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Office walls are closing in on corporate workers

Businesses used to provide 500 to 700 square feet of work space per employee, but the average is down to 200 square feet — and shrinking. The recession and an emphasis on teamwork accelerated the trend, and younger staffers prefer less.

December 15, 2010|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times
  • Southern California Gas Co. employees check out samples of new workstations at the utilitys downtown L.A. headquarters, where a major makeover is underway. Its cutting back to 12 floors from 15.
Southern California Gas Co. employees check out samples of new workstations… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

The walls are closing in on white-collar workers — their office environments are shrinking, propelled by new technology, a changing corporate culture and the age-old imperative to save a buck.

Although personal workstations won't disappear, the sprawling warrens of cubicles and private offices that have defined the workplace for the last few decades are heading the way of Rolodexes and typewriters. The shift is of tectonic proportions, experts on the workplace say.

In the 1970s, American corporations typically thought they needed 500 to 700 square feet per employee to build an effective office. Today's average is a little more than 200 square feet per person, and the space allocation could hit a mere 50 square feet by 2015, said Peter Miscovich, who studies workplace trends as a managing director at brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle.

"We're at a very interesting inflection point in real estate history," Miscovich said. "The next 10 years will be very different than the last 30."

Companies have been gradually dialing back on office size and grandness for years, but the recession accelerated the trend as sobered owners let go of their old floor plans and tried new ways to speed productivity, attract talent and cut costs.

There are other factors at play in the push to make work spaces smaller and more communal. Many companies are emphasizing teamwork, and younger employees accustomed to working anywhere but at a desk are turning up their noses at the hierarchical formality of traditional offices. In addition, familiar technologies such as laptop computers, cellphones and videoconferencing are finally beginning to affect the way offices are laid out.

"These tech advances and different ways of working are occurring in parallel with the recession — and then there is the generational shift," Miscovich said. "lt's all sort of happening at once."

Office tenants who renew their leases these days often cut their space total 10% to 30%, according to Jones Lang LaSalle. The term "restacking" has emerged to describe the common process of making offices more efficient by changing the floor layout, reducing paper file storage space and introducing smaller, uniform workstations.

A case in point is Southern California Gas Co., which is remaking its headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. The utility arrived in 1991 as the prestigious anchor tenant of the new 50-story Gas Co. Tower, setting up offices that were among the best corporate America had to offer.

"When we moved in almost 20 years ago, the office was really on the cutting edge of space design," said Pamela Fair, the utility's vice president in charge of support services.

That old space plan put most workers in three-sided cubicles with walls too high to see over. Each is like a mini office with room for a personal computer and large monitor. There are ample file drawers and additional storage cabinets nearby. Managers' offices with spectacular views line the outer walls.

Now, having renewed its lease in its namesake tower, the Gas Co. is cutting its space from 15 floors down to 12 in what may be the largest office makeover underway in Southern California. (The office also has about 12% fewer employees than in 1991.) Among the changes will be fewer private offices and more compact standardized workstations for those who spend their days in the office.

Workers such as account executives who spend the bulk of their time in the field will use small "touch down stations" placed invitingly in front of big windows when they do visit the office. Cubicles will be laid out in a manner meant to encourage collaboration, and there will be more "teaming" rooms, like small conference rooms, where small groups can work together.

Informal meeting spaces and comfortable common areas where workers can plug in laptops are becoming standard fixtures for many businesses, said Larry Rivard, area sales director for office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc.

"A lot of people want to get away from the cubicle," he said.

Part of the reason is economics. Although cubicles have shrunk from an average of 64 feet to 49 feet in recent years, Rivard said, companies are looking for more ways to compress their real estate footprint. They also want to encourage worker collaboration and present themselves as forward-thinking businesses capable of attracting the best young talent.

Age makes a difference, workplace experts say. Baby boomers longed for a corner office and expected to separate their work lives from their home lives.

"Younger workers' lives are all integrated, not segregated," Rivard said. "They have learned to work anywhere — at a kitchen table or wherever." Many don't feel a need to spend time in company quarters.

Rob Jernigan, an architect and baby boomer, calls them "the backpack kids" because they grew up in an age when they could carry everything they needed at school or elsewhere in their backpacks. "Laptops can do what a computer the size of a house used to do," he said.

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