NEW YORK (MainStreet) – The average American worker is enjoying less individual workspace, but those shrinking cubicles aren’t necessarily a cause for alarm.

A report by the International Facility Management Association shows that individual workspace has declined considerably in the past couple of decades, with “professional technical” workers like programmers seeing their space decline from 90 square feet in 1994 to 75 square feet in 2010. Cubicles in particular are getting tighter, with the report citing a shift from 8’x8’ to 6’x7’ cubes.

At first glance the news may give the impression that corporate downsizing has come at the expense of working stiffs, as bosses squeeze their drones into increasingly smaller boxes to cut costs. But even the bigwigs are seeing their corner offices shrink, with middle management losing 20% of its office space over the same period and executives’ offices dropping from 289 square feet to a slightly more modest 246 square feet.

So what has happened to all that office space?

Shari Epstein, the IFMA research director who compiled the report, suggests the decline in individual space is attributable to new office layouts that emphasize collaborative space over individual desks and cubicles.

“It’s a difference in how space is laid out in a business,” she explains. “There is less individual space, but what has expanded is the amount of collaborative space [like] conference rooms.” Some of that space is also allocated to amenities like kitchens and office gyms, which should help ease the sting of having a bit less cubicle space to stretch your legs.

This shift toward a more open, collaborative office began in the late ‘90s, with the data – which is gathered via a survey distributed to IFMA members – showing a precipitous drop in individual office space between 1997 and 2002. And while the ping-pong tables and beanbag chairs that were emblematic of the dotcom-era have largely disappeared, it’s clear that this was the genesis of a new mentality toward office layouts that persists a decade later.


While many might welcome this shift away from worker bees sequestered in their individual honeycombs, it’s cold comfort to white collar veterans dismayed to see their offices and cubicles shrinking at the expense of another conference room. And some workers may have trouble staying organized when the walls close in and they have less room for their stuff.

But even a 6’x7’ cubicle is no excuse for being disorganized, says Karen Sladick, a workplace productivity expert and founder of the consultancy Organize 4 Results.

“The more space you have, the more spread out you become,” she says. “I think you can be real creative with the space you have.”

In other words, it’s not the space, but how you use it. And many people might just surprise themselves when they see how little workspace they need once their desk is clean and organized.

“Let’s get rid of the clutter – all those non-essential items on your desk,” she suggests. “When working on a task, you should only have the papers essential to the task in front of you.” The rest, she says, should go in a drawer, an overhead bin or in a so-called ‘tickler’ file, system that allows documents to be filed based on their to-do date.

Of course, if your shrinking cubicle is too much of an affront to your dignity as a worker, you can always leave for greener – and more spacious – pastures. But Epstein doesn’t think too many workers will quit because their cubicles got smaller, especially given that unemployment remains at 9%.

“Prior to 2008 you might have said ‘I don’t want to hang around here,’” she says. “Ever since, I think the thought is that it’s better to have a smaller space than to have lots of space at the unemployment office.”

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