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Open Office 2.0: The New Best Workplace

Open offices have had a rough couple of years. These workplaces, once seen to be the darling of the modern, productivity-focused, “better than your dad’s cubicle” workplace, seem to have fallen out of favor in recent times. Plenty of articles, conference talks and industry conversations have pointed to their shortcomings: they are distracting, they are disliked, and they hurt communication, these articles claim.

Many of these negative impacts make sense. Less walls means more distractions and more time spent trying to look busy than actually doing intense work, for instance. But the idea of bringing employees closer together seems good in theory, and other studies have had contradictory findings. So what really is the score on open offices? Are they as bad as the buzz claims, or are there times when they work? If so, how should they be implemented?

With so much coverage and conversation focusing on open offices, we wanted to dive into the world of the workplace and uncover some valuable information on why these designs are so historically popular, why they are disliked today, how tech is affecting them, and how they are being integrated into modern places of work.

We’ll start by defining the different types of office spaces currently in use before running through an analysis of a wide range of issue areas facing the modern workplace: costs and efficiency, lighting, noise, health, tech, preferences, and collaboration and productivity. After addressing these issue areas, we’ll address the ways workplaces can combine different types of office space to generate the best outcomes for their occupants. These form a spectrum, with homogeneous office space on one side and highly-hybridized layouts on the other. Finally, we’ll address the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on office design, and share a suggestion for how to view the open office in the context of the modern workplace.

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Overview

Open offices have had a rough couple of years. These workplaces, once seen to be the darling of the modern, productivity-focused, “better than your dad’s cubicle” workplace, seem to have fallen out of favor in recent times. Plenty of articles, conference talks and industry conversations have pointed to their shortcomings: they are distracting, they are disliked, and they hurt communication, these articles claim.

Many of these negative impacts make sense. Less walls means more distractions and more time spent trying to look busy than actually doing intense work, for instance. But the idea of bringing employees closer together seems good in theory, and other studies have had contradictory findings. So what really is the score on open offices? Are they as bad as the buzz claims, or are there times when they work? If so, how should they be implemented?

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With so much coverage and conversation focusing on open offices, we wanted to dive into the world of the workplace and uncover some valuable information on why these designs are so historically popular, why they are disliked today, how tech is affecting them, and how they are being integrated into modern places of work.

We’ll start by defining the different types of office spaces currently in use before running through an analysis of a wide range of issue areas facing the modern workplace: costs and efficiency, lighting, noise, health, tech, preferences, and collaboration and productivity. After addressing these issue areas, we’ll address the ways workplaces can combine different types of office space to generate the best outcomes for their occupants. These form a spectrum, with homogeneous office space on one side and highly-hybridized layouts on the other. Finally, we’ll address the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on office design, and share a suggestion for how to view the open office in the context of the modern workplace.

Types of Offices

Modern office work is highly diverse but whether the industry is design or finance, there are some broad commonalities in terms of how specific spaces can be designed. Workers need somewhere to sit (or stand), a space for a computer and room to store papers or other belongings. The following categories represent each of the ways individual spaces can be laid out in the typical modern office. Understanding them is important to fully grasping the performance of these spaces as well as how they are assembled.

Enclosed office
From K2 Space | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Enclosed

Enclosed workplaces are private, separately-walled offices. These spaces may be used for higher-ranking employees, people such as lawyers who frequently work with confidential information, or in small offices with just a few employees.

Semi-enclosed office
From Dustin M. Lemelin | Wikimedia
Commons | CC BY SA 4.0

Semi-enclosed

This type of workplace features cubicles, either using purpose-built office dividers or creatively-arranged storage solutions, to give workers a sense of privacy while reducing costs and space needed per employee.

Open-plan office
From K2 Space | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Open-plan

These spaces take the blank canvas of an office floor plate and add divider-free desks or benches to give employees a place to work with minimal separation and no privacy.

THE OPEN OFFICE

While Herman Miller’s Action Office furniture is commonly associated with the arrival of the open office, the history of this layout goes back much further. Workers have been using shared spaces for centuries, but the first open offices that we know of appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was then that rising bureaucracy and the accompanying legions of clerks led to the growth of workplaces where many employees would share very tight quarters.

A modern view of the open office came in 1939. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson & Son office in Wisconsin featured a large “Great Workroom” with few interior walls. Despite the uniqueness of the high ceiling and “lily pad column” combination that Wright used in this space, the actual worker-level experience of this office would have probably been very similar to a modern open office: no cubicles, seating areas divided into clusters and a general airiness in aesthetic.

Despite Wright’s efforts, the open office experience would not be solidified for several decades after completion of that building. According to Joan Blumenfeld, Principal at Perkins and Will, “Office space from the turn of the 20th century until well after World War II largely consisted of two tiers of workers; management (male) in enclosed offices, and support workers (male and female) in big rooms sitting at rows of desks.”

One of the earliest post-Wright examples of the open-plan office appeared at Jay Chiat’s ad agency in 1994. This was in many ways straight out of the office playbook of the 2010s: hot-desking, different tables and nooks for workers to set up for the day. The agency also tried to go paperless, handing out computers and phones directly to workers at the start of each day. Jay Chiat told Wired back in 1999 that “The idea is, you go to lectures, gather information, but you do your work wherever you like.”

However, things didn’t go so well. Workers started to keep papers and other materials in their cars, hide laptops in their lockers and go into work early to “call” a space by leaving possessions on it, only to return home for a few hours and come into the office for real later. In some cases, workers would simply claim conference rooms as personal office space, consequences be damned. By the time Chiat sold his stake to form TBWA\Chiat\Day around a year later, workers at the company had brought back many of the trappings of traditional offices, even if they still didn’t have cubicles.

A decade later, in 2005, Google introduced an open office layout in its Mountain View headquarters. That brings us to today. Now, we see open offices popping up everywhere: by 2014, an estimated 70% of workplaces used them. Whether the user impacts are positive or negative, there are legitimate business reasons to use these spaces: they are cheaper to build and can fit more workers per square foot.

Analysis of Office Types

Of all these space types, the one that has been most popular in the last two decades or so is the open office. With that in mind, we wanted to dig deeper into how open-plan offices stack up compared to other types of spaces. We organized our comparison into several categories: costs and efficiency, lighting, noise, health, tech, preferences, and collaboration and productivity.

Costs and efficiency

According to JLL, a midline office buildout estimate for a “traditional” office, defined as one with 30% private offices and then an open layout divided into sizable cubicles and various conference rooms, costs $196 per square foot. Meanwhile, a “moderate” layout, consisting of 10% private offices with 90% smaller cubicles, limited bench seating and conference rooms, comes in at $182 per square foot. A “progressive” layout, featuring various sorts of meeting and conference rooms with no private offices and 100% bench seating for employees, clocks in at $170 per square foot. That is a substantial difference, but it illustrates that workplaces don’t need to go all-in on completely open, bench-style layouts to realize significant cost savings.

In terms of usage, workplace solutions company Optimaze found that enclosed offices required the most square footage per worker (467.2 sf). Open offices fair much better in this regard (203.4 sf) but do not perform as well as more mixed workplaces (160.4).

Lighting

Much of the original logic behind modern open offices was to improve the lighting situation in deep buildings. According to Ms. Blumenfeld, , “In order to maximize daylight, divider panel heights were reduced and oriented perpendicular to window walls. Offices and conference rooms were moved off the window wall, incorporating glass walls for borrowed light, or left on the window wall with glass walls to allow light to penetrate into the open area beyond.” Despite this, and the benefits of allowing unobstructed natural light access, open offices pose some challenges for their occupants. There is less opportunity for a worker sitting at a bench of five or ten to control his or her own lighting situation than in enclosed offices or even cubicles. Research from Austrian lighting company the Zumtobel Group found that workers in enclosed offices were the most satisfied with their lighting and also showed the highest rates of spatial wellbeing.

Noise

Unsurprisingly, open offices can be noisier than other types of workspaces. Enclosed offices, of course, provide the maximum noise reduction, while even cubicles can help keep unwanted noises out of a worker’s personal space. Open offices can be problematic with noise for three reasons: the use of hard materials, less partitions, and less space in general. Consequently, modern noise-attenuating materials can be useful to decrease noise distractions in open-plan offices. Additionally, planners can program spaces to be louder or quieter. In an article from Stantec Consulting, the authors said “The future appears to be shifting to providing acoustical privacy programmatically. Separate meeting rooms and focus rooms [provide] for individuals to use during times where controlled attention is necessary. Nooks and other such designed spaces may also be included in office layouts as an option for rejuvenation.”

Health

Different office designs have noticeable impacts on the health of occupants. In one study, a team of researchers in Sweden found that short-term sick leave rates went up in open offices as compared to enclosed offices. Using enclosed offices as a baseline with a short-term sick leave odds ratio of 1.00, small, medium and large open-plan offices saw odds ratios of 1.9, 1.92 and 1.82 respectively. That makes sense, since people working in private, enclosed offices don’t need to worry as much about being exposed to other infected workers.

On the other hand, some research indicates that open-plan offices have health benefits. A team of researchers in Arizona and Texas measured physical activity and stress levels amongst over 220 workers of different office types. They found that open offices performed much better in all these categories than either cubicles or enclosed office spaces, saying in particular that “Workers in open bench seating exhibited 31.83% higher physical activity compared with workers in private offices, and 20.16% higher physical activity compared with workers in cubicles.” The stress measures were also found to be more favorable in open-plan offices.

These mixed results provide an opportunity to maximize the benefits of open-plan offices while minimizing their illness-related downsides. Managers should be proactive to notice when an illness is beginning to go around the office, and then recommend working from home.

Tech

Tech’s impacts on office spaces of all types has been profound, and open offices are no exception. For one thing, technology has enabled more flexible work environments. Offices without assigned desk space benefit greatly from the arrival of hot desking reservation software. These tools, provided by companies like Robin or Teem, allow workers to reserve a particular desk space ahead of time. This can limit the amount of time spent searching for a workstation, making hot desking into a much more legitimate workplace option.

We would be remiss not to mention co-working in this report. While not necessarily tech in and of itself, co-working providers often use a digital platform to allow occupants to find and book space in their properties. Co-working spaces generally emphasize the open office layout, with many mixing up their layouts to provide lounge-style space as well. A fascinating observation from the co-working side comes from a 2019 research paper by several German researchers. In the process of researching whether co-working spaces are preferred to working from home, the authors made another discovery: that while open offices result in less job satisfaction, that effect is mitigated in co-working spaces. The researchers suggested this was because of “the voluntariness and autonomy underlying most of the decisions to work in a coworking space as opposed to being assigned to a given workplace.”

Today, the most interesting tech opportunity comes from workplace sensors. Some, like those offered by Humanyze, focus on pulling observations from workers themselves. Others focus on space. These sensors, installed on walls or furniture, can provide information on what parts of the workplace are most heavily trafficked or least used. Open-plan spaces can benefit from this data in particular, since the more furniture-oriented, impermanent nature of these spaces allows for monitoring and updating based on ongoing usage trends and not just surveys and observations made in a static point in time.

Preferences

Workers tend to prefer mixed workplaces that don’t go all in on any one space type. For their 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey, Gensler surveyed 6,000 full time workers within the country on their office preferences. Gensler found that 28% of respondents wanted “mostly open” offices. Other research has investigated correlations between office type and job satisfaction. In one particularly noteworthy article, researchers confirmed the general belief that open offices are associated with less job satisfaction than private or smaller shared offices. However, this report also pointed to a possible mechanism: job satisfaction may be more a factor of interpersonal interaction ease and perceived wellbeing in the space, than simple office type.

There are also differences from industry to industry. Ms. Blumenfeld told us that “Creatives in particular, in both media and tech, are very team or project based, and need to be able to communicate frequently and easily,” thus making them potential fits for open office space.

The same would not be true of other professions, such as law. In a report focusing on law firm design, Gensler found that “Cost pressures have put the private office in danger, but while international firms and peers from other industries are experimenting with moving their staff to open office environments, roundtable participants saw few prospects for top U.S. firms giving up their individual offices, citing a need for confidentiality and its importance in the recruitment and retention process.”

Collaboration & productivity

The statistic that gets thrown around perhaps more than any other comes from a Royal Society article by a pair of Harvard professors. It stated that within open-plan offices, face-to-face communication drops by 70%. The study focused on two experiments using a “sociometric badge” that could detect movement, body orientation and conversation. In both experiments, participants were employees of a large company that chose to completely turn their existing wall-heavy office into an open-plan workplace. In the first experiment, the researchers compared badge data three weeks before the transition, and then three months after. In the second experiment, the timeframe was three weeks before and two months after.

The experiment’s data was rich and yielded the conclusion: “Open, unbounded offices reduce [face to face] interaction with a magnitude, in these contexts, of about 70%. Electronic interaction takes up at least some of the slack, increasing by roughly 20% to 50%…”

However, it is critical to remember that this research was done with groups of employees that were used to working in one type of office, communicating in a given way, and who then found themselves occupying a radically different space with new methods of interacting. In other words, this represents the worst-case outcome for open-plan office research. Had the researchers instead measured workers who gradually transitioned to open office spaces over the course of months or years, or workers that came to the open-plan layout straight out of school, or even workers who were used to cubicles and enclosed offices in one company but then moved to another favoring open offices, the results could have been different.

Ms. Blumenfeld told us that “When people disparage open office, they are sometimes disparaging spaces where there has only been the elimination of office space, not the addition of the full menu of types of spaces needed to support various types of work.” With that in mind, that 70% reduction in face to face communication should be taken with a grain of salt when it is used in sweeping statements to indicate that open offices are never good.

The case for open offices reducing productivity is similarly unclear. One report that found open offices were tied to lower perceived performance has the same limitation as the Royal Society study, where the surveyed workers were subject to a move from one type of office to another. On the other hand, in his literature review on office types and productivity, Sheffield Hallam University’s Barry Haynes found no clear relationship between office type by itself and productivity, instead suggesting that “It is only when the connection is made between the office layout and office occupiers work patterns that productivity gains can be achieved.”

The Spectrum of Workplaces

While different spaces within an office can be enclosed, semi-enclosed or open-plan, these spaces can themselves be organized into a spectrum of assemblages from homogeneous to completely hybridized.

Homogeneous space
From VeronicaTherese | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Homogeneous

A homogeneous office is one with a single prevailing style of space in use for employees. Barring shared areas like printer areas, conference rooms, lobbies and hallways, a homogeneous office would have all employees using the same type of space. In practice, there are few offices that truly have only one type of workspace. Even the biggest cubicle farms would have one or two enclosed offices for managers, for instance. However, this represents the hypothetical end of the workplace spectrum.

Traditional mix

In the middle of the spectrum we have the “classic office.” A traditional office for the last century or more would have a mix of, generally, two different types of space in use. This would most often be enclosed offices around the edges of the workplace with semi-enclosed or open-plan workspaces at the interior.

Traditional mix
From K2 Space | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Hybrid

Hybrid workplaces offer different spaces for workers based on task need and not necessarily seniority. They are also commonly associated with hot-desking. A hybrid workplace layout could have, for example, a number of enclosed breakout rooms as well as lounge-style space and semi-enclosed space for when employees need to focus more.

This type of office organization has many supporters, including Peter Andrew, Executive Director of Workplace Design at CBRE Asia Pacific, who advocates for “intermingling design,” where private spaces are scattered throughout open areas allowing for greater flexibility. Another supporter is workplace tech company Smartway2, which draws from retail to conceptualize the ways in which employees want to work as omni-channel: “In other words, they want to work how, when, where and with whom they choose.”

“There is not one type of space that any given worker should be stuck in for an entire day, for functional and health reasons,” said Ms. Blumenfeld. “Workers should be given choice at any given moment to utilize the type of space that will best suit their task, whether it is heads down work, a private conversation, an informal meeting, or a formal presentation.” Mr. Andrew had a similar take, saying that “Part of what we’re doing in these environments is to enable the ability to make choices about where we sit. You don’t have to sit at a fixed designated desk in a modern environment, you can choose to sit wherever you want to work.”

Hybrid subtypes

Hybrid workplaces have different subtypes, as well. Interior designer Alejandra Albarran of ROOM, an office phone booth company, divides workplaces into “hot” and “cold” zones. “Areas for collaboration are “hot,” Ms. Albarran wrote for Propmodo last year. “They’re lively and meant to invite conversation, while areas for individual work are “cold,” they are calming spaces designed for quiet, focused work.” Hot spaces include community areas for socializing, teamwork spaces, which are unassigned seating for specific functional teams, and collaboration spaces which offer more privacy for focused teamwork. Cold spaces are the library-like focus areas and privacy areas, which are totally private and soundproofed for in-depth work or phone calls.

Chicago-based architect David Dewane developed his own vision for how workplaces should look, based on the Aristotlian idea of “eudaimonia,” or peak functioning. The eudaimonia machine is best defined as a series of different spaces, similar in principle to hot and cold spaces, through which workers are directed throughout the day. As Mr. Dewane told Architectural Digest, “We live in a society where there’s so much distraction. We need all these workarounds to find concentration. So we asked, ‘What would be a space that’s the ideal work environment?’ I came up with this scheme of different layers, each of which has its own spirit.”

The Impact of COVID

In the time since we originally published this report in mid-March, the defining story of the year thus far has become the rapid spread of coronavirus disease, COVID-19, around the world. COVID-19 has caused widespread economic disruption not only through its own impacts but also as a result of the sweeping policies and measures being taken by governments around the world in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.

In addition to causing catastrophic disruption throughout the world of retail and travel, COVID-19 also has some important implications for office design. The virus is spread primarily via coughs and sneezes. These send virus particles, in aerosol form, into the air and onto surfaces like door handles and desks. Given that, the prevention guidance given for COVID-19 seems almost tailored to throw off office spaces. For one thing, workers are encouraged (or in some cases, based on industry and location, required) to work from home. Even within the offices that are still functioning, people are widely being encouraged to stay several feet away from other people, to limit the spread of the disease.

Throughout this report we have recommended hybrid offices that minimize personal space, leverage the adaptability of hot-desking and provide a wide range of shared and semi-private spaces for various types of work. However, in light of COVID-19, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this type of layout has serious safety shortcomings. The current outbreak is expected to last for a matter of months, not days or weeks, and even once it has passed, fears will linger amongst occupants about unnecessary exposure to possible sickness. So what does that mean for open-plan and hybrid offices, with their greater emphasis on sharing and communality?

Cleaning protocols

For one thing, it could cause workers, and consequently tenant companies, to turn away from open layouts and back towards enclosed offices. However, unless the outbreak gets much worse, this will likely be too costly for many companies to accept. The simplest approach, and one that is more likely to be favored by tenant companies, is to put a greater emphasis on routine cleaning. Perhaps tenants will demand that landlords offer much more in-depth, high-visibility cleaning services to give their workers more peace of mind in their space’s safety. Alongside that, better ventilation systems, that don’t just recirculate contaminated air, might become a more common demand.

Brian Murphy, CEO of flex space provider Breather, took that approach, saying that his company first responded to the outbreak by supplying its users with the equipment needed to keep spaces clean and healthy. However, as nice as it would be if simple solutions like more common cleaning could both effectively halt the spread of COVID-19 and restore faith in open-plan and hybrid workplaces, it may take more effort to get the job done.

UV light technology

One longer-term solution is the use of far-UVC light. Ultraviolet light can kill viruses and other disease-causing agents, and so is often used for sterilization of equipment or in hospital settings. However, UV light also poses a risk of giving eye damage, sunburn or cancer to humans. That limits its effectiveness in the office. However, far-UVC light, a recent area of research focus, cannot penetrate far enough into human cells to cause damage. Viral particles, tiny as they are, remain vulnerable. According to the Columbia University Center for Radiological Research, this could represent a potent tool to be used against viral outbreaks within spaces filled with people. According to the Center, “The big picture idea is that these lamps could be incorporated into conventional light fittings so that they would be very easy to install in public spaces such as airports, trains stations, airplanes, etc. To us it looks like one of the very few approaches that has the potential to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as opposed to curing it.”

It is too early to say whether far-UVC represents a true silver bullet solution. Even if it does, it will still take time for a viable product to go to market. In the meantime, property owners will need to be proactive in offering better cleaning and potentially, less shared spaces than before. Additionally, it could be prudent to begin offering work-from-home solutions bundled into traditional office leases. Such packages could include services like additional IT support or conferencing technology for tenant companies to use while remote. While offering services like these sounds far outside of the traditional wheelhouse of the office landlord, it seems to perfectly embody the idea of space-as-a-service. Mr. Murphy said that “Workspace has been at the center of this crisis. It’s not going to go back to normal.” As the office industry continues to explore uncharted waters, it’ll take radically creative solutions to keep tenants happy and safe in a post-virus world.

Conclusions

It is clear from our research that open offices are not all the same. Many of the news articles that focus on the negatives of open offices attempt to summarize academic research on the subject, but these stories often lose sight of the forest for the trees. As discussed above, the fact that established workers communicated less face to face in two offices that were rapidly transitioned to open-plan layouts has little real impact on whether the same outcome would occur with new employees arriving at an open office. Pulling wide-reaching implications from specific studies is not always advisable, since it’s easy to miss the nuance inherent in academic writing.

For their part, open offices are just one type of space upon which office designers can draw. For occupiers looking to provide a cost-effective space with a strong mix of strengths while limiting the weaknesses of pure open offices, hybrid workplaces can be an excellent choice. These offices include different space types, giving workers the opportunity to pick what fits best for the task or energy level at hand.

By offering open offices as one space choice amongst others, many of the negative impacts of the open office are reduced. Focus-heavy work can be performed elsewhere, and those who need deep quiet can spend their workdays in less noisy nooks around the office. This means that the people who stay in the open-plan area are only those who choose to be there, whether for personal preference or to collaborate on group projects. The COVID-19 outbreak has added an additional element of uncertainty to the question of office design. Without an effective solution for easy cleaning, perhaps via new tech tools, even hybrid workplaces may fall out of favor.

It’s easy to throw around buzzwords like “tenant experience” or “agile offices.” There are certainly plenty of advanced ways to succeed in both of these areas, through design, management and tech as well. However, if workplaces fail to offer the right kind of healthy and productive spaces for their employees, both for the tasks being executed and for their individual personalities, they’ll have lost before even starting.

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