Is the Future of the Open Office in Jeopardy?

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Over the past decade, cubicle walls started coming down. The “status symbol” of a private office was on its way to extension. Collaboration was at the apex of design for office environments. An open office was the future.

Offices looked like coffee shops. Like bars. It would attract the elusive millennial! Then, headlines like this splashed across major news outlets: Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

A recent panel discussion hosted by global commercial interior design firm Unispace sought to discuss the merits of “destroy” and take a look at the evolving concept of the open office.

Global Principal, Strategy at Unispace, Albert DePlazaola says clients generally want two things when changing an office layout: to make the workplace more effective and more efficient.

According to research from CBRE, the number one driver of a new workspace is to inspire more collaboration, “not just to foster more collaboration, but to really encourage cross-functional collaboration across teams,” DePlazaola says.

Individual productivity might take a hit, but would be more than made up for in group or team productivity. Open offices could generate space efficiencies, moving companies to smaller footprints. Win-win, right? Not quite.

“Research is indicating that actually in the last 10 years or so, collaboration has actually gone down and focus work has gone up,” DePlazaola says.

People really do want to put their heads down and get to work at work. In fact, it’s what workers spend most of their time doing. Across market sectors, a majority of employees that Unispace surveyed said they do 50 – 60 percent focus work and about 20 – 30 percent collaborative work.

Was the design industry too quick to provide “we” space at the cost of “me” space? “Put on a pair of headphones” or “sit in this glass enclosed phone booth like a fish” don’t really address the three major problems workers say cause inefficiencies: noise, quiet and privacy. Invisible in the design process, sound is often overlooked.

Solutions do exist though – and some surprisingly simple ones.

“You can do a lot simply with protocols,” DePlazaola says.

He provides a library as an example: people inherently understand how to act in a library. It could even be a space that’s not enclosed but designated as a quiet zone during certain times of the day.

There is another major factor that plays a role in workplace satisfaction: choice.

“The one thing that we see predominantly in every survey that we do – this is pretty consistent in all the research firms – is providing choice,” DePlazaola says. “Employees with choice of where they work, how they work, when they work typically respond better or report higher satisfaction ratings and pretty much being happier at work when they are provided choice.”

More choice is likely in the future of office design. From totally open spaces, DePlazaola predicts the pendulum will start swinging somewhat back in the other direction. That doesn’t mean a total reversion to the closed-door office, but a more balanced approach that supports the working styles of different employees.

The employee-centric approach is especially prevalent in the tech industry where engineers – generally the revenue generators – revolt against open office environments. In response, smaller “neighborhoods” and auxiliary spaces provide a more comfortable working environment.

For more information on Unispace, visit unispace.com.