VOL. 127 | NO. 70 | Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Cubicles: Unintended Consequences
By Ron Riley
Finding ways to maximize office space isn’t really a new concept. After all, Dilbert has been parodying office life in and around the cubicle for more than 20 years.
But a recession has a way of challenging us all to do more with less and there may be no better example of that in commercial real estate than in the office sector, where there is a global trend toward allocating less square footage per person. Forty percent of respondents in a recent CoreNet Global survey project their office space per person will be 100 square feet or less by 2017 and a majority of respondents reported that they’ve already reduced space per employee by 5 to 25 square feet over the last five years.
While some argue that a driver of this reduction in office space is a desire to have more open floor plans to encourage collaboration, etc., we’d suggest economics plays the bigger role. In fact, when you consider shadow space, office space per person may actually have increased in some cases – at least in the short run – as many companies have fewer people working in the same space. As a result, despite the fact that we’ve seen an improvement in Memphis in office-related job growth, there will be a lag before we see any sustainable improvement in the office sector as companies back-fill some of the space that was vacated due to downsizing.
As companies ramp back up, they are likely to rethink an optimal office layout that is economical and work-efficient. On the one hand, an office provides more privacy and a haven from interruptions. On the other, while cubicles are not conducive for all types of jobs, work styles or even company cultures, they may provide an environment for greater collaboration and communication. However, there doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence about how office configuration impacts productivity. That may mean economics will again dictate just as it did when the cubicle was “invented” in the late 1960s by Robert Propst. Propst, by the way, didn’t call it a cubicle but an Action Office – and it wasn’t designed to reduce office space, but to be a more effective space where work could be spread out – with shelves and partitions where work-in-progress could be viewed.
Just as the recent recession has us in the “do more with less” mood, economics radically altered what Propst had in mind. First, it was certainly cheaper to take people out of traditional offices and put them into spaces – typically smaller spaces - that didn’t require real walls. But there was another economic benefit: depreciation. Accounting rules had recently shifted to allow office furniture and equipment to be depreciated over a shorter period.
Cubicles aren’t inherently evil. Dilbert simply epitomizes the unintended consequences of Propst’s original concept. But one size doesn’t fit all. Smart companies will always think more about what gets done in the space and less about how many people they can cram into it.
Ron Riley is senior vice president of office services for Colliers International’s Asset Services Group in Memphis.