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Columbia Business Monthly

The tide is shifting for open offices, but are the days of cubicle farms really returning?

Dec 09, 2019 11:43AM

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

The open office plan: beloved by architects, office designers and CEOs around the world, reviled by employees everywhere. 

Open offices were popularized by Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook, and were supposed to increase collaboration, creativity and even act as a symbol of workplace democracy. 

The idea was that if employees were sharing communal tables or sitting at desks in a single large, open space—rather than being stuck on their own in offices or cubicles—they would have more face-to-face interactions, ideas would fly, and productivity would soar. 

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg famously praised the open office design back in 2012, when he announced that his company’s new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters would be an open design. According to Fast Company, he wrote, “The idea is to make the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together.” 

The problem, of course, is that the actual results of an open office plan are the opposite of what they’re supposed to be. 

According to a high-profile 2018 study by two researchers at the Harvard Business School, open office plans create a significant decrease in employees’ face-to-face interactions—nearly 70 percent. This is accompanied by a rise in employees’ electronic communications. As summarized in the study’s abstract, “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.”

The reason, of course, is that employees like privacy. They need privacy. For one thing, it’s uncomfortable to feel like you’re in a fishbowl, with everyone around you able to see what you’re working on and what’s on your computer monitor.

For another, open offices can be distracting. The noise of keyboards, phone calls, co-workers walking around—it all adds up to constant, low-level noise that can make focusing extremely difficult. 

This is why in recent years, many companies have been moving away from the purely open office plan to more hybrid-type spaces: for example, offices with some common or open office space, as well as quiet areas, or spots reserved for focused, concentrated work. These could be merely relegated to a corner of the office or enclosed offices with walls and doors. 

When Greenville advertising agency EP+Co. moved to a new space in 2017, they took pains to ensure that their office design would offer a mix of options for employees. “We utilize a mix of ‘neighborhooding’ and assigned seating depending on your department or role,” says Jeff Howle, EP+Co. SVP and director of employee engagement. “We don’t have private offices, and while we are truly an open floor plan environment, we’ve found that employees like to have a ‘home base’ that is constant.”

Howle notes that lots of people will use headphones to block out distraction, or use the quiet area, which has desks that can be reserved, when they need to really focus. 

In Charleston, the new mixed-use development WestEdge is also embracing a mix of common and private spaces in its offices. “From a landlord perspective, where we see our tenants going, I’m seeing demand for a blend of open and private space,” says Mack Reese of Gateway Ventures Real Estate, one of the developers. “Accenture is one of our clients [in Atlanta], and they’ve got a mix of both. In WestEdge, I’m building some common work areas, but also separate offices because that’s what people want. I think in general, people have a greater value on privacy today than ever before.” 

Henry Moore, cofounder and CEO of the locally focused, online commercial real estate listings site REsimplifi, says he is seeing more offices of the type Reese mentions rather than of a complete shift away from open spaces and a return to cubicles. “The majority of office floor plans that we see appear to be sensible, having a combination of shared common areas, open workspace and closed offices,” Moore says. “The shared common areas can include break rooms that seem to still be larger and more of a focal point than they once were.”

Moore also notes that light and character elements play key roles in today’s closed and open office environment. “Clearly, some businesses require more heavily devised office layouts, but even those have more accommodating open common areas to include larger reception areas, break rooms and other shared spaces designed for both employees and visitors.”

“In general, architects are taking advantage of natural light where they can and building open areas around the window lines— light—and other attractive elements of buildings,” he adds. “Often, older repurposed buildings in city centers may have historic elements that architects can expose better with an open floor plan. Character elements such as exposed brick, repurposed wooden floors, large bowstring truss ceilings, chipped plaster, etc. are all things that not so long ago may have been covered but now are heavily desired. An open floor plan can really highlight these natural elements.”

JP Scurry, senior vice president of the Columbia commercial real estate firm Crossland Barnes Group, says that companies may opt for private spaces for employees to complete their work and so-called touchdown areas where the environment is open and collaborative in nature. “It's not one size fits all,” Scurry says. “Depending on your business and who's in the office, how often they're in the office, and what they're trying to accomplish when they’re in the office would dictate the kind of space that you made.”

So while we likely won’t see many purely open-office designs continuing to be built in years to come, we will probably always have some elements of the open office in our workspaces, along with quiet or retreat areas, private conference rooms and “phone booths,” or small enclosed booths big enough for one or two people. 

The trick is finding a balance so that all employees can be productive and happy on the job.  “Some people would prefer the privacy of an office to allow for a quieter environment, while others thrive in the energy of the open space,” Howle says. “The goal for any open-plan office should be to provide employees with the various setups that will foster the best work, collaboration and energy. There is no point trying to force a solely open-office environment when so many employees have different needs.”