Open Office Space Design Wave of the Future

Chriss Swaney

Some workers may hate the growing trend for open office design, but it’s probably here to stay as more U.S. companies in 2019 have learned how to economically tweak around the edges with new furniture designs that allow people to put up barriers around a desk or turn a small conference room into a collaboration area.

Jonathan Webb, vice president of workplace strategy at the design firm KI, said companies are now using ‘privacy pods’ for people to have private conversations without taking up an entire meeting room designed for a larger group.

“The open office design also gives employees more opportunity to collaborate with peers keeping important lines of communication open, ‘’ said Webb.

Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, further noted that some of the unintended consequences from using open office spaces is that more interaction and exposure across teams creates a work environment that fosters productivity, creativity and innovation.

Waber is quick to add that his company’s studies show that continual evaluation is necessary in order to understand what adjustments need to be made within cross-functional teams. “There is no one- size- fits- all approach, and in order to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving landscape companies must regularly measure objective, real-time data to inform key operational decisions,” said Waber.

Founded in 2011 out of the MIT Media Lab, Humanyze brings over a decade of advanced research in organizational network analysis and behavioral science to Fortune 1,000 companies to help them uncover how work actually gets done.

“With the office phone booths or privacy pads, there is simply a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other; just really productive,” added Webb.

Office analysts predict that by 2020, more than 80 percent of all offices will offer open floor plans. Like unlimited snacks and cold brew coffee on tap, these layouts have now become the norm, particularly in technology and startup circles.

Silicon Valley firms were among the first to champion open workspaces, where employees sit shoulder to shoulder at communal desks. They tore down walls and eliminated private offices as outdated symbols of corporate hierarchy. An open layout seemed to convey a modern, break-all-the rules attitude. It also provided a stark contrast to the cubicle farms featured in movies like Office Space.

Ironically, the first foray into open floor plans was developed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1939, Wright designed the Johnson Wax headquarters main office for S.C. Johnson & Son. The office lacked any partitions, but rather was divided up with thin white columns, filing cabinets and oval desks.

Employee Discontent

In spite of the growing affection for open floor plans, some employees still decry their development. In 2018, Harvard Business School researchers analyzed how transition to an open workspace affected staff collaboration. The study said it was hard for workers to stay focused in a noisy open space environment.

While a humming co-worker may be irritating, some people argue that open office distractions like these are a small price to pay for greater collaboration and communications.

“We’ve found that the sit/stand office configuration in the open space layout also helps employees be more mobile and flexible. And it is a lot more healthy for them,” said Webb.

Open space experts continue to point out that dysfunctional offices can raise employee stress levels, trigger more sick leaves, and promote anxiety and depression.

Webb explains that increased use of open office space strategies are making the shift more economical. In November 2015, for example, only one open space booth-maker was part of the commercial-design industry’s trade show in Chicago. In 2018, there were more than a dozen.

The open office space strategy and the ways employees work will continue to evolve, and that’s what makes this concept so exciting, Webb said. Workers are no longer tethered to equipment. “They can be mobile and feel comfortable in their work environment. That’s why I disagree with the Harvard study.”

The open office plan is a generic term used in architectural and interior design for any floor plan which makes use of large, open spaces and minimizes the use of small, enclosed rooms such as private offices.

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