Navigant Research Blog

Workspace of the Future: Less Space, More Workers

Noah Goldstein — June 9, 2014

Since the days of George Jetson’s sprawling desk at Spacely Space Sprockets, the concept of the “Office of the Future” has been the subject of much speculation.

Today, offices have shifted from the staid cubicle and corner office model to other dynamic layouts, with a myriad of names and flavors.  Open floor plans, where there are no cubicle-type walls, create a bullpen-like environment, with some senior staff located on the perimeter (see Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton Branch layout).  Hoteling is a process of “checking out” a desk on a first-come, first-served basis (though some spaces can be reserved a day in advance); employees’ personal objects are wheeled to the desk for the day’s activities.  Flex space, project-based configuration, and dynamic space all refer to space that can be reconfigured to suit collaboration and changing needs of employees on an hour-by-hour basis.  The new GSK building in the Philadelphia Navy Yard features “neighborhoods” where even the CEO can be found out in the open.

Closer In, Please

The driving force behind these new layouts is the urge to make workers more satisfied and efficient.  Other shifts, like the rise of telecommuting and wireless technology deployment, enable laptops to rise as the tool of the day.  Also behind the shift to new space configuration is the desire for companies to rent less space, thereby reducing operating costs.   All of these changes are driving some cascading impacts in the building industry.

First is the need for retrofitting space.  And with office retrofits come upgrades in lighting (and networked lighting), heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), and other space improvements.  Secondly, these changes have led to an overall increased density of people in offices, even with the new layouts.   This trend has been reported in Arizona and across the United States.  In 2013, Gensler reported that average square feet per person dropped from 225 to 176 from 2010 to 2012, and could drop to as low as 100 square feet per person by 2017.  A 2013 report by the British Council of Offices cites that in some buildings, worker density has risen from 12.5 square meters per workspace in 2008 to 9.6 per workspace in 2009, though the trend may be leveling off.

Is It Hot in Here?

One surprise leader in dynamic space is the United States’ real estate manager, the General Services Administration (GSA).  The GSA has recommended freezing the size of the U.S. government’s real estate footprint and has touted its newly renovated headquarters in Washington, D.C., as supporting more than twice the number of employees than it did pre-renovation.

What do denser spaces mean?  While the cost per square foot is an easy win for tenants, there are other impacts that may be challenging for building energy mangers.  With denser space comes the need for differentiated lighting and air conditioning.  More people and laptops per square foot can trigger more cooling.  While many buildings already operate with HVAC systems well over capacity, the new changes in density can lead to challenges in tuning a building to its needs.   All of these changes will make the jobs of energy and facility managers more challenging.  That said, more advanced and portable tools are now available in the market.   While it is evident the office of the future will be no single layout, the needs and comfort of tenants will always be dynamic, making intelligent building management ever more important.

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