee will continue nonetheless. With these simple steps, managers can mitigate the negative effects it may have on employees, while creating a more collaborative and engaging work environment.