The open office design is a much-talked-about concept, both within the workplace and this publication. Its merits and flaws have likely, at one point or another, been a point of discussion among anyone who works in, creates, designs or manages space in an open office.
The challenges that open office was looking to create and solve, collaboration and transparency for all, isn’t working. Harvard researchers discussed in research published in 2018 that face-to-face interaction decreased almost 70% in open office environments.
The open office concept that’s been common for the past decade—marked by open benching workstations and less space per person—has gotten a bad reputation. Cushman & Wakefield notes in 2018 that the national average space per employee was 194 square feet, down 8.3% from 2009.
(The open office debate is a topic of discussion for anyone who has ever worked in or on an office space. The definition of open office has shifted over the decades. Today, it’s moving toward a trend of providing occupants with a variety of work seating and spaces to help with various tasks.)
At that time, in response to the Great Recession, shrinking office space became a cost reduction solution, according to Janet Pogue McLaurin, workplace leader and principal with Gensler.
The trend may be reversing, with Cushman & Wakefield noting that the decrease in space per person is slowing as businesses add other spaces in the office for employees in terms of personal, private and group spaces (i.e. cafés, breakrooms, small meeting rooms, collaboration spaces, etc.).
It’s important to understand where open office came from, how it’s shifted and where it is today. From there, we can look to where it’s going and determine what products and solutions can best prepare the changing workforce now and in the future, setting up occupants for workplace success and happiness.
History of Open Office
The term and meaning for open office has evolved over time, starting nearly 100 years ago with Frank Lloyd Wright creating open layouts for office workers. Buildings like SC Johnson’s Administration Building from the 1930s used modular furniture and no walls in an effort to increase productivity, bringing in natural light.
(Photo: The Herman Miller Action Office system, introduced in 1968 and still available today, was the world’s first open-plan office system, a set of components that can be reconfigured as office needs change. Credit: Herman Miller.)
The modern-day open office as we think of it is often said to begin in the 1960s, with the introduction of the Herman Miller Action Office system in 1968. This was the world’s first open-plan office system, which supported the way people at the time worked, according to the Herman Miller website. Action Office, still produced to this day, is a set of components that can be reconfigured as office needs change.
In the 1980s and ’90s, open office typically meant cubicles with panels that were often standing height; the cubicles people associate with the Dilbert comic strip came into their own, Pogue McLaurin explains.
(Credit: Herman Miller.)
Since then, the panels have been lowered—or even removed—and benching desks have made way. This is partly because companies wanted to get more people into a space as the economy turned, and partly because technology—especially laptops and mobile devices—have allowed for less equipment and need for space.
“Ten years ago is when the open offices that get a bad rap today started coming out,” notes Jamie Feuerborn, director of workplace strategy at Ted Moudis Associates. “The focus was on densification and getting people in, with the idea of collaboration, but it wasn’t the right balance of space.”
(Credit: Herman Miller.)
Variety of Workspaces Important
Feuerborn has seen more focus in the past five years on finding a better balance between effective and efficient work environments.
“It’s great people come into the office and you can share information, but you also need to be able to do focus work. Now, it’s trying to find a balance between the focus work and the teamwork. That’s where we are today,” Feuerborn explains.
Pogue McLaurin points to 2016 research by her firm in Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey that open bench seating was found to be just as effective as a private office if:
- It’s adjustable
- You solve for noise
- Workers have access to the people and resources needed to do their jobs
“It’s not about the amount of enclosure, it’s about the total work environment. That’s the key,” she says. “When open plan has gotten a bad reputation, it’s when an organization hasn’t solved for all those ingredients.”
(In the past decade, the definition of open office has changed. Desk panels have been lowered—or even removed—for benching desks. This is partly because companies wanted to get more people into a space and partly because technology has taken up less space.)
Gensler’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey shows that’s still an issue: Workers today are asking for more private space at work, and 77% say an environment that falls between totally open or totally private is ideal. Further, the report states that amenities that deliver the greatest impact are those that help them do their work. This includes places like:
- Innovation hubs
- Maker space
- Outdoor workspace
- Focus rooms
- Work cafés
Pogue McLaurin attributes the needs for those kinds of spaces to shifting work modes, with a change to more collaborating among office workers. “Those are the activities that weren’t supported well in the cubicle environment or the desk, regardless of the workstation or work setting type,” she says. “You need to have this other complement of spaces. … We aren’t doing the same thing throughout the day.”
(Recently, the trend in an open office is to provide a variety of work seating for different tasks, ranging from open desking or seating options for individuals and groups of various sizes.)
Workplaces and open office layouts can be improved, Feuerborn encourages, by designers and facilities managers looking at:
- Aligning to the way work is happening in the space
- Creating spaces that are a more flexible environment that will grow with the office space and people
- Looking at the employee and company experience. “The culture the office creates is reflected in the work environment,” Freuerborn says. “Today, there’s more involvement from the C-suite.”
To create the right space and make it purposeful, Feuerborn says managers and leadership should look at how:
- Teams work together
- Long they come together
- They share information
- Many people are working together
Designers and managers of spaces should take note: The 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey states that 71% of people with a choice in where to work report a great workplace experience.
Creating Engaging, Healthy Spaces
There’s more focus today on office culture, experience and wellbeing, Feuerborn says. Workers spend a great deal of time in an office. People see how many hours of a day are spent there, so the office environment plays a great deal into a person’s wellbeing.
“Before, a lot of the healthy balance was on the employee,” she says. “Now, a lot is the employer helping create spaces that support wellbeing.”
(Photo credit: Herman Miller.)
Feuerborn gives healthy examples common to workplaces today, including:
- Sit-stand desks
- Natural daylight
- Healthier work environments, featuring better air quality and materials, or food options
Her firm, Ted Moudis Associates, spends time with clients to create a purposeful space that fits them. They put focus on what they refer to as alternative spaces and seats, an area or furniture not assigned to a particular individual that can be used for a variety of work- and non-work-related activities. Recent Ted Moudis Associates projects have been designed with slightly more alternative seats than workspace seats.
“We always say it’s about creating purposeful spaces,” Feuerborn explains. This seating allows for work based on activity.
She believe these trends have been brought about by more transparency from social media, people moving jobs more often and the desire for more of an experience at work. “People want a company that matches them,” Feuerborn says.
And the need for open office design and workspaces to adapt to changing needs isn’t expected to go away.
“Think about how open office layout has shifted over time: It’s evolved from efficiency to effectiveness to experience,” Pogue McLaurin says. “Think about what’s next. It might be emotion. How do we capture not only the minds of employees, but also their hearts? It will be an interesting way to think about the role the physical environment might play.”