Companies are packing workers in like sardines

Feel like you have less personal space at work? You're not alone.

The amount of office space per worker is dwindling as companies look to save some money, real estate experts say. By 2017, North American offices will average 151 square feet per worker, according to real estate data provider CoreNet Global. That's down from 176 square feet in 2012 and 225 square feet in 2010.

Blame a prolonged economic recession as the main reason companies are reducing office space. A stumbling, unstable recovery didn't help either, leaving bosses anxious to save money in literally every corner.

But there's also a move to so-called smarter workplaces that encourage employees to interact and collaborate. For many companies, that means taking away individual offices and asking employees to work in closer proximity.

Individual desks are also going away. Instead, companies are adopting open floor plans where employees use unassigned desks instead of their own permanent space, according to CoreNet Global.

Take Tumblr, the blogging platform owned by Yahoo (YHOO). It had 180 employees in its New York City headquarters last year, with the office offering about 144 square feet per worker, according to Commercial Observer. The office has conference rooms and teleconferencing phone booths.

At online retailer Zappos, the CEO doesn't even have an office. The company encourages workers to use their laptops anywhere, from sofas placed around the campus to shared tables in the common area.

In the 1970s, companies aimed for a palatial 500 to 700 square feet per employee for the ideal office, The Los Angeles Times reports. That's because in those days it was the norm for people to come to the office every day and work at their desks.

Today, many workers telecommute or take their laptops to the nearby coffee shop. They're working unusual hours and taking advantage of flex time. When bosses walk around the office, empty desks are a more common sight than before. Smart managers -- and smart companies -- understand that there are enormous benefits to giving workers flexibility in where they work.

It isn't just nimble startups that are reducing their footprint. Tech giant Intel (INTC) has slimmed down its employee workstations to 48 square feet, from 72 square feet, CNN reports. Cubicles at many Fortune 500 companies are being cut back to 5-by-5 feet instead of the former standard of 8-by-10 feet.

And how is this all sitting with the average worker? Just fine, according to workplace experts. In fact, the newest generation of millennial workers actually like the cramped conditions."They don't aspire to the big corner office," one real estate consultant told USA Today. "They don't even want it."

Instead of placing framed photos at their desks, younger workers have digital pics on their phones. Instead of needing tall cubicle walls to help them focus, workers listen to music on earbuds.

"It's the umbilical cord just being untethered by technology," one architect told USA Today. "We were all tethered to the wires [before], and now you are seeing the strength and flexibility of WiFi."

But the corporate infatuation with open offices may have peaked. Some architects say companies are starting to recognize that private space can important for workers. "There needs to be a period when people go back and develop ideas -- alone," one architect told The Boston Globe.

And then there's the oversharing that inevitably comes when you pack employees too closely. "We had one person who listened to everyone's conversations and would inevitably get herself involved in some way, whether it was professional or personal," one interior designer told The Globe. "There was a lot of running outside to your car to make a phone call or doctor's appointment. Scheduling a mammogram is not something I needed my co-workers to know about."

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.