The Optics Of Office Space

OK, I’ve complained about this before but you know what?  Time to revisit from a different perspective.  Office space.  Space is at a premium and we cram more and more people into smaller and smaller spaces.  Is this the right thing to do?  Well, let’s talk some facts.

  • Emergency Exits.  The emergency exits in your building were designed with a certain load in mind.  A certain number of people.  If you increase the number of people on a floor you increase the load that the emergency exit needs to handle.  If everyone in the building does this, cram more people into the same amount of space, you may exceed the point where people can safely evacuate the building in a reasonable amount of time.  Essentially you are putting people’s lives at risk.
  • HVAC systems.  The heating, air conditioning, and plain old ventilation systems were built for a certain load.  If you increase that load by adding more people, more equipment, rearrange floors to accommodate more people, you may be introducing issues with regard to the building, but you may be introducing issues with regard to staff.  Poor circulation can cause issues with peoples health.  Poor air quality can decrease productivity by 3%.  So, another area where increasing the density is putting people’s health at risk.
  • Presenteeism is defined as “lost productivity that occurs when employees come to work but, as a consequence of illness or other conditions, are not fully functioning.”  This is from an evaluation done in Australia.  They say that six days per year are lost as a result of presenteeism due to high stress.  What causes high stress?  Working in cramped conditions.  High-stress cause health-related issues, therefore cramped working conditions lead to high stress with leads to putting people’s health at risk.
  • Employee/contractor attraction and retention.  If you could work at one business that gave you a larger space that you could call your own or work at another space where sardines have more breathing room than you, which one would you pick.  Organizations that have smaller footprints for office space than their competitors attract fewer employees/contractors than other organizations.  If you’re in demand, you go where the perks are and feeling the neighbour next to you breathing on your neck is not a perk.

So, more people in less space is bad for your health, your concentration, and your productivity.  So how much money are we saving by cramming people together?  Not nearly as much as you might think.  Let’s take current “standard” of 75 square feet.  Suppose we want to shrink it to 60 square feet.  That saves us 15 square feet per person.  This can add up but what’s the real cost.  I looked online and found space at Manulife and considered that a good benchmark.  Square footage at Manulife?  $3.74 per square foot per month.  Let’s round it up to $4.00 for calculations.  So, the 15 square feet we saved ended up saving $60 per month or $720 per year.

So, if the increased density causes any health issues (probability is high) and those health issues cause, oh, let’s say two days of absence in the course of the year, that wipes out the savings.  If decreased productivity wipes out two days of work per year, that also wipes out the savings.  If the stress, working conditions, etc., make someone leave the organization, that wipes out the current year and a number of subsequent years savings all to replace that person.

So what have we done by saving $720?  We’ve cost the ministry, the government and eventually the taxpayer, yup, that’s you and me, more money.  By “saving” money we are costing the taxpayers of Alberta four, five, six even ten times the amount of money that we are thinking.

So, why do we do this? Optics.  You can point to the money you spend on leasing and say “We’ve held the line even though we’ve grown in size.”.  It looks good.  Makes people think that they are doing the right thing.  The problem is that the costs for the ministries goes up as they spend more money trying to attract people, more moeny on benefits (sick pay), get less productivity out of every person they have and, unfortunately, need to high more people to make up for that lost productivity.  Oh, more people, time to fit more people into the same space.  And the endless sprial down into the black hole continues.


There is a solution, but it requires us to understand what problem we are trying to solve before we can come up with the appropriate solution.  Cost custing is a valid problem but more people in a smaller space does not lead to cost cutting.  It appears to lead that way, but like the saying goes “the way to Hell is paved with good intentions”.

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