Feeling claustrophobic? It’s the incredible shrinking office


By Kim Janssen

Does it sometimes feel like the office walls are closing in on you?

Are your co-workers all up in your grill, invading your personal space with their loud phone calls and increasingly sharp elbows?

Don’t call the psychiatrist just yet — your workspace may be shrinking, literally.

Chicago companies that slashed their square footage along with their workforce during the Great Recession have been hiring again for five years. But their office space hasn’t grown to match their expanded payrolls, data show.

“It’s certainly not unique to Chicago. Even with (economic) expansion, a lot of firms are continuing to take less space,” said Heidi Learner, chief economist with commercial real estate advisers Savills Studley. “They’re growing, and they’re growing their head count, but they’re taking less space than they have previously.”

Office employment in Cook County stands at just over 700,000, almost exactly where it was in early 2009, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But those workers are now squeezed into 2 million fewer square feet, according to commercial real estate information and marketing firm CoStar.

While the average square footage per worker has ebbed and flowed with the economic cycle, this time the “densification trend” is here to stay, Learner said during a recent speech to Chicago business leaders.

Tech firms, often mocked for their youthfully modish, tightly packed workspaces festooned with pingpong tables and sofas, are driving the trend. It reflects how mobile technology is reducing storage needs while untethering employees from the office and extending their workdays, replacing a 9-to-5 job with a “24/7 work-life blend,” according to Mesve Vardar, lead designer at office furniture firm Humanscale, which sells a popular sit/stand desk barely wider than a standard keyboard.

But stodgier professions like finance and law are getting in on the act too. They like the cheaper rents that a more efficient use of space affords. A 9 percent increase in office rents downtown and in the West Loop, where a lot of firms are relocating, over the last two years is reinforcing that message.

Law firms DLA Piper and McDermott Will & Emery are moving to smaller Chicago offices. And consultant Navigant is considering a similar move, according to Learner. Between them, the three firms aim to rid themselves of 160,000 square feet of space.

Jay Epstien, co-chair of DLA Piper’s global real estate practice, said that a “sea change in law firm space design” meant “God forbid, for some of our lawyers, actually open space, collaborative space … we’ll see if we get there, we’ll see.”

Even Morton Salt — whose 167-year-old business operating salt mines is the apotheosis of dull, repetitive work — has commissioned a hip new headquarters that ticks all the boxes of fashionable design.

Its new offices at River Point, under construction at 444 West Lake St., will replace 96,000 square feet of traditional office space at 123 N. Wacker Drive and space in Oak Brook with just 52,000 square feet. Workers formerly in private offices will move to open-plan seating but will get perks including a coffee shop and lunchroom. Glass-walled conference rooms and spaces for quiet work will be shunted to the middle of the floor plan, giving rank-and-file workers daylight and views of the river that are unobstructed by corner offices.

“My office now is bigger than my freshman year dorm room, and I hate it — it’s so inefficient,” said Matt Beliveau, Morton Salt’s vice president for human resources. For Morton Salt, the move to a denser office is part of a cultural change, he said.

“Often we talk about tearing down walls in an organization, but I need to literally tear down walls to bring people together to be more collaborative,” said Beliveau, who acknowledged some nervousness among his staff about a change that will see the average space per worker dramatically reduced.

“Collaborative space” can be a commercial real estate agent’s euphemism for noisy and irksome. Noise-canceling headphones are increasingly popular in many open-plan Chicago offices.

But Morton’s move to add more quiet rooms for work that requires concentration reflects criticism of previous generations of open-plan space, according to Carrie Hahn, a designer at architecture firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz. Office furniture companies are making more sound-deadening, felt-covered products, and space-deprived offices can mount a fabric hood to the wall that acts as an unenclosed partial phone booth, she said.

“The individual desk is getting so much smaller,” Hahn added. “Firms are trying to provide a variety of spaces instead.” Rather than sitting at a desk all day, that could mean constantly moving between a shared workbench, a small private room, and a larger, social space.

Large conference rooms with comfy overstuffed chairs can be replaced with smaller rooms equipped with smaller seats, said Humanscale’s Vardar, who touted the company’s “ballo” chair, a colorful plastic stool that looks like a mushroom from a Nintendo video game. Sitting on it is “reminiscent of being on an exercise ball,” she said. That tends to lead to shorter meetings, itself a form of space saving, she added.

Standing desks are also increasingly in vogue. Though the desks are promoted as a healthy alternative to sitting — the “new smoking” — some office managers privately admit that they’re also popular with bosses because they take up less space.

If it all sounds a little strenuous and claustrophobic, smaller offices don’t necessarily mean grumpier workers, according to Todd Burman, who recently oversaw his company’s move into what it hopes will ultimately be a denser workplace.

The Vitality Group, a Chicago-based business that designs wellness programs for other firms, recently revamped its offices at 200 West Monroe St., in an attempt to practice what it preaches about healthy workplaces, said Burman, the firm’s director of quality assurance and risk. Its new office includes sit/stand desks, as well as treadmill desks, shared desks and phone booths for private conversations, as well as a kitchen where free breakfast is served. It also moved individual offices to the center of the floor plan to let more daylight in.

As the firm grows, Burman said, Vitality expects that the space per worker will be “dramatically going down” compared to its old office.

“But they’ll be healthier and happier too,” he said.


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Thumbnail credit: Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune

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