How to Establish Office Space Standards

Published on Wednesday, 23 October 2013 01:29:36    Written by Marc
I was talking to a friend the other day and he had a question that came to me from time to time but for which I never managed to find an answer on the internet, or anywhere else for that manner. The question was pretty straightforward, “How do you establish office space standards in a company?” Now, by experience, the moment you even start to talk about standards you somehow get to step on some toes. Implementing standards means that you put something in writing as to what other people should be doing, this does not always make you win the popularity contest or get the most Christmas cards from colleagues, but as they say, someone probably has to do it.

Office StandardsNevertheless, why set office space standards? After all, if your company has 50 business units spread out over the country, chances are they each have their particularities which makes it difficult to try and jam everyone in a ‘one size fits all’ scenario.

Well, the thing is that if you do not set standards for office spaces, eventually you end up with some major variations and wasted space. Moreover, since space costs money…

So, first thing is first. What are office standards? For practical purpose of this blog here, let us say that office standards are the guidelines that dictate how offices should be built. This is probably the simplest definition that I can come up with, but it pretty much covers it. Note that I say ‘dictate’ because the moment you let the people know that they are suggestions, your standards will end up in the dumpster. Office standards tell all people in the company/organization how any office space should be built, from the employees working areas (be it a closed office or a cubicle), to the meeting rooms, the cafeteria, the lobby, the meeting rooms and just about everything else. While some items need to be site specific (who gets a private parking or an interior parking versus an exterior non-reserved one for example), most of the specifications of offices spaces can be covered in the office standards of the company. Let us look at the items that compose the standards in more details.

Office size

This is always a ‘political’ one. For some reason, it also seems to be the most difficult one to have people agree on. Considering every company or organization is different, I will not give too much specifics here but in my past experience, I have been able to impose relatively standard sizes for both closed and open area offices by telling my colleagues, each time we were setting up a new office space, about how much space their other colleagues were using. Guilt it seems, was of good help to me in selling standards to colleagues that otherwise would have taken much larger spaces than I suggested. If a business unit knows that most other divisions are using an average of 175 sq-ft per employee (calculated by dividing the total office space by the total number of employees in that space), then it made it difficult for them to try to justify anything with higher averages than that. Of course, guilt was not the only winning factor, at one point you need to clearly let the people know that you are establishing standards and that it has to start somewhere. In addition, for this, getting the approval from senior management (ideally the CEO or equivalent) is mandatory. There is nothing worse than imposing a set of standards, only to have a general manager or a VP of something go behind your back to ask the CEO for an exception, like having a private washroom in her/his office. Once that door to the exception world is open, good luck on closing it afterwards.

Closed offices

For these offices, providing typical sizes by employee title is normally acceptable. For example, if a director can get a 150 square feet closed office, it is normally accepted that a vice president can get more, say 200 or 225 square feet. Same logic goes all the way up the food chain. Some companies with go by title and by need. For example, if a human resources employee regularly needs to conduct private meetings with employees about HR issues, that employee might get a closed office even if he/she does not hold a title that would normally entitle to get a closed office. Same for IT people that need to assemble and test computers and servers. Having hundreds of thousands of dollars of IT equipment lie in the open (unprotected) in cubicles probably does not make much sense. Same goes for other special departments such as pay/paymaster for example.

The good thing with having standards is that the next director or Vice President that gets hired will probably not make a fuzz over the size of his/her office if its already ‘in the book’ before the person gets hired; and, even less if everyone is living by these standards with no problem. Some office standards also get to mention who gets corner offices. This is going in great details but probably makes sense for some companies to avoid arguments with new employees.


While closed offices standards seem to be well accepted and people will generally accept the set of standards, cubicles on the other hand are a little more difficult because in a given office space you can have a number of different sizes and positions which greatly vary the comfort of the employees. For example, you can have a cubicle of 7 feet by 7 feet next to the stairway or the entrance (yes, the one next to that squeaky door) this cubicle will not be as much in demand (or popular) as the same sized one which gives on a nice interior terrace with plants or an exterior window. By experience, people with more seniority will be vocal enough to let others know that the cubicle with the great view is theirs. In past experiences, I normally let the department figure it out themselves. I gave them the general space that each department had and let them discuss (or fight) over who gets to sit where. The only place where I normally let the standards a bit flexible was in the height of the cubicles partitions. I noticed that sound (i.e. privacy) was the number one factor for people and size really came second. Therefore, if people were sitting next to departments that were constantly on the phone (like sales for example) they really appreciated if we could increase the height of their cubicle partition. Sometimes a foot or two goes a long way to make people happy. On a final note here, although it is not an item for office standards per say, try not to put cubicles next to large meeting rooms. If possible, have storage rooms or low activity closed offices between the meeting rooms and the cubicles.

Meeting rooms

Meeting rooms are normally easy to determine because you will always get it wrong regardless of what you do. The reason for this is that no matter how much you talk to people and how much info you manage to get from them as per the number and size needed, there will always come a point where people will claim that there are just not enough meeting rooms or that they are too small. This is because when you ask people about the standard meeting size they have, they normally do not tell you about the annual or quarterly meeting they have. If you rely on the standard meetings, chances are, the rooms will be too small for the other larger meetings. If you can have meeting rooms that expand (i.e. having two or three meeting rooms together that can open up), it might save you some problems. Just make sure that the walls have some kind of soundproofing or you will hear about it on a regular basis. Nothing is worse than having two confidential meeting next to each other and people hearing everything that goes on the other side of the wall.

Other elements

There are a number of other elements that can be added to office standards, such as storage space allocations, filing cabinets, who gets what or can install what in their offices or cubicles (plants, lamps, painting on the walls… etc.), the type of chairs people get and other items that are more company specific. When establishing office space standards it might be good to go over what the company/organization normally provides and include some elements of this in the standards, keeping in mind that sometimes showing flexibility goes a long way in keeping people happy at work.

Office space ratios

It would be difficult to provide anything more than general guidelines here, since each company/organization is very different and standards can also vary greatly from country to country. For my experience in North American office spaces, I kept a few rules of thumb handy. If the office spaces were for normal working business units, I tried to have them target or come under 175 square feet per employee, roughly 16 square meters (again that is calculated as the total office space that is occupied divided by the total number of employees working in that space). That ratio seems to work well for North American standard offices. Of course, if you have special needs such as an IT room where the IT guys assemble and test computers, your ratio might have to change a little. I built some nice offices with ratios of 130 and 140 square feet per person (12-13 square meters) but they had a 3 to 1 ratio of cubicles to closed offices and relatively modest meeting rooms. On the other hand, head offices with practically a 1 to 1 ratio of cubicles to closed offices came in at well over 200, sometimes 240-250 square feet per employee and there were no cafeteria included here. However, offices were larger, meeting rooms also.

In the end, while each company and organization is different, setting up office space standards will help in many ways. It will avoid having situations where things get out of hand (like having offices the size of football fields). It will also allow for the company’s real estate manager to compare sites and see where potential savings could be found (if we take an office which does not follow the standards, how much space would the office really need if we did apply the standards?) While the standards may not always be applicable for existing offices, imposing the standards for new offices seems to be easier and gives everyone some guidance as to what people should plan. Moreover, in my experience, I found that often people simply wanted that guidance and were more than happy to comply with the standards.