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What is meant by "working space"?

Office jobs entail a great variety of physical and mental activities. Often, the core activities of any office job take place at the desk or at the workstation. OSH Answers has more information on office ergonomics.

In addition to the physical dimensions of the workspace and furniture, other features should also be considered in any design, reorganization or relocation. Some questions to ask are:

  • Does the workspace provide acoustical privacy (for example, can people talk in privacy, according to the level of confidentiality required; do noises and conversations interfere with their concentration; do noises or conversations make it difficult to hear or understand speech if much of their work involves using the telephone?)
  • Are the walls permanent (i.e., fixed) or is the workspace in an open office environment?
  • Does the workspace provide visual privacy?
  • Can an employee personalize his or her individual work space?
  • Is there access to natural light or only artificial lighting?
  • Is the workplace layout designed to facilitate interpersonal contact?
  • Is there need for space for storage or equipment (e.g., immediate access to physical documents, or a second computer screen)?

How much space do we need?

There is no one clear-cut answer to what seems like a simple question, for the answer has to deal with many aspects implied by the question. Major aspects include:

Nature of work. If most of the work day is spent on field assignments, meetings, site visits and consultations, a smaller office space may be quite satisfactory. However, for office workers who perform their job at their workstation most of the time, a small space may create discomfort due to feelings of confinement. Some job functions that, for example, include frequent meetings in their office space or require the use of multiple sources of material for consultation, research, writing, etc. may be assigned more work space.

Cultural aspects influence our perception of sufficient space. For North Americans including Canadians, as well as northern Europeans "adequate" personal space is an important factor. For people from other cultures often associated with dense population, much less space could be considered "adequate", or in other words, enough. This can be a significant issue in a multi-cultural society such as Canada.

A corporate climate. Our perception of a designated personal space is a matter of comparison. Employees generally accept the fact that those at higher levels in management positions may have larger offices. However, regardless of how large an individual's space actually is - if it is not as big as what our peers have - then, it is too small.

Individual perception. The amount of space available can have profound psychological meaning. It is natural for people to strive to occupy more space, for "more" space may signify importance, respect and more authority or power. In the workplace the amount of our personal space is often linked with our status within the organization.

Anthropometry (body dimensions). Actual office space requirements depend on the size and shape of employees simply because an office has to accommodate them, enable them to move safely and unhindered in the workspace, and allow them to complete their jobs.


Are there guidelines on how much space a workstation should be?

Office spaces should allow for easy movement, accommodating visitors where necessary, and storage. The table below provides some ranges:

Table 1
ApplicationMinimum Requirement Ranges*
Two people can meet in an office with a table or desk between them - such as a supervisor and an employee60-72" x 90-126"152-183 cm x 228-320 cm
A worker has a primary desk, and a secondary surface such as a credenza 60-72" x 60-84"152-183 cm x 152-213 cm
Executive office: 3-4 people can meet around a desk105-130" x 96-123"267-330 cm x 244-313 cm
A basic workstation - such as call center42-52" x 60-72"107-132 cm x 152-183 cm

* All sizes are from Panero, Julius and Zelnik, Martin. Human Dimension & Interior Space, New York : Whitney Library of Design, 1979. (Although this is an old reference, no recent information was found that would change these recommended values.)

However, the allocation of the amount of working space for offices, and for workplaces in general, is complex and it is difficult to find standards that would apply to all kinds of work situations. This is why existing standards and guidelines similar to the ones mentioned here specify only the general requirements, if any.

The Canadian Standards Association "Z412-00 Guideline on Office Ergonomics" (R2011) provides general recommendations, including that each office worker should have sufficient space to carry out his or her tasks safely and comfortably.  The amount of tertiary space needed for any one individual is determined by considering:

  • various tasks performed;
  • overall size of the work surface;
  • other furniture required, such as visitor's chair, filing cabinets, etc;
  • storage needs; and
  • how the furniture will be arranged and put together.

The "Government of Canada Workplace 2.0 Fit-up Standards" as published by Public Works and Government Services Canada (2012) created 4 worker profiles and corresponding work space based on the amount of time spent at the workstation:

  • Leadership: 10 m² – maximum of 18.5 m². Leadership workers can be allocated an enclosed office but it is not mandatory and it is an allowance not an entitlement. Examples: Director, Director General or higher.
  • Fixed:  maximum of 4.5 m². Employees who are at their desk more than 60% of the day. Examples: Policy Analyst, Administrative Assistant, Call/Contact Centre operator, translator.
  • Flexible: maximum of 3.0 m². Employees who are at their desk approximately 40% of the day. Examples: Account executive, Auditor, part-time teleworker, inspector.
  • Free Address: maximum of 1.5 m². The nature of the employees’ work does not require them to have an individual dedicated workstation in the office. They will generally only drop in for short amounts of time on a periodic basis to meet with colleagues, catch up on projects or simply make social connections. Examples: Consultants, remote workers, regional employees, full-time teleworkers.  It should be noted that the free address workstations are not assigned to any specific employee.

The workstations may vary in size up to the maximum, and the actual dimensions and configuration will vary depending on the site, functional requirements, and availability of space. The height of the panels recommended for workspace separation is a maximum of 1.37 m (54") stating that lower panels allow for increased light distribution and airflow and provide seated privacy.  The Fit-up standards also state that "the reduced amount of space used for individual workstations provides clients with the flexibility to create collaborative, teaming and open meeting spaces".

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Document last updated on July 24, 2012

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