Companies are often looking for ways to cut costs, and since real estate is usually the second biggest expense, it makes sense to evaluate real estate costs. Many employers are analyzing their square feet per employee ratios and ways to reduce that, and one way to do that is to embrace an open office concept.
Nationally, square footage per employee has decreased from 211.4 sf in 2009 to 193.8 sf at the end of 2017—a decline of 17.6 sf or 8.3%. But, this trend has not been consistent across all markets. In many of the largest office markets in the country there were significantly steeper decreases, like in Northern Virginia, which saw a 13.3% decrease on sf per employee. However, changes in square footage per employee were small in markets where the space allocation was already relatively low in 2009, like the 2.2% reduction in Washington, DC.
A main concern with office densification is the potential downsides for employees when personal work space is reduced. Many employees can struggle with new distractions in an open office plan. For example, employees who need quiet time to focus can struggle if they now sit next to others who have a phone call heavy roll. Therefore, paying attention to what teams, roles, and personality/workstyles end up sitting in close proximity to one another can help mitigate these issues. Furthermore, offering private break-out spaces for employees to use for both heads-down work and for louder work like phone calls or team meetings can also help alleviate these issues and distractions.
While open offices were first praised for breaking down barriers and encouraging employees to have face-to-face conversations, new research has emerged that finds that often times open offices actually discourage this communication. Instead, workers can rely on email more in order to avoid distracting colleagues or to ensure privacy and avoid eavesdroppers. The impact of open offices on employee collaboration and communication is still being debated. Furthermore, each office and workstyle is different and therefore will react to an open office differently, but these impacts should still be considered.
At Cushman & Wakefield, we have helped a number of companies move to an open office concept or manage the change of each employee having less square feet allocated to themselves. We also have several tools to monitor the impacts. For example, our Experience per SF™ consulting program measures employees’ current work experience in their office space and identifies the biggest levers for optimizing the employee experience. This is useful both for employers looking to move into an open office concept, and those who already have an open office and want to make sure it still works for their staff.
The move to open offices that many companies embraced as a way to control or cut costs are probably here to stay. Therefore, ensuring that the office layout, open or not, works for employees is an important step for all organizations to take.