The Incredible Shrinking Cubicle

According to industry analysts, the office furniture industry has contracted by approximately 25 percent over the last 10 years. Michigan has seen the impact as many industry leaders reduce manufacturing jobs and facilities.

What's really driving this downturn?

Sure, it's easy to point the finger at economic conditions; we haven't seen the growth of jobs in the commercial sector that historically meant 'butts in seats,' the lifeblood of our industry.

But would you believe that a larger impact has actually been the shrinking workstation? In the 1970s, the average workspace was 12 feet by 12 feet. By 1995, it had shrunk to 10 feet by 10 feet. Today? A worker's space averages a mere 6 feet by 8 feet – and it is shrinking rapidly.

As square footage of workstations is reduced, traditional office cubicle wall panels are also getting lower. In many cases today, panels are even being eliminated altogether and replaced by more open benching-type solutions. Case in point: Haworth Office Furiture is introducing a new workstation product line this year that contains no panels, but instead uses storage components to create a low visual separation between each station.

Why are workstations shrinking? What's changed?

Technology. Thanks to a wide array of work alternatives like email, wireless Internet, and flex time, employees are working fewer and fewer hours at their desks. In turn, companies are investing less space and money into stations that just don't get as much use. For example, whereas 10 years ago 90 percent of Haworth's headquarter space was designated for workstations, only 60 percent of the space in their new headquarters is assigned to these individualized spaces. Now more area is used for collaborative areas like coffee bars, lounges and touch-down spaces.

Collaboration. Email, web conferencing and other technological advancements provide easy, inexpensive means to communicate without face-to-face collaboration. However, companies recognize the importance and value of bringing people together. Social interaction is enhanced when people can see each other, hence tighter quarters and lower or no dividers.

Kids Today. For the first time ever, we have four generations in the workplace at once. You might not catch a Baby Boomer at Starbucks studying for exams with ear buds in their ears, but the Millennial Generation prefers an open, less formal work environment. As the Millennial become the majority of workers over the next few years, the preference for more open flexible work styles and environments will continue to increase, and offices will change to meet their needs.

So what's the office furniture industry doing to grow and keep up with the ever-changing workspace?

Designers can no longer focus solely on commercial environments. As more of the workforce transitions to healthcare, education and hospitality, we are diversifying our product offerings and expertise to serve these other markets.

With change happening faster than ever, finding ways to help companies navigate their way through this new landscape is essential. We are no longer in a world where you build a new facility and then dump furniture into it. The best facilities today are designed around the people that will occupy the space.

As a whole, the office furniture industry must focus on addressing the organizational, human, and facility needs of a broad, diversified client base. More than ever, customers seek partners that support the triple-bottom-line goals of people, planet, and profitability. For those who deliver this value, the future is bright.

Eagle is manager of Interphase Interiors, the exclusive Haworth dealer in West and Northern Michigan for 30 years., 231.941.4454.