Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Cramming Them In
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, October 1, 2019 --
Americans workers tolerate crammed conditions at the office while demanding enormous living spaces at home.
Anyone who has experienced office work over the past decade will be familiar with one of two scenes: The old-fashioned soul-sucking cubicle farm, popularized in the 1970s and 1980s, features a grid of fabric-covered 5-foot-tall partitions dividing individual or shared work areas. The currently more fashionable variant is the open office layout, with arrangements of desks or tables crammed together surrounded by brightly painted walls and walking corridors.
Both arrangements have their flaws, but one of the biggest disadvantages of open offices are private phone conversations. Nobody wants to hear their neighboring coworker's conversation with their doctor about draining a cyst. This problem has inspired crazy solutions. Case in point: a startup called Room sells a $5000 ventilated phone booth with an integrated desk and 34 x 36 inches of private work space.1,2
The cubicle wall doesn't provide quite the same privacy as a phone booth, but it at least provides some barrier. Debate has long ranged between those who prefer the privacy and concentration offered by cubicles and private offices vs. the "buzz" and collaboration promised by open office. Yet the myth of collaborative advantage was shattered by a 2018 study that found that open offices actually reduce collaboration compared to cubicle farms.3 Shocking as it may seem, the study found co-workers are sometimes considerate of one another. Realizing their colleagues have no privacy, they are actually less inclined to interrupt them to talk in an open-office layout.
Another key difference between the two models -- cost -- has always tipped the scales in favor of the open office. Open offices allow employers to cram more employees into the same floor space, yielding increased savings on real estate. So even if open offices foster a less collaborative work environment, companies press forward to save money. Nowhere was this trend more pronounced than in the wake of the Great Recession, when companies focussed much energy on cost-cutting. From 2010 to 2012, the average office space allocated per American worker declined from 225 square feet to 176 square feet, according to CoreNet Global, a commercial real estate data firm.4 Back then, CoreNet predicted that the trend would continue, with companies devoting fewer than 100 square feet per worker by 2017.
That didn't happen. More recent numbers from Work Design Magazine show the trend has stalled. Like CoreNet Global, they agree office space per person in 2012 stood at 175 square feet per person and continued to decline until it bottomed out at 123 square feet per person by 2016. Since then, it has inched up slightly, reaching 131 square feet per person in 2018.5
Part of the explanation for the halt in decline in office space per worker is the rise of work from home arrangements as well as contract work by people who never come into the office. This has fueled the rise in co-working spaces like WeWork (with a dubious business model that led to a recent IPO cancellation) that has certainly influenced the market. If fewer people show up to the office, that leaves more space for others.
But even if office space per worker has stopped declining, it doesn't represent a good status quo. 131 square feet represents a square of just 11.5 feet by 11.5 feet, and this per-person allocation includes the common spaces like the lobby, conference rooms and the office kitchen. The actual work space allocated to individual work stations is far smaller. Why do office workers tolerate such cramped conditions?
The simplest explanation is that American workers don't much care -- they may not like being crammed in with their colleagues, but not enough to demand more space at the potential expense of salary and other benefits. But this is surprising given Americans' near-obsession with having larger private living spaces.
In the past 40 years, the size of new homes sold in the United States skyrocketed from 1,525 square feet in 1973 to 2,467 square feet in 2016, with inflation-adjusted costs going up proportionally with the square footage.6 When you account for the declining household size over the same period, the amount of living space per person in these new homes nearly doubled from 551 square feet to 1,058 square feet.7
This trend may be surprising to elitist millennials jammed in to apartments in crowded coastal cities, but it is an important reminder that most Americans live in the interior of the country. In these areas, America remains a pretty big place filled with large cars and even larger houses.
Why are Americans willing to pay twice as much money to double their living space, yet are willing to settle for huge declines in personal space at the office? Given that American office workers spend nearly half their waking hours at work, you'd think the same demand for more space would apply at work as well as at home. Is having an extra closet to store giant bundles of toilet paper from Costco really more important than having a buffer to keep your co-worker from sneezing on you?
Perhaps that is where Room's new office phone booth workstation can come in. The booth manages to house a worker with just 8.5 square feet of personal office space, all the while protecting the worker from sneezes and disgusting medical phone calls from their neighboring colleagues. The added concentration provided by the solitude might increase productivity as well. Even considering the extra floorspace needed for bathrooms, hallways and a lobby, such microscopic offices might be able to cram workers into areas below 50 square feet per person. If the extra savings are passed on to workers as higher salaries (yes, unlikely but not inconceivable), Americans could have even more money to spend on bigger homes.
Here's a thought: By suffering just 40 hours per week crammed in a phone booth, Americans will be able to sprawl about in even more gigantic suburban houses. This could result in the realization of the modern American Dream -- the ability to buy and store even larger bundles of toilet paper from Costco.
1,Room.com, Phone Booth product page, as posted October 1, 2019
2.New York Times, The Phone Booth is Back, March 10, 2018