Cubicles, offices are shrinking, while space for teamwork grows

Your office cubicle may be feeling more cramped than ever.

Chances are, it is.

Worker cubicles and workstations — and even executive offices — are shrinking, new research shows. Blame the smaller quarters on changes in work culture and the way we do our jobs, experts say. Technology such as flat screens and smart phones require less desk space. And a younger, mobile workforce is more apt to get shared or unassigned space.

The recession also played a role. More workers were forced from their jobs, pressuring employers to whittle the unused space in hopes of cutting leasing costs. Other companies moved to smaller shops to make ends meet and trimmed private offices in that diminished space. Executives who once considered the spacious corner office a perk are making the humbling trade for smaller quarters in the evolution of the American workspace.

"If you're in a law firm or bank, you kind of rise through the ranks, and you expect that office when you reach a certain level," said Kelly Ennis, a designer and principal of Baltimore-based The Verve Partnership that redesigns office space. "It's devastating for a lot of people."

Some workers see a benefit. They find they collaborate more with colleagues when they share space and appreciate having more room for amenities. That's even if it means less room for themselves.

"My last cubicle was tucked back in a corner, and you were lucky if you could find a window," said Terry Stegman, an 11-year employee of PSA Financial, which moved to a new Hunt Valley headquarters two years ago with fewer and smaller private offices.

PSA workers traded larger cubicles for better lighting and upgraded furniture. Though Stegman and her coworkers have less privacy, she and others enjoy new office perks.

"We're surrounded by windows on three sides," she said. "We have huge conference rooms with drop-down computer screens and more access to them than we had before. And our kitchen looks like a Starbucks."

Offices are as much as 20 percent smaller on average than they were 16 years ago, when the International Facility Management Association began tracking workspace. Rank-and-file professionals now get 95 square feet of office space, down from 115 square feet in 1994, according to the association's 2010 report.

Executives get more than 245 square feet on average, but that's down from about 290 square feet in 1994. And the average office worker now only gets 75 square feet.

"It makes sense," said Angie Earlywine, senior workplace strategist for architectural firm HOK. "Years ago, our technology took up every square inch of our work station. Now technology is lightweight. Years ago, we were paper-intensive and we needed our work surfaces. But you can get just about any file you need on a laptop. And you don't have to be sitting at your desk."

At the same time, employers are "allocating space less to the individual and more to the team," said Earlywine, whose St. Louis firm worked on the office space report. "Managers are realizing if they give employees more space to get together and solve problems, solutions come faster."

Some of the latest office trends have been driven by a slumping economy that forced employers and planners to look for efficiencies, said Sandy Sawicki, managing interior designer for Towson-based Rubeling and Associates, which designs commercial interiors.

"It used to be in traditional design, the president gets this size office and the manager gets this size office and the next person down gets this size cubicle," Sawicki said. "Now it's based more on function rather than title."

For instance, a traveling salesperson who used to have an 8-foot-by-8-foot cubicle might not need that space. "Now they're saying, 'This person is not even in the office the majority of the time. Why are we using the real estate for that?' "

When Yerman, Witman Gaines & Conklin Realty opens its newest office this week in the McHenry Row development in Locust Point, agents will work in an open, bright area with 18 partition-separated cubicles with file drawers and enough desk space for a phone and laptop. Most desks will be assigned, but several will be community desks.

"If we had built this space five or six years ago, we would have designed 100 to 120 square feet per agent, and now it's down to 70 to 80 square feet," said Scott Lederer, executive vice president and general sales manager.

Ennis, with the Verve Partnership, believes the office design trends are driven by the influx of younger workers as well.

"This is a demographic that's been raised on the Internet," Ennis said. "Technology is their thing. They're coming out of college and they don't want to be put into cubes. They want something more flexible."

Sparks-based KCI Technologies traded in space with 15 private offices for a more open pod-type layout when the engineering firm moved a 45-person office from Laurel to Maple Lawn in Fulton several years ago. The new space has exposed ceilings, no closed walls in front of windows and a kitchen. It has just three private offices, and those all have glass walls.

The former office was "old-fashioned…with the senior staff in offices that closed off the light from the inner area where the design staff sat," said Chuck Phillips, a senior vice president. "We wanted natural daylight for you to stand up anywhere in the office and see outside. It was meant to be brighter and airier and have a better feel for people working eight to 10 hours a day."

While several senior level associates and project managers found themselves moving from private offices to 10-foot-by-12-foot cubicles, the company didn't get any "push back," Phillips said. "It was such an upgrade in the environment and had amenities like a gym in the basement."