Falling Out of Love With Open Offices

Falling Out of Love With Open Offices

The vaunted cauldrons of collaboration haven’t lived up to their hype, Laura Entis writes at Fortune:

Invented in 1950s Germany, the idea of creating a workspace free of dividing walls only took off in the U.S. within the last decade, spreading from tech startups to more established industries such as advertising, media and architecture. By tearing down literal barriers, the thought was that creativity and productivity would skyrocket. It didn’t exactly play out this way.

By now the backlash against the open office — which, by industry definition, includes spaces with cubicles since cubicle walls aren’t permanent, but by popular definition means a space without any high dividers — has reached fever pitch. The trend “is destroying the workplace,” declares a 2015 Washington Post headline, which labels the setup “oppressive.” A quick Google search surfaces hundreds of similar articles and testimonials, most published in the past couple years, which depict the open office synonymous with the spread of disease, ceaseless distractions and, according to a 2015 Bloomberg article, “being forced to listen to phone calls about the veterinary issues of your co-workers’ cats.”

The research is similarly damning. Evidence is mixed on whether open plans actually foster collaboration, and studies have shown that open office plans decrease productivity and employee well-being while increasing the number of sick days workers take.

“What went wrong?” Entis asks. “And, if an open plan isn’t the solution to the modern workplace, what comes next?”

The next-generation office combines private offices, cubicle banks and truly open floor plans (in which even cubicle dividers are dismantled) as well as communal areas and sound-proof rooms where employees can go to concentrate on solo work. That last part appears to be of increasing importance — a study by the architecture and design firm Gensler found that workers in 2013 spent 54 percent of their time on work requiring individual focus, up from 48 percent in 2008. The end result is a hybrid office, which incorporates a range of spaces and gives employees the autonomy to move between them throughout the day.