Market Insight: Guest Articles The Evolving American Office by Allsteel
August 2007

As Technology Enables, Costs Increase and Budgets Decline, the Modern Workspace Gets Smaller…and Smarter

Corporate tightening of the proverbial budgetary belt has affected more than the bottom line in the American workplace.

Ongoing opportunities to leverage technology, along with pressures to reduce real estate costs, energy and waste have reshaped the way 21st-century offices are designed, run and occupied.

“What we think of as the workplace has evolved over the last 30 years in some pretty interesting ways,” notes Kelly Sterk, Workplace Research Manager for office furniture manufacturer Allsteel Inc. “Granted in several of the physical and behavioral aspects at which Dilbert pokes fun, we seem to have changed very little, but we’ve actually come through a number of fascinating workplace shifts that reflect what’s now possible—given that technology allows us to work anytime and anywhere—and has ushered in a “networked” model for communication styles vs. the old “assembly line” model.”

“In the last several years we’ve seen a significant shift in how and where people work, which in turn has also shaped space allocation in the modern office. The last recession seemed to really catalyze many companies’ focus on both finding greater efficiencies and enabling their staff to work smarter,” he continued.

Collaboration Shapes Design

While the long-standing migration of staff from private offices to open plan continues, the most recent significant shifts are in the proportion of space assigned to individual work areas vs. group activities, and the size of those individual areas.

Allsteel researchers and others have long observed that in many cases individual offices or workstations are unoccupied for up to 40 percent of the day. During this time, workers instead congregate in conference rooms, teaming and training areas, informal gathering spots, and alternative worksites to confer, strategize and conduct work in a more fluid, less-hierarchical way.

“Companies have found a growing need to create dedicated space for learning and collaboration—formal and informal, planned and unplanned,” Sterk says. “Designing for group work has firmly taken root in the American workplace.”

Private, closed-door offices and conference rooms are giving way to more free-flowing environments conducive to team brainstorming. Office design also now takes advantage of public spaces where employees tend to gravitate and assemble—the proverbial “water cooler,” whether the space is a fax/copier station, a break room or cafeteria, a library, or even waiting areas, such as the space outside elevator banks or the lobby.

“Companies have recognized the importance of these spaces as locations for informal, short-term collaboration,” Sterk says. “In fact, many executives have begun to realize that’s how the majority of tacit information is passed along amongst workers. There’s a lot of value in water-cooler talk. Why not provide areas to facilitate it?”

Offices Shrink in Size

While collaboration and teamwork are important and help drive the way companies do business in today’s competitive marketplace, studies show that 65 percent of work performed by office workers is still being done independently. Further, a recent independent survey of organizations by Allsteel reveals that more than half (56 percent) of respondents indicated they currently have non-dedicated workspaces at their headquarters or central campus locations. The traditional 1:1 ratio of workstations to workers is very likely a thing of the past for many organizations.

Simply put, the ubiquitous cubicle is a long way from becoming extinct. It is, however, getting smaller.

While cubicles vary in size (some as large as the private office they might be replacing), recent research conducted by Allsteel shows only about 16 percent of workers now occupy 10' x 10' or larger cubicles. Today’s workforce is more frequently assigned to 8' x 8' or 6' x 8' spaces.

Those 8' x 8' workstations—depending on the depth of worksurfaces—can provide three-sided, U-shaped stations. 6' x 8' are almost always two-sided, L-shaped stations. In both cases, storage is usually provided by drawer cabinets (called pedestals) under each end of the U or L, and overhead shelving cabinets hung above or on sides of the cubicle.

Clutter Challenges Usable Worksurface Space

Larger workspaces don’t necessarily mean more organized “stuff,” however. The challenge of storing everyday office clutter—computers, printers, piles of files, books, supplies and other accoutrements of daily office living—may take up an even greater proportion of the surface in someone’s station.

Interestingly, only about one-fourth of an office worksurface ends up being used for tasking. The remainder is consumed with not only paper and files but also computer equipment and related peripherals.

“The increasing use of electronics means workers need more places to plug in and store these devices,” according to Yana Adamichina, Allsteel Product Business Manager. “They still need a place to store their files and supplies even if they are working in a condensed space.”

The big question is: If your stuff was more organized, and you could get it off your desk, could you work effectively with less work space?

Furniture manufacturers are responding to this goal. One such response, Allsteel’s Reach™ integrated storage, tackles office clutter efficiently, cost effectively and ergonomically.

Reach cabinets replace (consolidate, really) those traditional overhead cabinets and pedestals with a single wall’ of storage that also replaces the panel to divide space, while providing increased storage capacity and space effectiveness to individual workstations—all at arms’ length. It provides storage that doesn’t just hang on the panel wall. It is the wall. This design uses vertical space more efficiently by also using the space between the worksurface and the underneath of the overhead cabinets, and means less square footage, less clutter and less effort, in an 8' x 8', or even a 6' x 8', configuration. Employees will have more-than-sufficient storage space and more effective worksurface, even in a smaller workstation.

Adamichina points out that it all results in better organization. “As you consolidate traditional storage into this Reach cabinet, freeing up knee space under the desk and eliminating the overheads protruding into one’s space, the workstation feels so much more open, and people are more comfortable and can get more organized. The workstations feel much more spacious and user-friendly, even if they are smaller. We’ve found that smaller workstations provide all the storage the larger size did and then some; but don’t feel any smaller.”

Case in point: A 6' x 8' Reach workspace, compared to a traditional 8' x 8' station provides nine percent more storage per unit, while improving density by 33 percent—potentially saving thousands of dollars each year in real estate costs. The savings are greater in a smaller space.

“Consider the savings when you compare a typical 8' x 8' station to another Reach size—a 6' x 6' station,” Adamichina says. “Instead of using, for example, 17,000 square feet of real estate, you’ll need only 10,525 square feet for the same number of workstations. Use half of this extra space for group spaces, like project teaming, gathering, eating or other social areas. Use the other half to add 48 more people to your staff.”

Or, if you prefer, give half back to your landlord and immediately cut costs. Over a typical 10-year lease, an average rate of $24 per square foot, it’s possible to save $4,800 per employee.

“A shrinking workplace doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” Sterk concludes. “If it’s planned carefully and executed smartly, it can save money and actually be even more efficient and functional than larger, showier, yet less-well-thought-out, spaces.”

For more information regarding the shrinking office, as well as a host of other workplace solutions for the office, visit

About the Author

Rose Young
Young Office Solutions
Two Embarcadero Center #440
San Francisco, CA 94111
p. 415.399.5302
f. 415.399.5301
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