Is an open-office concept dead?

How to Choose an Architect
October 13, 2016
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Is an open-office concept dead?

Pulling into the parking deck on Texas Ave and Austin St, grabbing a coffee on the way in to the office. Thirty seconds on the elevator and 7 “good mornings” later you’re walking into the dreaded lair where the next 8 hours of your life will be spent, how productive they’ll be, will be determined. What if an environment existed to strengthen an individual’s goals and needs for that day? Envision yourself at your most productive. When you sealed a large deal. Where that great idea came about. Where are you? What are the surroundings? Was it quite?

The idea of an open office plan originated in Germany in the 1950s. This concept of creating a work space free of dividing walls took off in the US only in the last decade – spreading from tech startups to more established industries such as advertising, social media, and architecture. The thought was to tear down literal barriers to promote creativity and productivity. This didn’t exactly work out as planned.

This trend is “destroying the workplace” states a 2015 Washington Post headline. A number of articles have been published describing the movement as “the spread of disease with countless distractions.. Being forced to listen about your coworkers personal lives”. Recent studies have shown open plans actually DECREASE productivity and employee well-being therefore increasing the number of sick days the team takes. Research from the University of California, Irvine, found that the typical office worker spends only 11 minutes on a task before getting interrupted. Once workflow has been disrupted, it can take over 20 minutes to get back on track.

If open concept isn’t the solution.. what is?

We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel here, offices are already equipped with the right material, the question is how to utilize the space and furniture. The next generation office spaces are a combination of private offices, cubicle banks, open spaces as well as communal areas and sound proof rooms where employees can go to concentrate on solo work.  Employees requiring individual focus is up almost 10% in 2013 from a study done in 2008. This end result is a hybrid office catering to different needs including a variety of spaces, giving the employee the freedom to choose their most productive work space.

Cubicles are still the backbone of the modern office. Invented by Robert Propst in 1964, they were created as a remedy to the open-office floor plans of the 1950s where new employee lacked any privacy. Cubicles are made from high quality panels and include a wide variety of movable components so employees could sit or stand as they worked. Probst was hoping to provide freedom, and actually increase blood flow, by giving workers privacy, their own space and the flexibility to change postures throughout the day.

Despite Propst’s intentions, by the 1990s the cubicle had become a trap. Workers wanted out which made it easy for companies to tear down the walls entirely to, ironically, return to the 1950s style Propst was trying to escape.

Taking down walls also saved companies money. If you take down the walls, you can fit more people in one space. By eliminating the widely used 6×6 foot cube and replacing with bench setups the space occupied per employee drops to about 2×4 feet. These aren’t exactly ideal places to work hours on end.

Thanks to this backlash, we could be seeing the next wave in office design. By the rebounding economy companies have the resources to invest in redesigns and furniture. According to the IBIS World report, office furniture manufacturing industry is projected to increase by 2% in 2016 largely due to rising corporate profit levels which leads employers to ask, how can we create a space where people actually want to be? How to make employees more productive and creative?

Allow them the freedom to create their own work space whether this be in a park, in a storage closet, a coffee shop or taking a walk with a potential client or mentor. The concept of a personal desk is dying. You can have a space where you set up in the office space today but it may not necessarily be where you are tomorrow.

Flexible offices are also leading to flexible work times. No longer is it the norm that a work day is 8-5. With smartphones, tablets and hotspots – doing away with assigned seating is making it easier for employees to work anywhere. Managers are expecting employees to be accessible at all hours. In a survey conducted, over 50 % of US workers check their email regularly before, and after work and on weekends. The modern office has extended to the mall, the couch or anywhere with an internet connection.

Perhaps the ultimate work space is a blend of office, home, wherever one feels most productive. When the emphasis is placed on output, work can happen from anywhere as long as it gets done.

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