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Surviving the Open Office Plan and Providing the Fix

The Spaceship,” Apple’s new open office plan building. Photo by Getty Images

The first time I read about the “new” open office concept, I was in my 12’x12’ office with glass windows looking out to the secretarial pool.

“Open?” I thought. “My door is almost always open. The only way this office could be more open is if it had a view of the outdoors.”  Little did I know.

My hardwood waterfall desk was six feet wide, with a return for keyboard and monitor that kept computer work separated from my writing area. Behind my desk chair was a matching lateral file cabinet. Also in my office was a drafting board/stool, blueprint storage, refrigerator, bookshelf cabinet, and a chair for guests. I’d brought most of this from home and that cleared out a spare bedroom, which we started converting into a library. Life was good. I didn’t mind that my workdays were long. I got a change of scenery visiting satellite locations as part of my job, yet always loved coming back to my office. It was private, yet adjacent to the similar offices of those I most interacted with, the VP of Sales and Operations.

There was another aspect of my workspace that employees in new and remodeled facilities everywhere would grow to envy over the next decade: a door. Privacy. Silence.

It turned out that many interpretations of the open office concept placed marketing creatives, number-crunchers, project managers, sales people—everyone except top executives and IT people—side-by-side in hard-to-define work areas, their individual spaces often limited to a laminate top and a streamlined, ergonomic chair. Many had no private space to work with people from other departments or carry on negotiations with sales reps and clients; nowhere to hang a jacket and store a purse and other personal belongings; nowhere to file paperwork (everything now being saved digitally and vulnerably); and nowhere to experience the most valuable commodity of all in the workplace: silence, where they could work, create, problem-solve, and de-stress.

The electronic/digital era brought us out of rooms full of noisy printers, adding machines, and manual typewriters, only to have our hard-fought-for and peaceful Office Space taken away like the poor dolt in the cult film of the same name.

Fifteen years later, significant numbers of people working in open office plans have not only failed to “get used to it,” as designers, facility managers and company owners assured them they would, they’ve failed to be productive. Only younger workers with fewer expectations and shorter attention spans thrived, and even they weren’t being productive, except on social media. Managers and number-crunchers took note that 37% of employees were now telecommuting, citing a need for a place to concentrate.

Research shows that the most rarely experienced human comfort is silence.

The primary complaint in office satisfaction surveys today is constant noise, followed by lack of privacy. Even by adding carpet and low partitions (oh, no, back to the cubicles of the 1980s!), workers cannot escape conversations of those near them. Many turned to earbuds to enjoy music without distracting others, and to avoid being distracted—putting them right back into isolation. They preferred constant input to their eardrums to dealing with unwanted noise around them. Stress levels were rising as productivity dropped.

Designers had brought us the open office concept, yet design work—dependent on inspiration, creativity and focus—was a field that was suffering the most.

Then it hit me: the open office concept was driven primarily by the space planners working for major business furnishings suppliers! Selling the concept was easy: who wouldn’t go for saving space and build-out costs while providing workers a more light-filled, open space where they could collaborate?

Some companies later added a few shared offices with glass walls and door, places for people to meet with clients or other employees without others overhearing the conversations. It helped, but it didn’t solve the downward trend of productivity and employee satisfaction. The office furnishings suppliers gained repeat business, though, designing remodels of their original plans.

Years passed, with users increasingly reporting dissatisfaction in their workspaces, primarily due to noise and lack of privacy.

Now the trend may be reversing.

Many jumped ship and went to work where they could have their own space, vowing never to work that way again.

The entire Cloud Service staff of Apple and some engineers reportedly refused to move to the open-plan “Spaceship” building completed this year, choosing to stay in the “Infinite Loop” building where they had private space. It was a corporate revolution that made the news—at least, the business news.

The International Interior Design Association (IIDA) recently moved into new headquarters, designed in a collaborative way by Gensler. It features a variety of spacetypes to meet the equally varying needs of their business environment. Open space for casual conversations and brainstorming are next to the exterior windows, providing an inspirational place to share a cup of coffee with co-workers or welcome visitors from the design industry and IIDA chapters.

Private office at IIDA

Collaborative open spaces, shared offices, and enough meeting rooms that you can usually find one, were included. There are some partition-separated call center type spaces, and even some private offices—just fewer than before. They chose a lower floor this time, less removed from the bustling activity of the Chicago street below. Light pours in through large windows and plants provide a connection to the outdoors as well. So far, it’s been a hit with employees and an inspiration to other businesses.

Amenities like company child care centers, healthy lunch/dinner choices available on site, espresso bars, and the ability to bring a pet to work make long days easier to live with for some. But there’s nothing like peace and quiet.

Many major corporations are redesigning their facilities or looking at moving. Individual offices will still be scarce and shared collaboration areas—marvelous when you NEED to collaborate on a project—should remain. And so should the Sounds of Silence.



A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at dianajean@aol.com

 

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Thank you for the inspirational read. A quick look into where we find comfort, luxury, collaboration and peace in our work environment. This article drove me to the conclusion about why my home office (which I used to LOVE) suddenly feels less inviting- it overlooks the front yard which needs a bit of an update! Thank you!

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