Leave it to The Economist to call squeezing office space “pressed suits.” Not only is office space becoming more open, it is becoming less personal. Mobile workers and the fact that 50% of all workers are not in the office at any given time, have led to no personal desk environments. In many offices, you show up and get assigned a desk for the day or morning. In at least one office in BBC London, there is a morning scramble to get a good desk. Like covered parking close to the building on an Arizona summer day, these spots are worth fighting for.
I think this trend is starting to swing too far in that direction along the pendulum and Google might agree. In their new office, each person gets their own space.
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Feeling a bit cramped? Blame management theory
April 5, 2014
“PROJECT gold” and “Project Nexus” sound like plans for bank heists or military assaults. In reality, they are the names for KPMG’s ongoing attempt to squeeze its 6,700 London employees into ever smaller spaces. Since 2006 the professional-services firm has reduced the number of offices it uses in London from seven to two. By the spring of 2015 everybody will be crammed into one building in Canary Wharf.
According to data from the British Council for Offices (BCO), an industry club, the average office tenant now uses around 11 square metres per worker, 35% less than in 1997. A new building in Ludgate Hill, in London’s financial district, will allocate just eight square metres to each employee. In many offices, rows of “hot” desks have replaced individual offices and even cubicles. “Nowadays it’s almost frowned on to have your own office,” claims Nick Wentworth Stanley, of i2 Offices, a big serviced property firm.
Firms have long known that only about half of all desks are in use at any moment, as employees work odd hours or disappear to meetings, but it was difficult to fill the spares. Better IT systems now mean that people need not be tied to a particular desk. They need not even be in the office at all: as cloud computing and virtual offices take off, more people are working from home or from other places, further reducing the need for desks.
Aside from cheapness, there is a motive behind this squashing. Inspired by Silicon Valley, firms are trying to make their offices into “collaborative spaces”, where people bump into each other and chat usefully. KPMG’s redesigned Canary Wharf offices will include lots of “breakout spaces” where employees can relax, and quiet rooms where people can get away from hubbub, says Alastair Young, who is planning the move. He thinks this will both improve productivity and save money.
In this happy new world, offices are not just places to work but also a way of expressing corporate identity and a means of attracting and retaining staff. At the offices of Bain & Company, a management consultancy, inspirational quotes on walls help workers to identify with Bain’s brand, explains Sam Axtell, the company’s operations director. Games rooms and relaxing spaces help them “release alpha waves”.
This flummery has a practical consequence: it means more workers can be crammed into the middles of cities. Fewer firms now require suburban back offices, says Sandra Jones of Ramidus, a property consultancy. Between 2001 and 2012 the number of workers employed by large firms in Croydon, on the edge of London, declined by almost a quarter, to around 34,000. In Manchester and Birmingham, too, new office jobs have been created in rejuvenated city centres at the expense of suburbs. This may be one reason commutes are lengthening.
Not everyone is delighted by the rise of cramped hot desks. At Broadcasting House, the BBC’s new offices in London, a shortage of good desks has led to frantic morning scrambles. A manager at a financial firm in the City complains that since his firm redesigned its office, there are only enough phones for one between two. KPMG has seen crushes at lifts and in the canteen; the crowds have also put pressure on the air-conditioning system.
A modest backlash is under way, in an unexpected quarter. Google’s new offices in King’s Cross will have all sorts of collaborative space. But workers will still get their own private desks. Where that company leads, others tend to follow.