When thinking of open plan offices, you may think they’re a phenomenon of the last decade or so. When you picture multiple employees sitting around a large, shared table with their laptops, bouncing around ideas, a millennial startup culture comes to mind.
However, the first open-plan office space was actually created in 1906 by US architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in an attempt to imitate the efficiency of the factory floor. Employees sat in rows in the middle of the room, surrounded by their superiors, who worked in private offices.
During the 1960s, European offices broke out of Wright’s strict seating plan to create a more organic, albeit chaotic, office plan. Over time, the cubicle walls we all came to know from American films and TV shows came down, making room for larger shared tables and the more relaxed floor plan we know today.
Why do bosses love the open plan?
When companies choose an open floorplan for their office, they cite the many benefits this decision seems to bring. Most will state that it helps to bring their team together, encouraging employees to communicate and to exchange ideas, increasing creativity and productivity.
It is understandable why managers and office designers may believe that as people who sit next to each other feel more comfortable to communicate, ask questions and seek assistance, than those who sit behind closed doors. In addition to communication, many believe that seeing colleagues working hard can encourage others to up their own productivity.
Unfortunately, this line of thinking has been completely disproven over the past few years. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the “benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy.” Meaning that workers were, in fact, becoming less productive due to the amount of noise surrounding them, and the fact that they rarely get a moment to themselves.
A later study even found the claim of increased communication to be false. The findings concluded that in an open plan office face-to-face interactions are reduced by 73% and email and messaging use rise by more than 67%.
However, organisations still like the open floor plan, because it saves money. When you don’t have to allow space for barriers between people, you can pack more people into a small space. This close proximity between employees can, however, result in many more sick days being used. While this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be reverting back to private offices any time soon, it does mean a revision of the open plan practice is needed.
Tomorrow’s office is all about flexibility
The millennial workforce, which has been dominating the market for quite some time, has a different outlook on many aspects of the work-life balance. Millennials appreciate flexibility in many areas of their working life, from their hours to the positions they take, and crucially their office space.
The office plan we are moving towards incorporates that much-wanted flexibility. While it doesn’t eliminate the open plan entirely, it offers employees multiple options to choose from, with a combination of private offices, cubicle spaces, communal open space, standing desks and soundproof rooms.
Employees can choose their location according to their mood and requirements throughout the day, whether be it a private meeting, a need to focus on a long task, wanting to brainstorm, or wishing to stretch their legs.
According to a study from Gensler, an architecture and design firm, the option of soundproof rooms was extremely important, as employees in 2013 spent 54% of their time in work needing individual focus, an increase of 48% from 2008.
Say goodbye to the personal desk
This greater need for flexibility means that there’s no room for dedicated desks in the workplace. It will be expected that when a person comes in each morning, they will choose their location for work that day, which will not necessarily be the same location the next day.
This is similar to how co-working spaces operate, such as this one in Liverpool St. in London, offering members hot-desking contracts. The American architecture firm Perkins + Will, which implemented this system, went as far as to say that a desk that was not used for two hours needed to be packed up and wiped down with a sanitary wipe provided by the company. Much like co-working spaces, they provided their employees with personal lockers for their belongings, so they can set up shop in a different place each day.
Like the original idea of the open plan office, this encourages creativity and interaction, as it forces employees to sit next to a new co-worker every day and create new relationships. In addition, in this new office plan, all computers should be laptops, of course, and all online communication should be completely wireless.
As employers may still wish to make the most of the square footage, communal spaces will be more prevalent than private spaces and employees may need to become more creative with where they choose to spend their time.
The borders of work are not confined to the office
As all communication is wireless and most of the work will be done on laptops and mobile phones, some employees may decide to take their work outside the office. Meetings can be held while walking around the block or grabbing lunch across the street. One can work on a laptop from their local library if they feel it is more quiet, from a coffee shop, or even from bed if they do not feel like coming in that day.
As the office itself becomes more flexible, so do the boundaries around the work. While the traditional office may continue to be the base where all work is initiated, it doesn’t mean that is where all work is executed, opening up all manner of possibilities for the workspace of the future.