Corporations are downsizing, but not in the usual dreaded sense of the term. Today, more and more offices are revamping their real estate and electing to do away with the traditional workplace concepts of walled-in offices and rows upon rows of over-sized, high-paneled cubicles. Taking their place are open floor plans, condensed multi-functional workstations with low-panels (if any), and plenty of communal space for employee interaction. And both designers and manufacturers alike say the trend is here to stay.
Undeniably, the greatest influencer on modern corporate design is continuing technological improvement—such as the growing prevalence of Smartphones, virtual conferencing, and virtual private networks (VPNs)—which has allowed employees to push the limits of the office further into virtual realms. Now staying connected, even while away from the workplace, is easier than ever. But with the lines between the home and office blurred, companies are recognizing that there is less need to designate large amounts of private space to staffers.
“There’s a new realization (and research shows) that we’re only in our workstations about 35 to 40 percent of the day…and it’s not just the Intels and the IBMs of the world doing this kind of work,” says Steve Delfino vice president of corporate marketing and product management for Teknion, an international designer, manufacturer, and marketer of office furniture. “We must ask, ‘Why are we dedicating so much space to someone who isn’t in their office all that much?’”
As such, square footage and how much space is being allocated is now being scrutinized on every client project, according Mark C. Hirons, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, principal and design leader of corporate interiors for OWPP/Cannon Design in Chicago. “The value and the functionality aspects [of workstations] are being challenged to make sure that the individual can be the most effective possible. Its looking at the aspects of what the person needs to do and how the workstation responds to what they need to do,” Hirons says.
“Although there are no hard statistics on average workstation size, [we] have seen a downward shift in cubicle size over the past few years,” says Terry Carroll, market intelligence manager for Jasper, Ind.-based office furniture manufacturer Kimball® Office. According to research from the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), private office space has decreased steadily in size since 2002. Senior management offices shrank approximately 13 percent, while professional offices are up to 15 smaller. Carroll notes that the average cubicle size has been reduced from 8 ft. by 8 ft. two or three years ago to today’s more common 6 ft. by 6 ft. workstations.
Multipurpose is the now name of the game, and the challenge for designers, as workstation layouts now need to make the most out of every square inch of real estate, which includes, “filing cabinets we’ve added drawers to use space that you couldn’t in the past. We layer open workspace over cabinets so you’re able to stack and store things you couldn’t in the past. We’re adding things like heavy cushions that can function as a seat, as well,” Delfino says.
From tall to small
In addition to reduced size, workstation panels are also coming down in height, creating less privacy and more open space, at an exponential rate. “The migration of people from private, closed-door offices to workstations providing standing-height privacy took more than a decade. But in only a few short years, we have seen a shift from 66-in. height to 51- to 42-in. height workstations,” says Delfino.
Sustainability is a big contributor to this trend. Interior openness allows for more natural light to permeate through the space, resulting in increased energy-efficiency with a decreased need for harsh overhead lighting. Plus, according to, Hirons, studies have shown that people are more comfortable—and therefore more productive—with the presence of natural light.
Collaboration by design
But what’s now being realized is that smaller workstations with shorter panels, combined with more communal spaces, are also leading the way for increased communication in the office, meaning design is now the medium for not only where we work but how. “The smaller and more open a workstation, it seems, it encourages us to collaborate,” says Delfino. “Collaboration always happened by chance, and now it seems we are trying to make that happen by design.”
As a greater blending of generations in the workforce plays into the typical employee mix, a more team-based, collaborative mindset is evolving as the norm. “I’d say that openness is certainly a result of the socialization aspect of social networking, more so than any other previous generation, and that’s actually a driver too,” Hirons says. “Younger employees are making friends and connecting with people more…Firms are seeing that [openness] is a great way to promote retention and recruitment. It’s a huge opportunity for positive moral.”
Brigitte Preston, principal of Dallas-based Lauck Group feels that the shift is a positive one and sees a direct correlation between the shift from private space to public space and the shift from the status quo to the mobile worker. However, while she believes mobile worker support is what designers should be looking at when designing a workspace, Preston also notes not everyone may necessarily be ready to make the change.
“I’m not sure that people really understand it, and I’m not sure companies are really ready to go there now. The older generations are used to having their own territory and more private space,” she says. “Any worker with a laptop and a cell phone is technically a mobile worker, but whether that mobile work is properly supported by the company is the issue. There’s this culture shift that needs to take place that hasn’t fully yet.”
Despite Preston’s apprehensions, it seems the demand for improved, smaller workstations is in full swing. Organizations are increasingly opting for open floor plans in order to encourage and support collaboration and teamwork, and according to the 2005 study “Global Workplace Trends: A North American and European Comparison,” the ratio between individual and collaborative space should have increased from 80/20, respectively, in 2005 to 60/40 this year.
“For this reason, it’s extremely important, and challenging, for interior designers to understand workers needs, and design spaces to effectively meet the requests of the workers who will occupy the space,” says Carroll. There are pros and cons to both private offices and open-plan environments, but more and more companies seem to favor open, collaborative spaces.”
Will the day ever come when workstations will be eliminated entirely? Preston doesn’t believe so, as she feels employees, even mobile ones, will always need some sort of office to come to. However, change is inevitable.
“I see the footprint shrinking, technology supported more, and solutions that can evolve over time so you can go from something more traditional to something more edgy like benching. The panel systems are definitely on the out,” says Preston, who dubs herself the biggest panel hater in the world. “There’s this paradigm with the furniture manufacturers where some time in the future you’ll see a shift toward more innovative materials and designs, such as fewer legs, more cantilevered and more unsupported spans of space.” Such innovations may be more sustainable, look better, and allow for better client branding.
Unfortunately, no one can tell for sure what the office of the future will finally look like when all is said and done, but designers and manufacturers agree that we’re are already on the cusp of a new era of style—one that incorporates sustainability, social interaction, and flexibility to ensure the workstation evolves into a long-standing viable solution for years to come.