No, we aren’t talking about a Guinness World Record stunt. How many people can you realistically fit in to a small office or home office before productivity nosedives?
Bottom line up front
Assuming a small office room of around 330 square feet (30 square metres), in a workplace that tends to have people working by themselves most of the time, you are probably looking at 4 being the most before comfort ends and tension rapidly mounts. Three people would be more sensible.
Of course this scales up: so if you have double the space (in an open area) you can probably get 8 people in, at most. 6 would be more suitable.
Let’s look at the factors which determine this number…
Noise and distractions
With any more than one person in a room and you will find that noise and distractions increase, but that isn’t practical for a business operating out of a small office. Not everyone can have their own room, with additional common areas for meetings and collaboration.
Generally speaking, more people in an environment means more communication paths between them. If we give people the labels A, B, C, D, E, etc:
- Two people share one path to each other (A to B)
- Three people share three paths (A-B, A-C, and B-C)
- Four people share six paths (A-B, A-C, A-D, B-C, B-D, C-D)
- Five people share ten paths (A-B, A-C, A-D, A-E, B-C, B-D, B-E, C-D, C-E, D-E)
- Six people share fifteen paths… you get the idea!
Of course not everyone needs to talk to everyone else all the time, but in an open small office people tend to overhear everything that is going on. Each additional person adds an ever-increasing number of communication paths. It’s the reason why teams tend to keep small and not too large: communication in large teams can be difficult to manage.
Physical space limitations
Although some modern organisations have shared workstations where multiple staff share the same desk and PC, we think that the 1-desk-1-person maxim will hold for many years to come and is what people expect when working in an office.
Desks, chairs, filing cabinets and shelving all take up room. Sometimes in highly collaborative environments you can get away with more than one person at long desk (such as in agile software programming in pairs). However modern office furniture is typically designed to having a single person per desk.
Furthermore you need space between desks for people to move about. Perhaps you also have a whiteboard, or meeting table, and need more floorspace for people to comfortable move around in.
If you are trying to work out how many people you can fit in the office then working out desk placements is going to quickly limit you, making it a good starting point to office design.
Anyone who has sat in overcrowded classrooms or boardrooms will know how uncomfortable it can be if the cooling and ventilation has been pushed beyond its limits. Rooms get stuffy, warm up, and people start to doze off and lose concentration.
If you don’t have the capability to modify the heating, cooling and ventilation system then this could also limit how many people you fit in a room. An open window and a fan can only go so far. At some point, with people’s body heat, and computers running, temperatures rise beyond an acceptable level.
But you can break the rules…
Yes sometimes you do want to push the comfort levels and put more people in a room, for short periods of time. If you are working on an intense, short term project then the tension of having a number of people in the room can push them to perform better. Having more communication paths can work for you if the work is very highly collaborative and demands a lot of verbal communication.
However we wouldn’t recommend you push this for more than a few weeks, or even a few days. For whatever savings you make putting more people in a room, you will lose that and much more through lesser productivity in the long run.
Have you got a small office horror story of fitting too many people in a room? Share your story below through the comments form…