The beige cubicle desert: it nauseates designers, scares millennials, and terrorizes extroverts and collaborators.
Over the past two years, I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with many interior designers and creative directors. Many have generously shared their perspective not only on chairs, but on the larger context of office design. During a recent conversation with a design director, I was surprised to hear that her least favorite trend in interior design was the open office.
History of the open office
The open office concept was born out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs in the early 1900s, with the Johnson Wax Headquarters being a notable example (1939). The idea was to eliminate visual barriers and produce an office that was “whole” – lacking visual divisions on the interior, and integrated with the world outside. Workers sat at rows and rows of desks in the open air, while only top executives got a private office.
In the 1950s, German designers created the “office landscape” concept: using tall furniture like filing cabinets and employing a less dense design to create visual and auditory barriers within the workplace. In 1967, Herman Miller designer Robert Probst took this a step further, releasing the cubicle. Probst’s idea was to give every worker the dignity of a “private office”, even in a dense environment.
The cubicle design had begun as an attempt to “humanize” the workplace, but companies began to implement them in increasingly small spaces. Privacy became isolation, and what started as humanization became a symbol of degrading standardization.
(Re)-enter the open office concept. This time as a reaction to cubicles, it called for increased visual space in an office to inspire collaboration and bring a sense of vibrancy to the workplace. Technology companies in the early 2000s quickly embraced it; and it worked! Sort of. The vibrant spirit was fostered and communication was improved, but there were unintended consequences.
Consequences of the open office
The least surprising consequence of the open office concept is its lack of privacy, statistically confirmed by a 2005 academic literature review (Croon et al., 2005). This decrease in privacy was not only visual, but also auditory. As cubicle walls came down and drop ceilings went up, offices became louder than ever before.
The same study by Croon et al. found strong evidence that job satisfaction dropped in open offices. This is surprising: many of these offices were remodeled for exactly the opposite purpose!
The most counter-intuitive consequence was confirmed in 2018 by two Harvard professors (Bernstein and Turban): open offices lead to less in-person interaction. The professors used wearable devices to track employee’s proximity to each other and found a 70% drop in face-to-face meetings and an equivalent rise in electronic communication after an open office concept was deployed. The cause: a lack of privacy made 1:1 interaction more uncomfortable!
This last point is often particularly true for exactly the team members you would hope to encourage: creatives and collaborators. In an open office concept, the most creative employees hide in various corners throughout the day seeking productive time alone. The most collaborative are less likely to seek out privacy but see a large dip in productivity as they get distracted by the hundreds of extra conversations they hear throughout the day.
While well-intentioned, the open office is simply not a good concept. How might we design for privacy, collaboration, visual freedom, and workplace engagement? The flexible office.
Three Keys to The Flexible Office
This concept is still in its infancy, at best. The interior designers I have spoken with agree on three foundational principles of an engaging flexible office design:
#1 - Different types of workspaces
"Thinking one size fits all is one of the biggest mistakes designers make” says one design director. That might mean thinking the same workstation design can accommodate anyone, OR thinking that a single workstation is appropriate for the same person all the time. The key is a variety of spaces – some private, some collaborative, some creative – and freedom for the employee to move through different work vignettes.
#2 - Flexible Equipment
One of the most important questions an interior designer can ask clients is: “what do you use the space for?” Often the same space that is used for creating is also used for hosting impromptu meetings or hosting guests informally. The space must be equipped to enable these uses. Movable white boards, portable screens, and readily available power sources help create that flexibility. Steelcase even debuted an ultra-portable power bank at NeoCon this year, and many manufacturers are releasing movable walls
#3 - Create Permanence
When given a permanent space, employees often decorate with family photos or items of personal taste or interest to make the space their own. In the flexible office setting, employees lose their own small spaces to decorate. The designer must create ways for employees to co-create in the new environment. Lockable storage is a must both for storage and for individual expression. A thoughtfully designed team / community wall can also provide a personal touch. One idea for furniture companies to develop: individual profiles that store an individual’s preferences in lighting, music, computing, and more; so that every workstation she steps into can immediately customize to her unique working style.
The open office, while well-intended, was a step backward. It led to less privacy, less face-to-face interaction, and lower job satisfaction. The flexible office movement has taken much of the visual freedom and vibrancy of the open office and tempered it with thoughtful, task-focused design to help employees productively create and collaborate. To take advantage of the flexible office, a designer must create different types of work environments within an office, leverage flexible and portable furniture and technology, and instill a sense of permanence in the space. Together, these give employees the right mix of private and collaborative work opportunities and help them feel more productive, engaged, and connected at work!
Einar De Croon, Judith Sluiter, P Paul Kuijer & Monique Frings-Dresen (2005) The effect of office concepts on worker health and performance: a systematic review of the literature, Ergonomics, 48:2, 119-134, DOI: 10.1080/00140130512331319409
Bernstein, Ethan, and Stephen Turban. "The Impact of the 'Open' Workspace on Human Collaboration." Art. 239. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences 373, no. 1753 (August 19, 2018).