Office space gets the squeeze

With the rise of the digital office, workers have less elbow room than ever.

Office drones have long complained about claustrophobia-inducing cubicle work, but it turns out they’re right to be frustrated. Cubicles are shrinking, and even for executives the recession has cemented Don Draper-sized offices firmly in the past. “If you look at the way office space is organized in the show Mad Men, many executives had their own private offices. Many had private bathrooms,” say Peter Miscovich, a civil-engineer-turned-managing-director of corporate solutions at Jones Lang LaSalle.

Miscovich, who monitors workplace trends, says that through the 1960s and ’70s, there was an average of 45 to 65 square metres of space allotted per person. Through the 1980s until today, the “restacking” of the office place — that is, the advancement of technology, office design and paperless processes — allowed businesses to transform the way they look, and reduce costs. It moved that metric down to about 19 square metres per person.

In 2000, Silicon Valley workers saw their space shrink dramatically as new employees squeezed in. These tiny cubicles earned the moniker “veal fattening pens” since their size — as small at 2.8 square metres — was smaller than standard calf pens.

In 2005, the government’s National Research Council of Canada published a paper on how to make the cubicle a better workspace. It noted that more than 40 million North Americans work in cubicles, and that most aren’t satisfied by that arrangement — “a malaise perhaps best represented in our popular culture by Dilbert and his colleagues.” The report acknowledged that the big squeeze was happening in the financial, telecom and life science sectors as well as tech, and it blamed the shrinkage on a desire to reduce real-estate costs.

But Miscovich has other reasons why companies have space at a premium. “What I’ve seen is a structural shift in terms of how work is being done,” he says, “And that is a result of advances in technology, generational and demographic advancement and change, and an ongoing consistent focus on efficiency.” The size of the office place reflects how much time is actually being spent in the office. As technology improves and the boomers retire, workers who have grown up with technology will demand more flexibility and use tools like video conferencing, e-mail and text messages to communicate from satellite locations. The focus will be on performance and output no matter how much time is clocked at the physical office. When millennials who grew up with computers comprise half of the workforce in 2015, Miscovich says there will be a shift in the way people think about, and use, office space.

The recession helped fuel this change by forcing companies to reduce costs. Miscovich says that many firms found that the old “analog” workers who were not digitally capable could be replaced with technology, outsourcing, or other process capabilities. “I think that’s a permanent trend we’ll see for the future,” he says. “None of us can feel like we can stop learning now.”