The Autonomous Workplace Eats the Open Office for Breakfast

The Autonomous Workplace Eats the Open Office for Breakfast

Open-plan offices have proven disappointing to many of us who have worked in them, not quite living up to their promise to automatically generate creativity, camaraderie, and collaboration. On the other hand, nobody really wants to go back to the cubicle days, so is there anything to be gained from the creative office design movement? Yes, writes Carson Tate at Fast Company, but it’s not the open office. Autonomy, she contends, is the real creativity booster:

If the most popular feature of the past generation in office design is a wash at best and a bust at worst, are we back to square one? If it isn’t more open space—let alone zany features like office slides—that measurably improves how people work, what actually does? It turns out the answer is simple, but possibly harder to design for: autonomy and control over your work environment.

Columbia University psychologists have found “evidence for a biological basis for the need for control and for choice—that is, the means by which we exercise control over the environment.” This, they say, is a built-in “imperative for survival” among our species. And according to researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, conditions that support an individual’s exercise of autonomy also enhance performance, persistence, and creativity.

In other words, you can’t just install a rock wall or swap cubicles with a communal table and call it a day. Why? Because those elements are static—what employees really need is the freedom to personalize, customize, and shift their workspaces to their liking.

It’s not hard to see why having control over one’s work environment would be invigorating. Imagine, for instance, office life without the air conditioning wars. This notion of autonomy is also one reason why some freelancers and remote employees take pleasure in working out of a variety of different coworking spaces: They have the power to choose where they go to work every day. If it’s true what they say about millennials, and the defining characteristic of this generation really is individualism, rising demand among employees for workplace autonomy should come as no surprise.