The Square Footage Per Employee Debate: Quality vs. Quantity

Understanding square footage, density, and space estimations can seem daunting when you’re looking for a new workspace. The good news is you don’t need to be a real estate kingpin or a math whiz to determine the right amount of space for your needs; in fact, a little strategic thinking goes a long way. At Knotel, strategy and square footage are our bread and butter, so we’re here to help you with this primer on square footage, density, and productivity — and what they mean for your business.

The Propensity for Density

Density, or the amount of people per square foot, has been increasing over the years, meaning that across industries more people are being packed into less space. According to Cushman & Wakefield, average office space per employee fell to around 194 square feet in 2018. This tightening trend is also reflected in how companies use and engage with the workspace (modular furniture, unassigned seating, fewer private offices). With the possibility of a recession on the horizon, experts don’t expect the rise in density to stop any time soon.

Crunching the Numbers

Different markets report different findings on rentable square feet (RSF) and density. San Mateo County and New Jersey both report square footage (SF) per worker in the mid-to-high 200s, while cities like Seattle and Washington, D.C., average less than 135 SF per employee. More expensive markets (think NYC, San Francisco), understandably, have less space per employee.

But, as Cushman & Wakefield points out, the densification rate is actually more closely tied to the relationship between space supply and job growth than it is to price. Markets that have created additional office supply in recent years have densified at a slower rate, while a number of other markets with strong job growth have not kept up with the required new construction to meet demand. Understanding your market confers a big advantage in figuring out the realities of RSF.

Size Isn’t Everything

While increased density is the prevailing trend, it may not be the answer for everyone. No two companies and their workspace needs are exactly alike. Sure, there are optimal numbers and basic equations, but the key here, figuratively speaking, is to think bigger.

Reducing square footage per employee to save money is slowly taking a backseat to considerations about the overall effectiveness and flexibility of the workspace. Research shows that employees who have positive experiences at work are 50% more likely to rate their workspace as welcoming, and nine out of 10 people report that a good workplace experience translates to feeling more inspired throughout the work week. Having enough space to avoid feeling cramped is a key element in keeping those employees satisfied and productive, but it’s not the only consideration, or even the main one.

Think about Workplace Strategy

An effective workplace strategy focuses on the psychology of a space — how it influences feelings and behavior — more than the space itself. Privacy, access to information/IT, minimal distractions, and spaces with varying use should all play into the decision-making process. While most strategists will recommend a specific number for RSF (Knotel’s recommendations vary by customer), our focus is on a much more personal number: the work-culture balance ratio.

A tailored, individualized workspace can actually drive business and profit, without sacrificing culture and identity. When looking at spaces, ask not only where you will hold meetings, but what the quality of those meetings will be and how the space will influence it. Are there places for employees to have one-on-one chats? Can they pop into the pantry for a break? The RSF number is certainly important, but the ratio of productivity to creative activity is the balance that brings employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

Applying an equation might yield numbers on space per person, but tailoring a space where employees are able to focus, grow, and perform in a streamlined and aesthetically pleasing environment is not just a branding exercise — it’s the path to a higher-performing business.