The popular team communication app Slack is organized around siloed channels for various topics and group discussions. Slack’s physical office space, however, is different. It is an open floor plan devoid of cubicles or internal walls, meant to decrease real estate costs and improve worker collaboration. “The Slack headquarters was interesting because for every five people we wanted to have a room so they could have a chance to get away from an open floor plan,” said interior designer Primo Orpilla. It’s interesting that workplace designers acknowledge some of the by now widely discussed downsides to open offices, and attempt to design spaces for small group privacy. But this approach is not the best long-term answer to the dilemma of open offices.
To the contrary, the “open workplace with private rooms” design mindset should be flipped. A frequent complaint of open offices is that the enhanced scrutiny from co-workers actually creates a need to look busy, at the expense of work getting done. Designers should reconfigure their plans to offer private spaces for small groups of workers and then develop collaboration spaces where employees can bring a laptop if they wish to work side by side with other employees. “There is a trust that happens in a good workspace that is ephemeral and hard to quantify with data,” said architect and interior designer Clive Wilkinson. Developing that trust relates to offering mindful, private or semi-private spaces where the implied narrative that workers can be counted on to get their assignments done with limited supervision can flourish.
Another option, looking farther forward into the future, capitalizes on the abilities of VR tech. Private cubicles or office rooms could be “torn down” through the use of VR headsets, allowing for a collaborative, open workplace when the headsets are worn and a private, productivity-oriented space at other times. While this would cost substantially more than a true open office, costs could be reduced by allowing employees to work from home and telecommute into the office through the VR system.
Open offices have some upsides, particular in the realm of cost reduction. But they are not a silver bullet solution to all workplace needs and their use should be more nuanced and limited than the default spatial layout for modern offices. These offices need not be stodgy. By bringing the focus back towards private or semi-private spaces for workers and allowing access to open collaboration areas through physical design or VR, the workplaces of today will be able to capture more worker trust and offer the type of focused channels that make Slack as an app so popular.