The shrinking office

Office space around the world is shrinking. Global property agency Knight Frank says office space in Australia will taper off by a whopping 37 per cent over the next two years.

That’s because of a more conservative approach to financing following the global financial crisis. This may mean that fewer companies are setting up offices, but some of it too would be that office space is getting smaller.

It’s happening everywhere else too. According to this report, offices are on average 20 per cent smaller than they were 16 years ago, and rank and file professionals now get 8.8 square metres of office space. That’s down from 10.7 square metres in 1994, and executives get more than 22.7 square metres on average, but that's down from about 27 square metres in 1994.

The upside of this is that it could encourage more team work. You bring more people together to brainstorm and resolve problems and things get done a lot faster, and perhaps more creatively.

The negative part is that the lack of space could drive people crazy. As reported here, we are now seeing more instances of “sardine rage”. People sitting in cramped conditions can suffer from physiological and psychological reactions such as stress, fatigue, and increased blood pressure levels coming from incessant noise from nearby conversations or phones,  unpleasant odours from others' meals and snacks.

There is also likely to be over-stimulation and low job satisfaction.  While this tells us what the workplace of the future will look like, it’s reminiscent of the 1950s with wage-slaves working away at hand-driven calculators, all under the watchful eye of their supervisor.

And it’s getting worse. Figures from the City of Sydney’s 2006 office census show that the work space for a staff member in open-plan offices had fallen 25 per cent over 10 years to 11.49 square metres. Hot-deskers and call-centre workers were allocated just 7.6 square metres on average. If anything, the pressure on costs will ensure spaces are going to get a lot smaller.

So what are the possible solutions?  Research from America, put together by the Interior Design Continuing Education Council and the American Institute of Architects says companies should create alternative spaces to meet people’s privacy needs.

The researchers say: “Enclosed conference rooms provide privacy for confidential meetings or phone conversations. They can also act as retreats or a change of view for workers who need a break from an individual workstation. In the same way, shared activity areas—everything from cafeterias to community gathering spaces to assigned, open group areas—allow for discussions and collaboration when confidentiality is not an issue and when team building, rather than retreat, is the goal.

“Third places, such as coffeehouses, libraries, or even an outdoor area on a corporate campus, are also potential workplaces. A surge in use of public places for work has been created by employees who have been untethered by mobile technology—laptops, cell phones, PDAs—that still allow them to stay connected to team members and employers.”

Converting some empty spaces into prayer rooms, nursing areas for new mothers or just spaces for people to chill out might also be in order.

With rising rents and shrinking office sizes reducing the average office space down from 12 square metres to just 10, experts suggest companies need to consult employees and find out what works for them. If not, workforce morale and productivity will suffer.

Has your office shrunk, and do you find it a problem to work in a smaller office.