Despite their current popularly, open-plan offices have been a huge productivity failure. Originally touted as a way to promote collaboration, they actually reduce face-to-face communication in favor of texting and email.

Meanwhile, open-plan offices are so visually distracting and noisy that people can't concentrate. They also increase gender discrimination and allow germs to spread, all of which results in greater absenteeism and huge reductions in overall productivity.

All of that is well-established science at this point, which leaves companies with a single reason to implement open plan: You can cram more people into a smaller space, thereby reducing the cost of office floor space.

As I've previously pointed out, this can be a false economy, because the cost of labor is higher than the cost of floor space. Therefore, even a 15 percent drop in productivity usually eats up any cost savings that might result.

That being said, there aren't all that many alternatives available at this time. Cubicles provide a bit more privacy and a bit less noise, but they're ugly and depressing. Workers like private offices but they can encourage stovepiping.

The most effective alternative, designed by Steve Jobs, consists of private offices surrounding a hub of common area that's specifically for socializing. That design, however, involves at least twice as much floor space as traditional private office. It's simply too expensive for most companies, especially startups.

So we end up back where we started--which is trying to find some way to make open-plan offices less toxic. 

Some companies have added "phone booths" to their open plans to provide workers with some quiet time for concentration. Such structures, though, are either claustrophobia-inducing (like a bathroom stall) or like working in a fishbowl. 

Not to worry. It appears that Ikea--of all companies--has squared the circle with modular office furniture and structures that allow employees to build, deconstruct, redesign, and rebuild environments that match the work that they're trying to accomplish. As my colleague Katharine Schwab at Fast Company explains:

The architects designed a series of modular pods that are a mix between an open desk cluster and a cubicle: each pod fits a small group of desks belonging to one team. The walls around the cube have inset acoustic panels made of recycled plastic to reduce noise and create more visual privacy as well. Teams that need more quiet time can add more of these panels to make the cube more isolated and peaceful, or the panels can be removed to open the space up to the rest of the office.

The concept apparently originates in the way workers in open-plan offices improvise barriers to block out visual pollution, create privacy, and dampen ambient noise. However, it's also much like the way kids built "forts" and "playhouses" out of cardboard boxes.

That Ikea would come up with such an original design is a bit surprising, since it's better known for home furniture than for office furniture. However, the idea was prototyped for an Ikea R&D facility rather than explicitly developed as a product line.

Which means, unfortunately, that you can't drive down to your local Ikea tomorrow with a  van and stock up on what you need to make your open office livable. On the other hand, having invented a concept the world needs badly, can an Ikea product line be far behind?

Published on: Apr 10, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.