The Philadelphia Inquirer recently cited me and my views of open plan offices in an article titled "Everybody loves to hate the open office, but is it dead yet?" While the article is balanced, author Gene Marks opens with a statement that both mischaracterizes and confuses the issue:

"Many large companies -- from Apple to co-working locations, such as WeWork -- have replaced ugly and claustrophobic little rooms with bright, open-space areas that offer wide views and a more team-oriented environment."

There are several things wrong with this statement.

First, the original Apple campus did not consist of traditional private offices connected with hallways, but private offices surrounding a hub of common area, a model that Steve Jobs replicated at Pixar.

Second, WeWork employs only around 10,000 people, which isn't large for a real-estate company. (ReMax has 100,000 agents, for instance.) Also WeWork has always promoted the open plan so they haven't "replaced" anything.

The biggest problem with the statement, though, is that sets up a false dichotomy between "bright open-space areas" and "ugly and claustrophobic little rooms."

The comparison is ironic since the "private spaces" often sandwiched into open plan offices resemble phone booths. More important, there are alternatives to open plan that don't have the noise pollution and visual pollution that make open plan so toxic:

1. Private offices surrounding a hub of common area.

Aka the Pixar model. Employees have their own private offices--many with exterior windows--that they can customize however they want. These offices connect to a common area that employees can use for socializing (or working out, or playing games, etc.) but which does not contain anybody's work area.

2. Movable barriers so people can create private space as needed.

This concept, being pioneered at Ikea, replaces the standard cafeteria-style environment of open plan with movable desks and movable sound/sight barriers. Employees can thus configure those elements into whatever type of work area that they or their working group needs at the time. Introverted individuals can build "forts" that offer privacy while teams that work together on a group project can create their own temporary "conference room."

3. Larger offices with two or three work areas.

Working in close proximity to one or two people doesn't create anywhere near the level of noise or visual pollution inherent with open plan. Conflicts are easily handled: "Can you take it elsewhere? I'm on deadline." In this case, one can usually find an empty office for an impromptu meeting. Note: this was the model at the most productive organization in which I had the privilege of working.

4. Cubicles with cathedral ceilings, skylights and tall windows.

The high walls reduce noise pollution and visual pollution but there are still open vistas and light of sight. Mostly, I've seen this type of office when companies have moved into factories spaces that were built prior to the advent of cheap electric lighting, and thus were architected to take advantage of natural daylight.

5. Work-from-home and rent space for group meetings as needed.

Depending upon the nature of the work involved, there may not be a need for daily or even weekly face-to-face interaction. In this case, it's rather silly to expend money on permanent office digs when you can simply rent a room when there's some reason to have a group meeting that can't be handled online.

While I've not seen any peer-reviewed academic research on these alternatives, they would overcome most if not all of the complaints that workers surface when they're subjected to an open plan. Just as important, some of these alternatives would either cost the same, or significantly less, than open plan in terms of floorspace costs.

Published on: Apr 26, 2019
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