Office space moving toward smaller and smarter

April 13, 2009
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In a way, technology puts life on fast forward. Trends that recently were seen as emerging have already arrived, set up camp and now are tapping their feet and checking their watches.

The trends in the way office buildings are being used are no different.

“There are two key trends that are driving how people are trying to adapt their existing office buildings to support workers,” said Cherie Johnson, manager of design with Steelcase Design Studio.

“How do you reduce process costs and how do you increase innovation for employees? The other thing is that we have a lot of organizations that have a lot more generational balancing. Everyone understands there are different generations at work, but how do you balance those?”

With each generation of workers comes a different working style that calls for adaptation of office space. But as the latest generation has entered the work force — with BlackBerrys, PDAs and iPhones holstered to their hips — and as that technology has spread to older generations, the adaptation process has become more drastic.

It all leads to smaller workspaces and better use of that space.

“There are lessons about space design that are taken from management of different generations,” said Brett Kincaid, director of design for Steelcase Design Studio. “Those work styles can also translate into the needs different generations have for spaces. Certainly, with the more mature generations, there is a higher expectation for personal space, privacy, some representation of achievement or status within the organization. As we move down to the younger (generations), connectivity becomes the most important thing.”

To accommodate them, companies are incorporating more collaborative and shared spaces, as well as space that supports mobile workers. Johnson said that more and more, workers believe they should have a choice as to where they do their work.

“A choice location is just a reality of where I work and when I work. Because of mobile technology, we can work from home,” Johnson said. “It’s about helping to manage choice.”

Johnson said that companies also are looking to reduce space, carbon footprint and cost — real estate being the second largest expense for most companies after its employees.

Kincaid agreed. “(Companies) are balancing some of the big trends. They’re balancing the need for diversity against the need for real estate cost and compression, and also the desire to have some level of improved health and well-being while you’re at the office,” he said. “They have multiple generations working in the same spaces and all feeling productive and healthy, and they’re meeting their corporate goals for real estate costs and or compression.”

Kincaid said that the trend toward smaller spaces is even more prominent where real estate costs are high.

“We do see the amount of compression directly related to the cost of local real estate, so we see more on the coasts, in Europe and Asia,” he said. “Companies deal with that in a number of ways. I think the first reaction they have is, ‘Let’s make everybody’s space smaller.’ We often help them create more thoughtful strategies on how to do that.”

As an office furnishings company, Steelcase has done research into people’s work habits that allows them to understand how to better make use of office space.

“We say that at a user’s primary work station, they really just need the things for their focused and concentrated work, but really close by we need to provide those collaborative settings. That one approach is to shrink down the workspace as much as you can, but make sure to provide those secondary spaces,” said Kincaid.

“The other approach we see is companies looking at their occupancy rates … and saying, ‘How many people do we really have in the office at any given time, and let’s just provide spaces for as many people we think are actually in the office.’”

That trend, commonly referred to as “hot desking” or “hotelling,” is much more widely accepted overseas, but Kincaid said it is growing in popularity in the U.S.

He compared the trends in office space to compact cars.

“There was a time when a small car meant you had to give up a lot. It was based on a market that didn’t want to spend a lot. But today, I drive a Rabbit, and it’s a full-featured, very satisfying car. Our workstations are like that. We’ve shrunk them down, but they are, in many ways, more thoughtful and honest about how people work than they have been in the past across our industry,” he said.

“It’s really that, as organizations ask people to work in smaller and smaller spaces, we provide as much richness and as much support as we can within those workstations.”

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