July 05 2003 – Current Office Space per Worker

When architect Paul Purcell designed Melbourne offices in the early 1980s, he typically allowed 20 square metres per person. Late last decade, it fell to about 15 square metres.

Lately, Mr Purcell, an associate director of commercial architectural firm Bates Smart, has generally allotted only 10 square metres for each worker.

The shift is part of a subtle but widespread space squeeze changing the nature of Melbourne office configurations.

In essence, while Melbourne’s total office supply and workforce have recently expanded, figures show the amount of space occupied by each company is, on the whole, shrinking.”

Even with the legal firms there is a tendency to go to one-size-fits-all,” Mr Purcell says. The property sections of legal practices, for example, are more likely to move “towards more of an open environment” than other sections, he says. Figures from m3property strategists tell the story.

Mixing their own calculations with Melbourne City Council’s recent CLUE (Census of Land Use and Employment) data, m3property analysts found that the average gross area for each office worker had slimmed from 25.1 square metres in 1997 to 21.28 square metres last year – a total loss of 3.82 square metres a person.

In real terms, however, m3property national research manager Robert Buckmaster and commercial agents contend today’s personal space allotment is actually less than 10 square metres.

And for many workers there is still more rationalisation to be had, Mr Buckmaster says.”

I do think there’ll be some continued drift downwards,” he says.”

We’ve assumed that. But it will reach a point where people are occupied as efficiently I think for a number of organisations they’re at that presently.”

Workplace strategist Merryn Cholerton, group manager of MoveCorp Strategic Accommodation Solutions Group, says the reduction in space is not a negative for workers.”

There was a time in the ’80s that we put everyone into the same-sized workstation,” Ms Cholerton says.”

What we understand better now is that different people have different types of jobs and different types of requirements.”

She believes smaller work spaces are linked to a push towards greater equality within companies.”

Organisations started to change and people started to understand that the way that we structured our organisations was becoming less hierarchical,” she says.”

So in other words, instead of having one central point of power sitting at the top of organisations who was instructing people to do certain tasks, we saw the emergence of the knowledge worker with more autonomy and independence, and this led to flatter organisations.”

She says the shift encourages greater corporate productivity, as workers share more time and ideas with colleagues. Mr Purcell says that as part of the trade-off in personal space,most companies now devote more of the floor to common areas.

He says many modern designs incorporate focus rooms for collaborative work and team meetings, quiet rooms for individual, concentrated work and smaller team meetings, and breakout areas where staff can meet casually away from work areas.

Mr Buckmaster believes the lack of office space forced many companies to move out of the city or drive their space harder. “Between 2000 and 2002, the Melbourne market has been pretty tight so people wanting more space have been constrained in their choice and so haven’t been able to factor in a lot of space for expansion because the prevailing vacancy rate had been below 7 per cent,” Mr Buckmaster says.

Mr Purcell says another more basic reason is economics. Having fewer dedicated offices, for example, reduces fit-out and service costs such as wiring and air-conditioning.”

It’s very hard to give you a figure, but if it’s a more intensive office environment you might be up at $1200 per square metre; you could get that down to $800 per square metre in a more open environment,” Mr Purcell says.”

The other side of the coin is that because (these companies) are occupying less square metreage you might be reducing the total area by, say, 20 per cent, so there are significant cost savings there.”