Canberra scientists fear they will soon be squashed into tiny, noisy workspaces that make it too hard for them to do their research.
The CSIRO is set to abandon its headquarters in Campbell, near the War Memorial, and move all ACT staff to its Black Mountain campus.
The proposal involves building a new research centre and refurbishing other areas, and its first phase should be finished when the Campbell office's lease expires in 2016.
The scientific organisation told a parliamentary committee the new "open-plan" offices would allow 14 square metres of workspace per employee – the goal set for public servants last year – even though the CSIRO, as a statutory authority, does not need to meet the target.
An audit of government buildings in 2009 found the typical public servant had about 1½ times that much space.
However, the CSIRO Staff Association says the plan, which will help cut maintenance costs, will undermine staff's work.
Its secretary, Sam Popovski, said "widespread open-plan office accommodation is unsuitable for the work role and function of many CSIRO staff and that it may lead to reduced productivity and increased workplace absenteeism".
He said scientists, engineers and other researchers needed "isolated spaces for concentration and contemplation".
The association had also observed a trend of staff staying at home to avoid interruption and get more work done.
"There's no objection to shared facilities – scientists often congregate and talk about what they're doing – but they need that quiet space to think and write."
Associate Professor Leena Thomas, of the University of Technology, Sydney's school of architecture, regularly surveys people's perceptions of their workplaces, and says staff often complain about the noisiness of open-plan offices.
However, she said intelligent design could make even a 14sqm workspace suitable for most people.
She said activity-based working – offices with multiple areas that catered for different types of work – was increasingly popular, and had been adopted by companies such as Macquarie Bank and Google.
"So you have spaces for people to talk without disrupting others, and spaces for meetings, and spaces for quieter work that requires concentration," Professor Thomas said.
"In the end, you may save money because you understand that not everyone is at their workstation all the time, though you may struggle to reduce the building size."
A CSIRO spokesman said on Thursday the new offices would meet the 14sqm target while still catering to staff's needs.
"This can be achieved through a mixture of environments, which includes open-work areas, quiet areas, informal meeting and project areas, meeting rooms and offices," he said.
"All these are in the interests of achieving an adaptive workplace to meet the current and future needs of the organisation."
The spokesman said staff would be able to provide feedback on the new design in coming months.
The staff association also fears the childcare centre at Black Mountain will be overwhelmed by the accommodation changes.
The CSIRO says the centre is "sufficient to meet the expanded needs of the site", but Dr Popovski said an extra 470 staff will blow out what is already a "significant waiting list" for childcare.
The consolidation of CSIRO properties will cost about $196 million, but the organisation says it is critical to the sustainability of its operating budget, too much of which is spent maintaining old, dangerous buildings.