Tips for Surviving the Incredible Shrinking Office

03/27/2015 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Last year marked the strongest year for hiring since 1999, but rather than expanding their offices, many U.S. employers have started fitting more employees into less space as they seek to reduce their real estate expenses and embrace the open-office model.

The average amount of space allocated to a North American office worker dropped from 225 square feet in 2010 to 176 in 2012, a decrease of more than 20 percent, according to CoreNet Global, a corporate real estate association. Businesses that were forced to reduce their footprint during the recession are now choosing to lease less space, even as their employee count returns to pre-recession levels, a trend that has ignited a debate over how small is too small when it comes to individual workspaces.

While employees may not be able to avoid cramped workspaces entirely, there are several steps they can take to cope with a small office:

  • Utilize common areas: As private offices have disappeared, conference rooms, lounges and other team-oriented spaces have become more common as employers seek to promote teamwork and collaboration in the workplace. While these breakout spaces are ideal for group work, they can also provide a retreat for employees who work elbow-to-elbow with their colleagues at desks or shared workstations.
  • Establish boundaries: In some open-plan offices, it's difficult to determine where one workspace ends and another begins. Adding a personal touch can not only boost productivity - a 2010 UK study of more than 2,000 office workers found that employees who were able to customize their office with plants and pictures were nearly a third more productive than their peers - but also help to separate individual work areas.
  • Take a break: Nearly 40 percent of "full-time" workers surveyed in a 2014 Gallup poll said they work at least 50 hours per week - 18 percent work 60 hours or more - so breaks are more important today than ever, especially with employees working in such tight quarters. DeskTime, a computer-based program that tracks productivity by labeling application usage as "productive," "neutral" or "distracting," found that employees achieve maximum productivity when they work 52 consecutive minutes, followed by a 17-minute break. In other words, the occasional coffee run may be exactly what employees need to stay on task and maintain their sanity.
  • Telecommute: In 2010, 13.4 million U.S. workers spent at least one day working from home, up from 9.2 million in 1997, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. And as suggested by the backlash against Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer for ending the company's popular work-from-home policy, telecommuting is only expected to gain popularity. While too much alone time can lead to feelings of isolation, a recent study by researchers at Stanford University and Beijing University found that home-based workers take fewer breaks and sick days than office workers, boosting performance by 13 percent. Workers who are easily distracted at home can explore home-office alternatives like shared office centers that give them the space and technology they need to get the most out of their workday.

If workers are unable to alter their physical workspaces, taking advantage of common areas and other "office alternatives," whether it be a shared office, home office or coffee shop, allows them to maximize flexibility and choose a space that best accommodates whatever task they're trying to complete.

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Frank Chalupa is president and co-founder of Amata Office Solutions, a Chicago-based real estate provider specializing in office solutions for companies requiring up to 10,000 square feet of office space.