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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Shrinking office syndrome
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Keyboard - autocat

Businesses are squeezing more and more people into smaller offices. And the pressure on overcrowded personal space, at home, work and on public transport has never been more intense.

Does it feel like you're getting less and less space at work? Is that next-door desk now butting ever closer? Is it starting to feel like your office is taking part in a battery-farming experiment?

A report from a property company shows that companies are "sweating" their offices to get more people into less space. The research, carried out by Knight Frank, shows that the amount of floor space allocated per employee is being cut by up to a third.

"It's about maximising the usable office space, with much less wasted space, less luxurious reception areas, even down to the loo size," says Catherine Penman, head of research for Knight Frank.

The big driver for this is saving money - particularly in the places where office space is most expensive, such as London and the south east of England.

The report says that while companies might want to expand staff numbers, they're not providing more room - and that the amount of floor space left for staff is going to challenge "previously accepted norms".

Close quarters

"Companies moving into new buildings or refurbishing existing ones are occupying at significantly higher densities... and there is increasing anecdotal evidence that the trend is permanent," says the Knight Frank report.

Office scene (Autocat)
I used to sit so close to my colleagues I could actually smell them. Silly as it sounds, I actually remember secretly celebrating when the guy next to me decided to buy a new pair of shoes.
Ali, London

How much higher density? Maybe a third less space, but it also quotes an unnamed firm in the Thames Valley where 1,200 staff have about half the previous average floor space allowed per person.

This is being achieved by reducing the gaps between desks, getting rid of partitioned management cubicles, cutting down on meeting rooms and storage - as more and more people have to be crammed on to the floor tiles.

The diminishing office space also reflects the changes in how people are working.

"A lot more offices are using flexible working and hot desking," says Ms Penman. And if people are calling into their offices less frequently, they don't need to have as much desk space - allowing offices to shrink by 20% to 30%.

"It depends what industry you're working in... you might only be in the office 10 hours a week, the rest of the time you might be on the laptop or the Blackberry," she says.

And the report highlights the trend towards office workers no longer having fixed PCs, but instead having laptops, which they can take with them wherever they are working.

Rats in a sack

But for those still stuck in the office, cramming people in can have some very unhappy consequences.

Monkey office workers
In the animal kingdom overcrowding causes aggression

"In the animal kingdom, overcrowding leads to more aggression, more fighting," says Cynthia McVey, a psychologist at Glasgow Caledonian university.

In the human zoo of the office, she says people without enough personal space are going to get bad-tempered and defensive, feeling that their territory is under threat. They become the proverbial rats in a sack.

"Personal space is very important to us - and if it's invaded, if people come too close, it makes you feel very uncomfortable," says Dr McVey.

"If there is a personality clash between people at work, and there is enough space around them, it can be dealt with. But if they're sitting on each others' shoulders, you're much more likely to get aggression. They can get obsessed with the person who is annoying them," says Dr McVey.

Overcrowded open-plan offices, without the relaxation of any privacy, can make people feel insecure, she says.

"It can create a sense of nervousness, with people feeling that they're in direct competition with each other, always on display - and that leaves them feeling threatened," says Dr McVey.


The figures from the office space survey are "very illuminating and quite depressing", says Stephen Overall, spokesman for the Work Foundation think-tank.

laptop in airport
Airport lounge: People no longer need an office for work

There are sensible organisational reasons why businesses shifted towards open-plan offices, he says. But he fears that "shrinking office syndrome" is a long-term threat to the welfare and creativity of employees.

"Where you have offices with people cramped up against each other, jostling for desk space, with nowhere that is their own, where they're perpetually rootless - it's very hard not to see it as a step backwards," he says.

Apart from being a lousy way to spend a large part of your life, the Work Foundation warns that such overcrowding will be counter-productive for businesses wanting to improve productivity. "Employers should be very cautious about taking this too far."

In the type of jobs which require initiative and ideas, people need space for "solitude, thought and concentration," says Mr Overall.

Overcrowded lives

It's not as if there's a lot of space for everyone outside work. Overcrowding is part of modern living.

The Rail Passenger Council has warned about the adverse effects of overcrowding on commuter trains. But don't expect it to get much better, because Network Rail has just forecast that passenger numbers will rise by a third in the next decade.

Crowd going home from work
England is the fourth most densely-populated country in the world

And as a population, we're much more crowded than our European neighbours.

The UK has an average density of 244 people per square kilometre - compared to 192 in Italy, 109 in France and only 81 in Spain, claimed a survey from the Optimum Population Trust.

England, excluding the rest of the UK, is the fourth most densely-populated country in the world, behind Bangladesh, South Korea and the Netherlands, reported the population research organisation.

So with overcrowded roads causing road rage... and overcrowded shops causing trolley rage... overcrowded trains causing commuter meltdown... don't come too close.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What is worse is if you sit next to someone who blows his nose like a horn every 10 mins, and chomps on his food like a zoo animal....
Jon, Fenchurch Street

The running joke in our office is that the next thing they will do is have 'bunk desks' with little ladders that will take you to the top.
Christina, London

From my desk, if I reached my arms out to the side I'd touch the people sitting next to me, I can easily shake hands with the guy sitting opposite (without getting up). Battery farming is a good way to look at it. I get no chance to think. Oh well, best go home on a crowded tube and train!
M, London

Where I used to work I used to sit so close to my colleagues I could actually smell them (about 50cm away). Silly as it sounds, I actually remember secretly celebrating when the guy next to me decided to buy a new pair of shoes as his old pair had caused me several weeks of misery. It is worth noting that we are not talking about call centre workers here, but managers and highly qualified professionals.
Ali, London

It can be really depressing when you come in the morning and have no idea whether or not you'll have desk to sit at, let alone a computer to work on. Add a crowded office to the mix and you've got a disaster waiting to happen.
J, London

Our office has nine desks for 14 staff. It's hot desking on a first-come-first-served basis. If you don't get a desk when you arrive then you do some work that does not require IT. It has an effect on hidden costs such as sickness absence, stress and generally low production.
PL, Durham

I experienced this in my work space where we crammed three people into an office that was designed for two. There was noticeable competition and aggressiveness and it certainly affected my productivity.
Samuel, Isleworth

This morning on my way to work I was unable to get onto four buses because they were crammed to capacity with passengers. I have just been out to lunch and ended up walking around trying to find a shop where I could buy lunch without queing for twenty minutes. I am now sat at my desk competing for desk space with the guys sitting next to me. Is it me or is London becoming more and more overcrowded?
Guy Marcal, London

Sitting at my desk I can see 34 other people, that is 34 keyboards clacking and a potential 68 phones to ring - half of those with a potential for extremely annoying ringtones. I struggle to shut out the noise and concentrate. Some of my co-workers wear their iPods (adding a background hiss), I just go for ear-plugs - it works for me. I hate being in the office, but have no choice in my current role. If, in my office, we were to get less space it would be very uncomfortable indeed.
Clare, London

I am currently in an office with 16 other members of staff, not all in the same department, that used to be taken up by only five people from the same department. The office is mainly for IT staff, and they are supposed to be able to fix and build PCs as required, very difficult in the space we occupy.
Tracy, Scotland

Our offices tried reducing the amount of space per person. The air conditioning units couldn't cope with the increased heat (from PCs, monitors, people) so had to go back to normal desks. I pity the people where common sense didn't prevail!
John, Sheffield

I worked in a call centre where the cubicles were only just big enough to fit the computer, keyboard and phone terminal in. We were a paperless environment and therefore needed "no space to sit and write". As we had to "hot desk" we didn't even know if we were returning to the same desk after our tea breaks. Some offices are the equivalent of the industrial revolution factories.
Cecilia Weightman, Bristol

I envy the people who can only see 40 people, I'm on one of those football pitch sized trading floors and the noise of phones, mobiles, people shouting at each other really bothers me - more so I find as I get older. I work in IT so need time to concentrate on detail - very difficult. I think we totally underestimate the damage overcrowding has on our wellbeing.
Jools, London

I've worked for the same company for nine years. When I started, I shared an office with three others. It was bliss, looking back on it. Over the years my personal space has become less and less. We moved to partitioned open-plan arrangements a long time ago, but now, the partitions have also been removed, and along with them, all individual shelving, or places to pin up a memo etc. Now, although I'm in a much more senior position than I was in nine years ago, I occupy a desk that is 3ft 9 inches in length (I just measured it). That is my only space. My boss sits directly next to me - I can touch him if I reach out my arm. My job is 100% web-based, I commute 1 hours each way to get to work, have my own lap-top and am wi-fi connected at home. Yet I am still not allowed to work from home, even for one day a week, as my company does not want to 'set a precedent'. It makes me miserable because I like my job and don't want to leave. I just wish I had more control over my space and time.
Martha, London

Technology is helping to fuel this trend. For example, moving to flat screen monitors means that desks can be shuffled closer together allowing you to squeeze more desks into the same space.
Matt Daniels, London

Yes, the crowded office I work in, crowded house I live in and crowded transport networks I travel to work on depress me. What's worse is the mood of people these days. People are so angry and rude in the UK now and I am sure the overcrowing of everything here contributes.
Ashley Wilks, Cambridge

The managing director of our company keeps employing staff, but they are always desk-hopping in order to fit everyone in... when there's nobody off on holiday or ill then all hell breaks loose there's not enough desks or computers for the amount of employees.
SD, Kent

Well, we live in the 21st Century with high-tech communication systems, makes you wonder why we need to go to the office? It's all about trust. Employers do not trust employees, specially managers, that if they work at home they don't work. I will take every opportunity to work from home as it increases, not decreases, my productivity. But try telling senior management that.....mmmm...sort of Dickensian attitudes.
Bill, London

The Workplace Regulations 1992 require sufficient floor area and space for every room where staff work. The approved code of practice specifies a minimum space of 11 cubic metres per person. Contact the health and safety inspector at your local council to enforce this standard.
David Maynard, Stockport

The approved code of practice specifies a minimum space of 11 cubic metres per person. This includes toilets, restrooms, interview rooms, reception and storage areas and if you have high ceilings .... Once you factor all that in 11 cubic metres is not a great deal of space.
Jacqui, West Yorks

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