Everyone hates the open office. So now what?
Whether you've found yourself stuck with a universally hated open office layout, or you’re designing a new office and want to avoid the open office pitfalls, we can help.
By Lindsay Yale | February 11, 2020
The “open office” is getting plenty of hate mail these days. This angry one from Vice writer Hannah Ewens is especially entertaining. In this one, Geoffrey James of Inc. has dubbed open offices the “dumbest management fad of all time.” And there’s plenty more where that came from.
But the open office concept was well-intentioned, and not without its merits. First introduced in the late 90s, it was meant to fix everything we hated about the soul-crushing cubicle farm, with its rows and rows of gray square hellscapes that left workers feeling disconnected and forgotten.
Open office layouts tore down both the literal and figurative barriers that separated team members from each other and from their managers. Collaboration and creativity were meant to thrive. People were meant to move around more, and bask in the glow of newly accessible natural light. And businesses could suddenly function far more economically in smaller, wall-less spaces.
Tech giants and culture trendsetters like Facebook, Apple and Google led the charge into open offices in the early 2000's. In 2012, Facebook unveiled its brand new Frank Gehry-designed 10-acre open office utopia, solidifying the concept as the gold standard of cool, innovative work design.
By 2014, 70% of offices had transformed to open concepts. However, by 2018—as revealed in a Harvard study, among several others—not only did the amount of collaboration between coworkers in an open office actually decrease, the quality of the collaboration did as well. Productivity suffered, stress rose, illnesses spread faster (leading to more sick days), and employees, tired of the lack of privacy and the countless distractions, blasphemously longed for the era of the cube.
What are the biggest issues with the open office concept?
The old rule that you can’t please all the people all of the time is as true with office design as anything else. Even so, there are some universally hated features of the open office:
1. Too many distractions
From noisy conversations, your boss’s persistent cough, or Tom from accounting’s constant damn humming, there’s no shortage of distractions keeping people from accomplishing their tasks.
2. Too few collaboration/meeting spaces
Despite the intent, collaboration is not happening at individual desks in open offices. Even large offices offer only a few conference rooms, creating high demand for collaboration and meeting spaces, especially for small groups that really don’t require privacy.
3. Rows and rows of desks
A sea of desks replaced a sea of cubes, and the feeling of being just a cog in the giant work machine lingered.
4. Technology needs aren’t met
Many open offices resulted in unassigned desks—also known as float desks, hot desks, or “hoteling”—where employees are encouraged to freely move around. The problem is that those desks rarely provide the technology that works universally with everyone’s laptops.
Flexible work design: Solving what the open office couldn’t accomplish
But hope is not lost. Whether you’re dealing with some (or all) of the above, or you’re about to design a new space from scratch and want to avoid these pitfalls, there’s help in the form of flexible design. It’s the middle ground that today’s workforce is craving.
Not just an aesthetic, flexible work design is also a way of work-life. The same way employees crave flexible schedules and benefits to create more work-life balance, they seek that same flexibility from the furniture and layout of their office. And flexible work design empowers company leadership to adapt and transition a space as the needs of its inhabitants evolve.
The same way employees crave flexible schedules and benefits to create more work-life balance, they seek that same flexibility from the furniture and layout of their office.
The more we learn about neurodiversity and inclusion in the workplace, the more we also realize that no two workers are the same. And most of us need to do different types of work—from deep, heads-down thinking, to idea-sparking collaboration, to private meetings—throughout any given day. Flexible workspaces allow you to create the best space for different work tasks and for different workstyles among individuals. The result is better energy, comfort and productivity.
Here’s how you can evolve an open office into a space that is flexible, energizing, and designed to facilitate real collaboration while accommodating a variety of work styles.
Tip 1: Start with the individual workspace
So much can be accomplished simply by improving the individual workstation.
Group desks into neighborhood pods
Open offices set out to eliminate hierarchies by breaking down walls and by seating managers with their teams. The idea was great, but resulted in long rows of desks that still leave everyone feeling small and forgotten.
Instead, form smaller groupings of desks—from 4 to 25—that keep teams together in smaller pods (also known as neighborhoods) without sacrificing individual workspace. Neighborhoods also allow for quicker and easier collaboration among team members, with fewer disruption to other teams.
Make sure to leave ample space between your new neighborhoods, too. This encourages more movement around the office, and allows for visual lines-of-sight so people feel they’re in a pleasant openness, rather than a vast, disconnected space. This thoughtful design approach also supports the need for “specialized” spaces, which we will address more in tip #2.
Form smaller groupings of desks—from 4 to 25—that keep teams together in smaller pods without sacrificing individual workspace.
You can create private and personalized workspaces without having to revert back to the cube or buying everyone noise cancelling headphones (though the latter might be an appreciated perk). Privacy panels, made of noise-dampening felt, can attach to the edges of individual desks to create both a visual and a sound barrier. They can even work for height adjustable desks.
You can also designate a deskpod for “quiet work.” This works especially well in offices with unassigned desks, where the nomadic lifestyle has left them feeling displaced and distracted. Pro-tip: Use visual cues such as a different color desktop or playful signage to differentiate this pod. And remember, change management is key; communicate rules around appropriate noise pollution in its 'airspace' to keep the area nice and quiet.
Make tech universal
It’s common for staff to have different versions of the same laptop, with disparate USB ports and charger connections. If you’re sticking with a float desk set up, this is an even bigger issue. Make sure team members can connect to monitors, keyboards and mice with dongles or other agnostic devices. Wired-in mice and keyboards can also prevent people from leaving a workstation with the bluetooth connector still in their laptop, leaving the next person out-of-luck. Desktop power can also make connecting chargers way faster, allowing people to set up without climbing under their desk.
Tip 2: Create specialized spaces for all types of work
Once you have the individual workspace dialed, it’s time to look around. We know people are equally desperate for more meeting space and solo work spaces alike.
Specialized spaces—with the right tools—can accommodate both.
Some meetings really do need to happen in a conference room with a closed door, like those that require ultimate privacy, a large team, or complete freedom from distraction. But smaller collaborations, creative brainstorms, and 1-to-1 meetings can often be more flexible and just as easily accommodated around the office.
We also know people need to move regularly throughout the day to prevent pain, fatigue, and even chronic illness. Adjustable-height standing desks and active chairs are great for the individual workstation; but you can also encourage movement by creating spaces to move to.
“Resimercial” design—Make working from the office feel more like working from home
Home-like environments are scientifically proven to fuel the most creative problem solving. Couches, coffee tables, dining tables, plants, art, lighting and other home elements can all bring a level of comfort and connectedness that drive creativity and teamwork. Scientists have even learned that lying down—or recumbent posture—helps switch off a part of the brain that deals with stress and panic, leading to greater problem-solving aptitude and creativity.
Designate a lounge space with “soft seating”—couches, armchairs, poufs—and a coffee table, and you’ve created a living room environment someone can use for heads-down concentration or for a small group discussion. Most companies are now designing home furniture meant to withstand the rigors of the office.
Designate another space with a picnic table or smaller standing-height conference table with wobble-based stools, and you’ll achieve a conference room feel without the stuffiness of four walls and a closed door. Bistro tables can optimize a small space and create intimacy that improves collaboration and creativity. Spaces like this can offer great versatility, functioning as social space for lunch, events, all-hands meetings and more to fuel connection between employees.
Couches, coffee tables, dining tables, plants, art, lighting and other home elements can all bring a level of comfort and connectedness that drive creativity and teamwork.
Get creative—and stay flexible—with moveable partitions
Remember that flexibility is the name of the game, which is why lightweight, mobile partitions are awesome solutions for creating specialized spaces.
A whiteboard on wheels serves as both a visual barrier and a brainstorm tool. Bookshelves filled with plants, books, and soft-sided bins can designate a space while adding style, sound-dampening qualities, and even storage.
Offer small private spaces
Phone booths and privacy sofas are excellent tools for phone calls, private conversations and heads-down time.
Tip #3: Focus on flow
Focus on clean lines of sight within the space. This allows people to see each other and feel connected, and to see all of the potential work environments they can choose from to meet their current mood. You should also create clear pathways free of physical roadblocks around the office to ensure it’s easy to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from neighborhood to specialized space. This story from Buildings.com offers more ideas on how to create flow, including using glass walls to increase visibility.
Tip #4: Before you start, play detective
One of the keys to designing a better space for your employees is to sit down with your teams and understand what is working or not working with the office. Anonymous surveys can also allow employees to speak more freely about what doesn’t work, and can provide the clarity you need to make real and lasting fixes.
There’s no way you’re going to check all the boxes for all of your employees, but you can certainly solve the majority of problems with your current workplace design. As you talk to your team, make sure they understand your budget, timeline, building capabilities, construction timeline, etc., so you can manage their expectations. That new employee lap pool may not be in the current budget… This story offers solid recommendations on how to manage the transition to a new office design.
As you talk to your team, make sure they understand your budget, timeline, building capabilities, construction timeline, etc., so you can manage their expectations.
Offer options that provide employees with some autonomy as the change unfolds. A work-from-home policy can give employees the kind of downtime they need to tackle major projects, which can further reflect your commitment to creating a flexible workplace.
If all of this is feeling a little too overwhelming, there is a slew of resources you can utilize to help, like Fully’s own Workplace Design team. We can help with product selection, space planning, procurement, and installation. Not to mention our quick lead times also make things happen much more seamlessly for you and your team.