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.
Jernigan's firm, Gensler, is designing offices that squeeze together workstations while setting aside a few rooms where employees can conduct meetings or have private phone conversations. Ideally, such designs create workplaces that are more efficient and pleasant while utilizing fewer square feet per employee.
Not that increased togetherness is always welcome, of course. People who talk too loud on the telephone can disrupt dozens of co-workers, some of whom might long for more personal space and privacy.
"We have a lot of people who spend full time here, and many of them like to have a place go to," the Gas Co.'s Fair said. "We need to recognize that."
The company gave employees a chance to comment on which type of new workstations they like best. Their feedback is still being analyzed. "If there are major red flags, we'll see what we can do," Fair said.
Nevertheless, the more compact, collaborative workplace is here to stay, industry observers said. Space is becoming less of a status symbol.
"A lot of people who grew up in workstations find it effective to manage out on the floor and have less need to be isolated in an office in order to show power and control," said Judy Caruthers of Jones Lang LaSalle, who helps companies plan their space needs.
More dramatic change is on the way, her colleague Miscovich said.
"We are just now becoming accustomed to the PC," he said. "It may take us another 30 years to fully engage and adapt with mobility, [but] the mobile Internet may be bigger than electricity as a technological advancement."