Less elbow room in offices? Reno bucks trend

If you’re feeling like there’s less elbowroom in your office than a couple of years ago, you’re probably right.

But before you grouse too much around the watercooler, consider this: Office denizens elsewhere in the country have been squeezed a lot harder than workers in northern Nevada.

The reasons say a lot about the nature of Reno.

There’s no doubt that the amount of space devoted to office workers has declined sharply.

CoreNet Global, an Atlanta-based association for corporate real estate professionals, estimates that the average amount of space per office worker nationally dropped below 150 square feet last year — a 33 percent decline in just three years.

Even as half of the respondents to a CoreNet survey projected that space-per-worker at their companies would fall to 100 square feet or less within five years, others voiced concern that the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of open arrangements.

The Reno area, too, has seen a decline in office space per employee, says Tim Ruffin, managing partner and senior president at Colliers International in Reno.

But the decline, he says, hasn’t been nearly as dramatic as the national squeeze-up.

Ruffin estimates that the average space per office worker in the Reno-Sparks area now stands about 200 square feet, down from 250 square feet a few years ago.

Melissa Molyneaux, a vice president and office specialist with Colliers, says that much of the declining need for space has reflected technological shifts.

Law firms, she notes, no longer devote space to law libraries. The information is online. The same goes for those shelves of product-information binders that used to consume space in sales offices.

Server rooms are increasingly rare, or smaller, as technology migrates to the cloud.

Reception areas have virtually disappeared, replaced by solutions as simple as a phone sitting atop a photocopied list of corporate phone extensions.

And coffee bars increasingly replace lunchrooms.

Dan Kahl, president of Kahl Commercial Interiors in Reno, says his firm sees the trend as interior designers and office planners place their orders with his firm.

Cubicle panels, once six or seven feet high, more commonly are four feet high these days — just enough to provide what designers call “seated privacy.”

Designers who want to do away entirely with cubicle panels are ordering desk modules that still allow for installation of the necessary power and data cables.

“Even in an open environment, you still need to deliver power and data to those users,” says Kahl.

And file cabinets show up less regularly on office designers’ shopping lists.

For all that, Reno-area companies simply haven’t embraced the small-is-good concepts as eagerly as firms elsewhere.

One of the answers is mundane: Parking.

“We’re a suburban city, even downtown,” says Ruffin. Attempts to create get more workers into less space bump into the need to provide parking for all those employees — particularly in the widespread areas of the Truckee Meadows in which public transit is limited.

In an effort to encourage transit use along major corridors such as South Virginia Street, the City of Reno limits newly constructed office buildings to three parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of office space — only about 60 percent of the parking that’s needed for 200-square-foot offices occupied by workers who commute alone.

Another seemingly mundane restriction, Ruffin says, is imposed by heating and ventilation systems. The HVAC systems in most Reno-area buildings simply aren’t designed to handle the load imposed by lots of warm, breathing bodies in tight offices.

But the biggest factor of all is economics.

Elsewhere, office users have been all abuzz for the past few years with concepts such as hoteling — you schedule use of an office only when you actually need it — or multitudes of huddle rooms and conference rooms surrounding a large, open collection of desks without walls.

“That sounds really cool,” Ruffin acknowledges.

But the economics generally don’t work for offices of less than 100,000 square feet, and that’s a size that nearly unknown in the Reno area. (When CustomInk expanded into 51,280 square feet in South Meadows last year, it was the largest office lease of the year in northern Nevada.)

Corporate culture also plays a role, and many of the folks who signed leases or purchase contracts for office space in northern Nevada simply haven’t been convinced that open, collaborative workspaces make sense.

Their concerns may be as simple as noise, particularly for workers who need to put their heads down for concentrated work, although design can address some of it.

Other employers have heard that staff members end up wandering around unproductively as they search for an unoccupied conference room or huddle room where they can conduct a meeting.

Those concerns are shared nationally.

“Just as we have escaped the ‘cube farms of Dilbertville,’ some employees may start to fell that the open-space pendulum has swung too far, at the expense of a worker’s ability to concentrate without interruption or distraction,” Richard Kadzis, vice president of strategic communications for CoreNet Global, said as the organization released results of its most recent space survey last summer.

But different generations see the need for office space differently.

Molyneaux says technology firms with a workforce of younger people often look for open-concept space. In part, she says, that reflect the un-tethering of their lives — they’re not hooked up to land-line telephone or computer cables at a desk.

Adds Ruffin, “They value the technology more than they value the office.”


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