By Jeff Revoy
Chief Operations Officer

Ever wonder why there are different ticket classes when you fly? It’s because space is scarce on an airplane and people are willing to pay for it. You can buy an economy ticket for $600 and sit with your knees pressed against the seat in front of you. Or, you can fork out another $300 for a first-class ticket with room to sprawl. Employee workspace sizes ascribe to the same concept.

There are guidelines governing average office space per employee. Sure, you can pack people in economy-style or give them a first-class experience. But there are tradeoffs to both. It’s better to find a happy medium—the average amount of space employees need to work comfortably.

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Why space-per-person matters

There are many different ways to look at commercial real estate. Most businesses take a financial approach—total square footage vs. lease cost. Increasingly, facilities managers look at space type vs. utilization to determine the best space use. The problem is, these viewpoints look at the value of space, not its relationship to the people using it.

One of the most important—and often overlooked—space metrics is space-per-person, also called personal Usable Square Footage (USF). It’s the measure of how much space an employee needs to work comfortably and productively. When facilities managers understand USF, they can effectively design workplaces made up of welcoming spaces.

Given the right amount of space, it takes workers less time to transition into different areas of an agile environment. Productivity comes more naturally. Employees don’t need to adjust to their workplace; it’s always ready to accommodate them.

How much office space is needed per employee?

Recognizing the office space requirements per employee involves looking at the type of workspaces you currently have. According to a landmark report by Gensler in 2012, Workplace Standards Benchmarking, the amount of USF employees need depends on the work they do. Moreover, there’s no single data point per employee type—rather, a scale to determine minimum and maximum USF levels.

Here’s a profile of eight different fields and the USF benchmarks identified by the Gensler study:

  • Call center: 50 to 175 USF
  • Technology: 115 to 155 USF
  • Finance: 110 to 245 USF
  • Engineering: 150 to 185 USF
  • Law enforcement: 100 to 240 USF
  • Social services: 175 to 235 USF
  • Biotech and science: 125 to 410 USF
  • Legal: 245 to 525 USF

This data illuminates several important findings for facilities managers, specifically how to delegate personal USF across a floor plan.

  • The less mobile the workforce, the less USF employees demand. Call center employees spend their days at a desk on the phone, much in the same way technology and finance employees spend time in front of a computer or doing heads-down work.
  • Often, the average USF delegated to employees is less than the mean. This hints at the tendency of some industries to conserve personal USF—most often to make way for more collaborative space, as evidenced in the Gensler report.
  • The range of USF per employee presents scalable opportunities to either increase USF per person when space is available or shrink USF as companies bring on more employees.

The most important takeaway is that there isn’t a magic number when delegating personal space per employee. It depends on the field, type of work, and broader workplace floor plan. A call center employee doesn’t need as much space as an engineer because their daily work capacity doesn’t demand it. Likewise, the average office square footage in a biotech lab is likely much more than a financial firm.

Industry benchmarks, total square footage measurements, and workspace demand types ultimately drives work area sizes that keep people comfortable and productive.

Give people their space

Packing people in may reduce the amount of space you’re leasing, but it’ll create friction and kill productivity. Letting people spread out comes at the expense of a heftier lease, but you’ll get more options in the spaces you create. How do you want to pilot your company? Beyond economy vs. first-class concepts, remember that there’s a happy medium: business class. It’s the right amount of space someone needs to stay comfortable and content.

Keep reading: 9 Workplace Trends You Should Embrace.

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