Why the open office fails…Companies are now looking for ways to add privacy and quiet areas without reverting to the traditional office design. The definition of work is the vacillation between collaboration and solitary exploration.
Noisy, open-floor plans have become a staple of office culture. But years after implementation, growing employee complaints have created a demand for a shift in design thinking. Studies show that open-plan office spaces can have negative effects on employees and productivity. Companies are adding soundproof rooms, creating quiet zones and rearranging floor plans to appeal to employees eager to escape disruptions at their workstations.
This past weekend I embarked on an epic tour of some of the tech industry’s heavy hitters’ offices – arguably a group of people quite concerned about office design, productivity and innovation. One Director of Real Estate and Facilities discussed Workplace Resilience + Adaptation and how to Engineer a Co-Working Culture. Bygone are the days of noisy décor and indoor playgrounds. Much attention has been given to reducing “office pollution” and designing open plan spaces designed to accommodate groups of workers frustrated with a lack of privacy. The problem with open plan offices is the perception that if you throw everyone together, people will collaborate and be more effective. Reports from five years ago seemed to support this, but years later we realize more than half of employees work with earbuds and take frequent breaks outside…trying to escape the environment that was built for them. What the open-plan space does not recognize is different work styles. There is a time when work needs to be shared and there is a time to get away and conduct deep thinking. The proliferation of private offices will not come back as traditional offices are costlier in terms of design, materials and space. But companies will need to redesign to create privacy zones in otherwise open-plan offices.
I attended a forum in Palo Alto on AI, specifically the intersection of information technology and transportation. With advances in information technology, people are able to work in non-traditional ways. Most of today’s mobile workers spend less than 60% of their time in offices, and companies have realized they do not need to hold real estate taken up by empty desks, corridors and hard walls. Google, and other tech companies, led the rush to open approaches amidst the 2008-09 recession as a tactic for cost-cutting, with open-plan offices costing as much as 50% less per employee because of smaller footprints and lower build-out costs. A recent survey found that a high rate of employees in an open office spends half of their time trying to figure out where and when to hide in order to get work done and discuss deals/tactics. The “bullpen” design is largely counterproductive.
But for the companies still commanding large open workplaces, how do they cope with the chaos of open space? Utilization of alcove sofas with high, padded sides enables small groups of workers to sit and have meetings while feeling removed from the bustle of collaborative environments. Some companies are employing work-bays – which are a variation of a cubicle. The bottom line for design is to reduce distraction and visual/ noise stimuli. With the new offices of LinkedIn showcasing new thought in office design, designers will need to better understand an agenda of restraint. Most companies with open floor plates realize there is too much distraction, and it is not just an acoustical thing. You need to feel like you have your own neighborhood and not be continually distracted by what is happening 100 feet away. So pollution is with noise and sightlines. Design is more complex than just opening up the floor plates and sitting everyone at tables in the open, which has become the kind of misinterpretation of open planning and the benching systems that we are seeing everywhere.
When you have an office, colleagues can pop in, and it can be enjoyable. You can have Beer:30 gatherings. It is wonderful. But not everyone is on the same schedule, and Beer:30 in the middle of the office is a gigantic interruption. It is the final tragedy. I love my work, and I need working with others, I love electronic music, and let us be clear, I am fond of wine and beer. Serendipity is when everyone is listening to Django at the same time. Though we will never know. These are things I want for all of us. The open-office layout has diminished the value of it all. And the prescription is so simple, yet out of reach..hold on, a colleague just knocked on my chair. I will finish my thought later…I am now distracted.