Linear equations are no longer enough to determine the size of offices

In 2013, the US Census Bureau announced that the official human population of the Earth had exceeded 7 billion for the first time. This provoked people to raise concerns that were couched in Malthusian pessimism. Although people might have assumed we’d left behind this kind of flawed thinking, there is obviously something appealing about the idea that exponential population growth is unsustainable when resources increase only in arithmetical terms. We’ve got a problem but what we should have learned in the two centuries since Thomas Malthus first popularised the idea is that there are complex factors that can influence the resources we need to survive, not least in terms of greater efficiency in the way we produce them. A similar debate is also apparent in the way in which the commercial property market is able to offer the right sort of buildings for modern organisations.

It’s always been a complex equation. But the accelerating pace of change in technology and working practices is making things extremely challenging. The major complicating factor here is how to square off a relatively fixed resource like a building with the demands of its occupants which can change from day to day. Add in the need to keep costs down and you are left with a heady mix that drives organisations to sweat more out of their assets. But within limits.

We know anecdotally that the occupational densities of offices in Western economies have been increasing dramatically over recent years. The nearest we have to an official figure comes from the  British Council for Offices (BCO) who reported in 2009 in its Specification Guide that the average occupational density of a British office had increased by around 40 per cent since 1997 and they were probably being cautious. The broad thrust of these numbers are confirmed in the 2014 update to the Guide which uses well researched and current data, to suggest that worplace density in the UK remains in the range of 8-13sqm NIA per workstation.

These figures hide another layer of complexity because they are not based solely on the number of people who work nine to five in a fixed place in an office,  but on a new idea of the office as a base to work from for an increasingly mobile workforce.

The past few years have seen structural changes in the way firms design and manage their workplaces, away from a simple model towards something far more sophisticated. Time is no longer a fixed element that determines the way we use space. It has become a variable and that has changed everything. As always, it is technology that has been the catalyst. The mobile workforce is a consequence of the mobile technology it uses. Even for office based employees, something as mundane as flat screens have been  a force for change by shrinking workstation footprints by around a fifth. The most obvious manifestation of this has been the dominance of the bench desk as the core element of an installation.

But increasing the occupational density of a building is not just an interior design issue. One of the major implications of change is the impact it has on a building’s infrastructure. When you increase the number of people in a given space it inevitably has a major effect on the specification of the building. Toilets have to be specified accordingly, environmental systems, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical systems, escape routes, all must be dealt with intelligently. One of the biggest challenges comes when dealing with these issues in buildings that have been designed for the past, that foreign country where things are done differently.

As well as the inevitable time lag in the property sector, health and safety legislation is also playing catch-up. When it comes to providing a productive working environment in terms of air quality, most of the existing regulations are related to now dated models of space allocation. So most guidance is based on the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) regulations of the same year. Both have been outmoded by changes in planning models even if their basic precepts about providing a comfortable and productive working environment are still as valid as ever.

One other aspect of working culture that is likely to act as a brake on the relentless increase in occupational densities is that of personal space. Already we are seeing signs that we may be at the limit of  people’s tolerance for the presence, smell, sight and sound of other people. Hence the growth of interest in the subject of proxemics, even if it’s rarely referred to as that.

Fortunately we can put figures on the point at which the proximity of our fellow humans becomes an issue, although we might question whether organisations are taking much notice. The father of proxemics is cultural researcher Edward T Hall, who claimed that people typically have up to three zones of comfort. These are dependent on the level of intimacy with the other person, and are classified as ‘intimate’, ‘personal’, ‘social’ and ‘public’. The one generally employed at work is social and is actually measurable at between 1.2m and 3.5m.

The impact of invasion of personal space in any situation is a real one. It has potentially very negative consequences, not least of which is an increase in anxiety levels. Think how it feels when someone is stood over your shoulder watching you work, or if someone sits too close on public transport. It’s not something that anyone would want to form as part of their daily working routine, even if they could draw comfort from the fact that their employer was saving a lot of money by forcing them shoulder to shoulder with colleagues.

Any changes to the way that space is used must focus on the way people react to them. It can very quickly become counterproductive when, by saving money in one way, we make people unhappy and uncomfortable. The sophisticated space planning models and design principles that are now available to us mean that we need never compromise on creating workplaces that are able to strike the right balance between all the factors needed to make them a success.