Space & Move Management

Recommended office space per employee: how space needs are changing

Joe White
September 21st, 2022

Designing office space around the recommended office space per employee is a critical aspect of any workplace management plan

Creating a physical office environment specifically for the number of employees who will be using it is essential. It is primarily the responsibility of a facilities manager (FM) or any other workplace management professional. To do this, they need to forecast and plan for future growth, while also creating a productive office layout for the people currently using it. 

Of course, this is much more challenging in a hybrid workplace, where employees are using the office more sporadically.  

In years past, companies, FMs, and workplace professionals could use straightforward strategies like the 3-30-300 rule (and other rules of thumb) to help determine their space requirements. But with the advent of hybrid work, distributed work, remote work, and more, many of these straightforward strategies need to be thrown out the window… Or at least enhanced with dramatically more complex workplace reports and analytics.  Only with the right metrics can space planners create a modern office floor plan that supports the new hybrid normal. 

So what is the actual recommended office space per employee? In this post, we look beyond the 3-30-300 rule. We explore how to better plan and manage our new hybrid, distributed reality.

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Measuring employee use of office space

The recommended office space per employee will always be in flux. Different employees in different settings need different workstations and square feet of space. 

Figuring out space needs per employee starts with understanding how employees are using the office. Employees in an open office, for example, will have different space needs than one in a cubicle farm or shared workspace. Different work environment types, ranging from agile working to activity-based working and everything in between, will also require different office designs and have their own optimal office density.  

Ultimately, strategic space management is about understanding how employees are using the office currently. It also must predict what future space needs may be.

In other words, you need a lot more than a simple office space calculator to determine how much square footage your people need. 


Employee space needs in the past

Before the pandemic and the subsequent boom in remote and hybrid work, the way employees used the office was often simpler. The number of people using the office was relatively stable, and they usually had assigned, dedicated desks.

That made planning around the recommended office space per employee much simpler, too.   FMs and space planners could easily figure out their ideal room capacity and occupancy rate and plan around it. Throw in some comfy office chairs and natural light, and you could largely take care of employee and company needs at the same time. This led to real estate portfolio management that was relatively straightforward.  

To manage this more simple reality, FMs often relied on the 3-30-300 rule. It states that, on average, companies spend $3 in utilities, $30 in rent, and $300 in payroll per square foot per year. The goal with this rule was usually about boosting productivity while keeping costs in check. And it worked well for traditional offices. 

Employee space needs and the hybrid workplace

But despite its usefulness, the 3-30-300 rule also comes with a blind spot. It doesn’t take into account the impact that autonomy and remote/hybrid work has on productivity, too. Over the past few years, we’ve definitively learned that the ability to work from wherever you feel most productive is often the key to more productivity. And not an arbitrary amount of square feet. 

For some employees, this will mean regularly using the office. 

But for others, it will mean remote, hybrid, and distributed work.

In short, flexible work arrangements typically lead to not only more productive workers, but happier ones, too. This makes them an important strategy for boosting company culture and empowerment in the workplace. These arrangements also assist in talent attraction and retention efforts. 

These new arrangements also change how we use the office. They create less of a need for a large open space that houses an entire company’s worth of staff

With some people now choosing to work remotely full-time, some embracing a hybrid work schedule and using the office sporadically, and others still preferring to spend each day in the office, space optimization has never been more challenging or essential. The 3-30-300 rule, while still useful, might not be enough to plan this new hybrid office. FMs and space planners will need the right strategy. And it must be bolstered by the right workplace analytics to make the most of their usable square feet. 


Employee spaces are changing

A more flexible office leads to more flexible average space requirements for employees. 

Even companies that are mandating a return to the office are using new flexible seating strategies like hot desking and office hoteling.

Meanwhile, today’s office is more and more becoming a collaboration hub. A place where employees meet for mentorship and teamwork, versus the heads-down work they save for home. 

That means beyond individual desk space, employees need access to a variety of meeting rooms and work group areas, too. 

Of course, even before the pandemic, the open office was growing in popularity, with a push towards fewer private offices and more common areas.

Plans to reduce office space also complicate the picture for FMs. According to the CBRE, about 52% of U.S. companies are also planning to reduce their office space over the next three years. This is in an effort to curb corporate real estate expenses. 

In this ‘new normal,’ even when companies don’t need a new office space, they might need a new approach to office space. Ideally, this approach will be informed by good workplace data and real estate analytics, along with space management best practices and input from the employees themselves.   

Like we’ve stressed, there’s no longer a one-size-fits-all when it comes to space utilization and occupancy rate, if there ever were one. 

That said, there are still some averages and best practices that work post-pandemic. 

According to the JLL, the average square foot per employee in 2020 was 196. 

Experts still recommend 122 to 225 sq. ft. per person, although office size may vary according to working style. An employee in a call center might need less space, for example. And someone in sales regularly meeting with clients might need their own office. 

And conference rooms require anywhere from 15 to 30 sq. ft. per employee, depending on how they will be used. 

Perhaps nothing has shaken up space planning like the need for social distancing. 

At the height of the pandemic, companies needed to give employees about 50% more space. This makes a social distancing planner a virtual necessity.  

Today, companies should expect that some employees will feel uncomfortable working in close proximity to colleagues long after any restrictions are lifted. That means they may want to consider allocating more space per employee than they might otherwise. 

Just as important, offering daily workplace health checks can go a long way to assuaging fears while keeping everyone safer and healthier. No matter where they’re sitting. 


Planning for future employee space needs

Space utilization, office density, and headcount planning will always be key FM responsibilities.

But the challenges of hybrid working throw a wrench in the mix. How much physical space does a hybrid employee actually need? The answer will be different for every company.   

That’s why FMs and space planners need a complete picture of who is actually using the office. Along, of course, with when and how they’re using it. 

To do this, they need accurate, real-time reports (which may or may not be bolstered with occupancy sensor data). 

Specifically, in order to plan for future employee space needs and create a reliable recommendation for office space per employee, FMs need access to the following real-time data:

  • Desks booked, plus booking usage by occupant
  • Daily attendance
  • No-show rates
  • Desk utilization over a specified time period
  • Occupancy reports by department, location, and space type
  • Room booking utilization, including busiest hours and popularity of individual rooms and room types
  • Space allocation by location


How much space do you need per person?

The space you need per person in an office will often depend on their duties. That said, experts usually recommend anywhere between 75 to 150 square feet per person, although anywhere up to 325 square feet is reasonable. In 2020, the average square feet per person in the office was 196 sq. ft., although social distancing has likely increased that number. 

How many square meters of office space do you need per person?

Most experts would agree that you don’t want much less than 75 square feet per office employee. That translates to a minimum of 6.97 square meters of office space per person. 

How much office space do I need for 20 employees?

The amount of office space you need for 20 employees will largely depend on the type of work they’re performing, along with questions like whether you need a reception area or quiet rooms. That said, the average office space per employee is 196 square feet. To stay within this range, you would need 3,920 square feet for 20 employees, not counting what you may want for collaboration spaces or things like break rooms. 

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