Open office plans have grown in popularity over the last few years as many companies changed their designs to increase collaboration and promote interdisciplinary activity. However, with social distancing and public health concerns becoming top priorities for employees returning to the office and remote work potentially altering the future of the workforce, open floor plans may actually become a thing of the past. As companies begin planning a return to in-person work, whether permanently or more likely a hybrid model that allows employees to split time between the office and home, open floor plans could have the opposite outcome from the intended effect by reducing collaboration and making it more difficult for workers to focus.
Read on as we tackle this subject and provide you with some interesting research and data.
Open Office Pros and Cons
Before we delve deeper into whether or not the open office design type is still relevant in the workplace, it’s important to understand what are typically thought of as the pros and cons of an open office plan.
WeWork, a company that provides flexible workspaces, has written extensively on the subject. According to Samantha Pena, writing for WeWork, “In an open-office environment, employee workstations are located together rather than in individual cubicles or private offices. Despite their rising popularity, research has shown that open offices tend to have more drawbacks than benefits. Still, this research doesn’t negate the open office’s strengths.” The post from WeWork included the following pro/con list:
- Better communication
- Better aesthetics
- No more barriers
- Lack of privacy
According to a piece published by Workfront, a web-based work management and project management software, in 2018, roughly 70% of U.S. companies have some type of open office plan with 15-20% adopting a totally open plan.
The post, entitled “What Science Says About Open Offices – and 6 Things You Can Do About it,” provides some stark data about the effectiveness of open office plans, reading in part, “While open offices have been shown to increase informal interactions between employees, be far less expensive (requiring as little as 3x less total office space), and help certain types of teams collaborate more effectively, they carry serious tradeoffs in terms of worker productivity. Put simply, there’s a lot of evidence that shows open offices decrease productivity.”
The piece continues on to say, “a review of over 300 papers from 67 journals found that open office layouts “were found to be highly significant in affecting occupant productivity.” It added that “sound and acoustic strategies should be given high priority in office design to achieve a high degree of occupant productivity.” In a similar vein, another review of more than 100 studies on open offices found that the layout consistently led to lower rates of concentration and focus, and a third paper, which analyzed more than 50 surveys on open offices, found consistent complaints about noise and interruptions.”
A 2019 Harvard Business Review article written by Ethan Bernstein – Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School – and Ben Waber – CEO of Humanyze, an organizational analytics company – suggests that open offices might actually decrease collaboration, rather than promote it. This is important because interaction and collaboration are thought to be major benefits of this type of office design. Bernstein and Waber write in part, “… As the physical and technological structures for omnichannel collaboration have spread, evidence suggests they are producing behaviors at odds with designers’ expectations and business managers’ desires. In a number of workplaces we have observed for research projects or consulting assignments, those structures have produced less interaction—or less meaningful interaction—not more.” What’s more, the article goes on to say that “When the firms switched to open offices, face-to-face interactions fell by 70%.”
There is no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic will forever change the way that many people conduct business. Regarding the change the pandemic will have on open offices, an article recently published in Insider, a global news publication, written by Avery Hartmans reads in part, “Experts predict that the wide-open office, popularized by tech industry titans like Google and Facebook, will become a thing of the past. The fad, already becoming passé, has become almost dangerous in the face of the virus — employees often sit packed in large, open rooms, with desks placed close enough to reach out and touch your coworker.”
That article goes on to report, “[Tracy] Brower said she doesn’t think the open office is 100% dead — it’s just going to feel different than it did in early 2020. “The pendulum has really swung toward open, open, open, and lots of density,” Brower said. “I think what has now happened is we’re starting to swing that pendulum way to the other side — more barriers, more boundaries, less density.”
It’s also important to note here that though this pandemic will end, many companies want to try to do a better job of preventing the spread of illnesses in the workplace moving forward, which means densely packed, open areas might no longer be appealing.
Enter Activity-Based Working
If an open office plan isn’t the answer moving forward, what is? Many believe agile workplaces that incorporate activity-based working could be the solution.
Activity-based working allows workers to pick and choose settings throughout the office that fit their needs at a given time. This means there may be some open areas within an office that are available to use when a worker feels that is the best fit, but there may also be more private spaces where someone can close a door to really sit and concentrate in silence. A recent blog post we published on the Smartway2 Work blog explains it this way, “Employees want more autonomy, flexibility and the ability to choose when and where they work to fit with their lifestyle. Activity Based Working (ABW) is a concept built on the idea that office work no longer needs to be in a fixed location. It disregards the idea that employees need assigned work stations and desks, and instead supports employees by viewing work as a fluid activity that can change on a daily basis.”
As part of a more adaptive workplace, things like hot desking and hoteling might also become more appealing, with of course heavy sanitation policies in place.
In conclusion, to answer the question we started with – is the open plan office dead? – we think the answer is not exactly. But, there is a caveat because open offices certainly are not likely to be the same as they were before COVID-19. The one thing we know for sure is that overall the workplace is definitely in the midst of a transformation, with employers and employees looking for more flexibility as public health and sanitization will be driving forces for companies moving forward.
Smartway2 helps organizations transform workplace experience by providing tools that enable employees to book everything they need to be productive in the office, from conference rooms and desks, to parking spaces, catering and equipment.