The Open Office: Design Mainstay or Fad?

By Lorianna Kastrop, Vice President, The Kastrop Group, Inc. Architects

Many Silicon Valley technology firms are creating new office spaces and campuses. Most are incorporating a design style called the “open office” floor plan. Open offices have less enclosed offices, demising walls and cubicles. These enclosed spaces are replaced with comfortable, informal gathering commons based on the premise that chance encounters among employees can lead to the “aha!” moment of innovation. While most of us do not mourn the move away from the cubicle culture of the past, the open office may not be the ultimate solution.

It is noteworthy that millennials are typically comfortable working in spaces where they might be interrupted or distracted, such as coffeehouses. They are known for their nonstop earphone-wearing, smart phone-viewing lifestyle. On the other hand, quiet reflection often does lead to smart thinking and inspiration. Will the next big idea come from conversation or contemplation? Should companies bet the farm on conversational outcomes?

There can be a cost to idle chatter. If interaction with fellow employees is highly encouraged and built into the working environment, there may be a significant amount of time wasted. In her New Yorker article last year “The Open-Office Trap”, author Maria Konnikova argues that open offices are detrimental to productivity and that the increased noise level and disruptions can affect employee health. http://www.newyorker.com/currency-tag/the-open-office-trap?mobify=0

On the other hand, open office design can enhance sustainability of the building. Open offices utilize less square footage, energy resources, and less furnishings, resulting in lower costs per employee. This blog article makes a case for open offices in terms of energy savings: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lance-hosey/the-openoffice-backlash_b_4639881.html

An example of the contrast between the efficiency of open design versus the privacy of enclosed space is going on in airports. As shown in the accompanying photographs, airport terminals now have communal desks where travelers can plug in to recharge their devices, and work while waiting for their flight. These are very popular and there are always many people crowded around them. But some airports now also have what might be called nooks. These nooks consist of small cubicles that insulate the occupant from the hustle and bustle of the busy airport waiting area, arranged in small intimate groupings. These are also very popular.

ChargingStation AirportNook

As a teenager I had a summer job at Mountain Bell, one of the telephone companies owned by AT&T. I worked at a desk in a huge open office. Everyone spent a majority of their time on the phone. The ambient noise level was very high and I went home with a headache almost every day. It was difficult to concentrate on anything that required my full attention. I’m all for multi-tasking, but when I need to think deeply I need peace and quiet. When I switched to a job with an enclosed office, it felt like a little piece of heaven. Now I can appreciate that there is a happy medium. Both types of environments are useful in a workspace: plenty of spots for meeting and impromptu conversation (what we used to call “the water cooler”), while also providing quiet private areas for individual productivity. Whether you are a boomer or a millennial, you know that there is a time for interaction and a time for privacy. The ideal office environment has space designed for both.

 

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