The open office, a concept first invented in 1950s Germany that has become increasingly popular in North America over the last few decades, embodies the idea of a workplace free of dividing walls. While undoubtedly a great idea on the face of it, the open office concept has come under fire recently for perhaps doing its job too well, as the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Rocked by rising discontent coming from both employees and employers, is the open office concept truly on its way out the door?
There are various ways that companies can open up their office space. Open floorplans are more the norm than the exception nowadays, and the elimination of assigned seating and the promotion of collaboration workstations (where four or more people share the same desk at the same time) are becoming more common. Standing desks or adjustable height workstations are thought to promote productivity and a healthy office environment. A cunning way to cut down on noise while still keeping the open floorplan vibe is to build conference rooms with glass walls.
On a smaller scale, the elimination of wires on desks can help to make the space look bigger by eliminating clutter, and the proliferation of USB charging ports allows employees to charge their devices from anywhere in the office. Rounded out with on-site fitness centres and an open lounge and kitchen area, a healthy, productive office based on open principles can be constructed.
The Distraction of Openness
Originally, open offices were devised as a way to increase communication and productivity by increasing the amount of time employees spent together. It was thought that spontaneous collaboration would arise from the literal tearing down of barriers. And while there is some evidence that communication in open offices is increased compared with spaces consisting of private rooms, all that communication isn’t necessarily a good thing. Open office spaces are now regularly thought of as ‘oppressive’, with employees grumbling that it’s impossible to get any work done while having to listen to conversations about their coworker’s cat’s vet appointment.
Distracting noise is an important problem, but other common issues include lack of privacy, as coworkers look over one another’s shoulder the whole time, and frequent interruptions, making it very difficult to concentrate on any work. Many employees are also distracted by the churn and mess of the open office space. These negative opinions are backed up by research. Open plan offices may not foster collaboration after all; the evidence is mixed at best on this point. And they also decrease productivity and employee well being, while increasing the number of sick days – possibly because all those overheard conversations take their toll, and it’s a lot harder to focus and get work done in such an environment.
Of course, not all work environments are created equal, and what works for some may not work for others. Different industries may benefit from different styles of office. For example, Silicon Valley startups rely on open plan offices for fast communication between their small number of employees. A newsroom, which relies on quick communication, may need to be open. But other industries don’t have this necessity; an advertising agency, for example, might be better off with a small number of breakout rooms where employees can work on specific projects. And even within a single company, because of the different needs of different departments, a hybrid approach might be better than a one-size-fits-all dedication to an open-plan environment.
So, what does the optimal office of the future looks like? Well, it looks very much like a combination of various office designs from previous eras that have received some essential tweaks. Private offices, cubicle banks and open floor plans all have their place, as well as communal areas and soundproof rooms for focused, solo work. This hybrid office allows employees the freedom to move between a range of spaces throughout the day.
All of this means that perhaps the open office concept is not quite dead just yet – rather, it has evolved into just one of several types of spaces that can be used to optimize efficiency and productivity in the modern workplace.