Density With Dignity

For over 10 years now professionals in the so-called “end user” community (directors of real estate and executives tasked with real estate issues) have debated ways to achieve a great number of workers in fewer square feet. The fact is having unused desks or large offices is tremendously expensive. When workers are on vacation, traveling or simply out for a doctor’s appointment the meter is still running on their office. Large offices and wasted spaces likewise can be huge costs for companies.

So the rather corporate name of “Alternative Workplace Strategies” surfaced as a euphemism for reducing the number of square feet per person. The 1990’s were all about squeezing the size of existing office configurations into ever-smaller footprints. Legions of consultants and brokers offered to help corporate America benchmark against competitor’s square footage and usage.

End users took the benchmarking studies to superiors as evidence of good real estate practices. Reducing cost was all the mantra and real estate leadership looked great by doing more with ever less.

Then about 5 years ago the new frontier of the “unassigned workspace” took hold. The idea is that the typical employee comes into work but doesn’t have a set office space. In effect, everyday employees reported to a kind of corporate Starbucks in which they could plug in their laptops and cell phones and go to work.

The Starbucks idea does work for some types of work styles and getting rid of wasted space is certainly a good practice. But we believe that the pendulum could be in the early phases of a swing towards the other direction.

This article in the Wall Street Journal (Goldman Sach’s New Palace Creates Princes, Serfs) published April 16th describes Goldman Sachs move to it’s new headquarters. The WSJ says “vice presidents, many of whom had offices before the move, now sit at open-space workbenches that in an earlier era would have been called a typing pool. They aren’t thrilled.”

As the economy recovers and labor become more competitive we wonder if some employers will use offices as a competitive weapon to recruit high value employees? Will highly compensated knowledge workers insist on more real estate as opposed to open-space or hoteling? In other words, we wonder if private offices will make a come back in certain industries for important rainmakers.

This will be an interesting trend to watch over the coming months. We will keep you up-to-date and report on contrarian users as we learn of them.

Ken Ashley

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