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The Death of the Cubicle

November 21, 2012

Telecommuting promised to transform the traditional workplace, enabling workers to do their jobs from home, while cutting employers' office space bill and reducing traffic congestion. Some of the change has happened, with the number of Americans working from home rising by 41% in the last decade to 13.4 million, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

But while providing some flexibility for the worker and some cost benefits for the employer, home work never went mainstream. And the term telecommuting already seems out of fashion now that collaboration and innovation and work with clients requires face-to-face contact. The modern-day professional has become highly mobile and the workplace is moving in this direction. With connectivity and a phone, employees on the go are bidding goodbye to the office cubicle (and the desk at home) to get work done and meet clients and colleagues when and where they choose. And employers are giving workers what they need to be more productive and efficient - mobile workspaces.

Workers have done business at "third places" for many years, but employers are now formalizing this arrangement, reducing assigned offices and cubicles and booking office space as needed, like a room in a hotel. Hotel chains like Marriott are moving into the field, setting up "community work club environments" for mobile workers.

Employees are migrating from the cubicle and their increased mobility makes them more creative, productive and innovative. Employers are also seeking increased efficiency from their corporate assets. A study by Cisco shows that 60% of assigned desks are empty during the day and the amount of space needed per employee has fallen to an average of 150 square feet of assigned office space per person, against 250 square feet 20 years ago.

The composition of the workforce is also changing, with the number of freelance workers projected to rise to 40 million by 2020 from 20 million at present, according to research by Intuit.

So, how will this new trend affect corporate headquarters and the cities? Broadly, the ideal location would favor urban settings with their proximity and amenities, over suburban office parks, says Mark Gilbreath, founder and head of LiquidSpace. And with much office space sitting idle, there may be more consolidation and highly efficient reuse of buildings.