Apr 2, 2020 - Economy

America's shrinking offices stare down the coronavirus pandemic

Man in a box

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Over the last four decades, Americans' personal space at work has steadily shrunk.

Why it matters: Companies around the country were able to abruptly send their employees home to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but bringing those panicked employees back after the pandemic won't be so easy — especially to increasingly cramped, open-plan offices.

The big picture: Average square feet of office space per worker in the U.S. has been declining since 1990, from around 260 square feet then to 214 now, according to data from commercial real estate firm CoStar. The uptick between 2008 and 2010 was due to companies laying workers off but keeping their office leases during the financial crash.

Data: CoStar; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: CoStar; Chart: Axios Visuals

The numbers are even smaller when looking just at cities, says Paul Leonard, a managing consultant at CoStar.

  • Average space per worker is around 180 square feet in the country's largest metro areas.
  • On top of that, people have grown accustomed to closer quarters and more shared areas due to rise of coworking spaces, says Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate company. Consider WeWork, which has been leading the recent redesigning of offices, where space per worker is 75 square feet.

But, but, but: Those long shared desks and communal phone booths will be downright panic-inducing to millions of Americans coming back to the office after months of isolation and social distancing.

Firms might be forced to redesign their offices to give nervous employees more personal space — within the confines of their often decades-long leases.

The bottom line: The dreaded greige office cubicle looks pretty good right now.

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