By Bruce Wolfgram
Should it lower cubicle walls or eliminate them altogether? Should it implement "teleworking" (working from home) or "hotelling" (where staff no longer have their own office but instead reserve a generic workstation ahead of time if they wish to come into the office that day)?
Proponents of these initiatives, often supported by furniture manufacturers, proclaim it's not about the cost savings, but rather staff's increased productivity and heightened morale, since employees are more empowered and can work more collaboratively and effectively with their co-workers.
Not so fast.
A 2008 report in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management concluded that open-plan environments result in many problems, including the loss of privacy and identity, health issues, social overstimulation and low job satisfaction.
"People who are seated closely together in an open-plan work environment may suffer from physiological or psychological reactions such as stress, fatigue and increased blood pressure levels," reported Vinesh Oommen, a senior project officer for the Queensland University of Technology. Workplace experts have even come up with a term to describe this new phenomenon: "sardine rage."
So why are some companies taking the plunge and veering headlong into the "shrinking office" mindset without fully understanding the long-term consequences? Some would say the answer is simple: the financial savings are immediate and clear. Depending on how far senior management decides to go, a company can cut its overall office workspace by 25 per cent or more. It's difficult to pass up such savings, especially during down years when employees should just be happy they're employed.
For some companies, shrinking an employee's workspace or eliminating it altogether may be acceptable, especially for consulting companies where staff spend much of their time outside their own offices. But even then, companies must be cognizant that staff are still human beings. We all require some amount of attachment and a feeling of belonging in our professional as well as our personal lives.
Researchers are beginning to see increasing employee detachment in some companies who have cut their office sizes in half, or have implemented teleworking and mandatory hotelling. Shrinking workplaces have also, by definition, reduced the area available to an employee to personalize their space. In many such workplaces now, personal objects such as potted plants and family photos are banished. Employees have traditionally regarded their workspace as a "home away from home," a retreat and a space that symbolizes their status and marks their territory. To date, very little study has been undertaken with respect to the human resource consequences of shrinking workspaces.
Common gripes of an open-plan worker include incessant noise from nearby conversations or phones, unpleasant odours from others' meals and snacks (and sometimes from other workers themselves), overstimulation with too much going on, lack of personal space for coats, bags and other possessions, lack of privacy and a feeling of being watched.
In order to win back the non-believers of open workspaces, some companies are attempting to introduce more personal space away from the desk. Breakout areas, kitchens, outdoor decks and barbecues are some examples. However, Mr. Oommen argues that this is not an adequate tradeoff.
"It is very silly to have a huge tea room and a huge reception or chat area when your employee is working in such a small space where they hardly can find any space to keep their office bag."
What most firms desire more than anything is to have office space that helps recruit and retain the best employees. Who wants to work for a company that puts you in 40 square feet?
Bruce Wolfgram is vice-president of tenant representation at Primecorp Commercial Realty Inc.