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May 29, 2024 Truspace

The Densification Dilemma: Balancing Workspace Efficiency with Employee Wellness

Squeezing the most out of an office space is an idea we can get behind. However, recent trends toward workplace densification fall short—focusing on optimization at the expense of employee productivity and well-being. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic spun many offices into a dizzying shift to remote and hybrid work, it also brought a wave of densification. Naturally, fewer employees meant less space was needed. But, some offices shrunk with a bit too much gusto. Has the pursuit of efficiency compromised the heart and ethos of your workspace?

While densification can certainly save companies space and, in turn, boost their bottom line, the long-term drawbacks reveal hidden costs to consider. In this article, we'll discuss the draw to densification and how strategic and sophisticated work environments offer a spatial solution to overcome its downsides. 

The Evolution of Workplace Design

Robert Propst designed the first cubicle in the 1960s, hoping to accommodate dynamic work styles of the time; however, the popularized cubicle became seen as a small, personal prison. As leaders recognized the value of collaboration, they removed cubicle walls to create more open floor plans again. This began the rise of densification, where companies severely decreased individual office spaces and focused on connecting employees. Broad open workplaces, communal-use rooms, and less furniture to divide spaces meant companies could save on square footage and fit more employees in smaller spaces.

Economic pressures soared during the COVID-19 pandemic as many offices were stripped of their employees, running in uncertain circumstances, and wondering if their offices would forever be ghost towns. Many companies downsized in the face of unprecedented changes without much of a plan for re-expanding their in-person workforce in the future. Over time, it became clear that to keep everyone safe while offering the flexibility that employees had at home and with hybrid schedules—densification might just have to go. 

Decoding Workplace Densification: What It Means and Why It Matters

How Density is Calculated

Workplace density measures the square footage allotted to each full-time employee in an office. Since the total office space might include common areas, kitchens/cafés, and meeting rooms, this number won't necessarily represent the size of a desk or cubicle alone.

The Appeal of Densification

Many companies have turned to workplace densification to increase collaboration and spatial efficiency. For some, this meant removing cubicles, creating more common areas, and even communal work tables. Yet, the motivations behind office densification are layered. 

First, there's the culture of open office plans. Collaboration becomes seamless when employees have easier access to their peers, and the office environment infuses excitement and lively engagement. Next, there's saving on real estate. When employees get less space, your staff can occupy smaller offices. Lastly, densification can be innocently and even naively driven by the shrinking size of technology and office furniture. As computers become smaller and files go digital, the space one employee needs technically shrinks. 

The Limits of Densification

Reduced Personal Space

Packing employees into an office like sardines certainly has its downsides though. People inherently have a limit for how much proximity and social stimulation they can handle in a day, and deep-focus work needs to take place in a more private setting. In most cases, dense equals distracting. 

Diminishing Returns on Collaboration

For employees who struggle to focus in a bustling office space and for others who love the activity but simply need a break, densified offices can negatively affect group collaboration rather than improving innovation and productivity. Creating a variety of spaces with ample choices and accommodations is key to employee comfort and engagement. 

Decreased Employee Satisfaction and Retention

Increased tension in cramped quarters can ignite conflict between employees and lead to higher stress levels. If employees sense that they are 'free' to move but don't have anywhere to actually go, their job satisfaction will likely take a hit. On the extreme end, employees may even leave for an office environment more conducive to their best work.

Health and Safety Concerns

With closer quarters, health and safety concerns also arise. If we learned anything from the pandemic, it's that space to breathe—literally—is critical for preventing disease transmission and promoting wellness. 

The Case for Balanced Office Design

Why Incorporate Flexibility?

Overly dense and poorly designed offices struggle to accommodate a dynamic hybrid workforce. To accommodate employees' needs, a balanced approach to office design is key, one that accounts for effectiveness as much as it does efficiency. What is effective in one office or department may not be in another. This disparity highlights how spaces not only need to adapt once they're designed but also be customized at the start for the type of work and workers they need to facilitate

What's The Deal With Wellness?

Providing employees with the appropriate square footage can mean more than empty, wide-open spaces to wander. Intentional space use for movement areas, social spaces, and private workstations can increase comfort and promote healthy daily movement. Integrating biophilic design elements such as natural lighting, green plants, and natural textiles can add a sense of openness and relaxation, even in tighter spaces. Ergonomic furniture that employees can adjust, adapt, and move through their office space can also be a boon to workplace wellness. 

Can Smart Design Enhance Productivity?

The more fluidly employees can navigate their space—and the more they genuinely enjoy it—the more satisfied they are likely to be with their work and how enthusiastically they will contribute. Prioritizing thoughtful design that provides strategic private and public spaces rather than focusing on mere spatial efficiency, ensures long-term success and a vibrant organizational culture.

Adopting a balanced approach to office design is more than a trend. By focusing on designs that adapt to the workforce's needs, organizations can ensure that their investments in office space yield substantial returns in terms of employee health, satisfaction, and overall productivity. Truspace stands at the forefront of this movement, ready to guide businesses through the complexities of designing dynamic workspaces for hybrid workforces.

We’re here to help! Contact one of our consultants today to get started designing your hybrid workspace.

Published by Truspace May 29, 2024