There's no reason anymore to think a totally open office layout is a good idea--they're wildly distracting and harmful to productivity, not to mention costlier than many other options on the table. But if the fully open layout doesn't work, well, then what the hades does?

A "happy medium" really does make workers happy

Architecture firm Gensler sought the answer in its 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey, which covered 6,000 full-time workers. While there are plenty of goodies in the report, one of the biggest and juiciest findings was that 77 percent of workers surveyed prefer environments that fall between totally open or totally private.

In other words, you're officially getting the memo that extremes in office design--which often have been debated as if there aren't any alternatives--are a really bad idea.

Or as Gensler puts it, "Open versus private isn't the issue; quality is."

Gensler's survey notes that, out of six different degrees of openness, environments that are mostly open with ample on-demand private space have both the highest effectiveness and experience scores. These spaces let people focus and accommodate privacy (which, let's face it, we all need). But they are equally good for supporting collaboration, connection, experimentation, engagement and innovation.

Janet Pogue McLaurin, Gensler's Global Workplace Practice Leader, says that the trend toward extremes in office design really started back in the mid-90s. Open offices were the bread and butter for technology companies that were scaling rapidly and that needed better teamwork and collaboration. With this example, other businesses promptly hopped on the open layout bandwagon hoping for an easy way to emulate the success the tech companies were having.

But times, they are a-changing.

Industries are shifting.

Workers now want autonomy and empowerment, not the ability to use space (e.g., the corner office) as a status symbol.

They have new, better ways of working.

They realize they're not tethered to their desks.

And as McLaurin asserts, this naturally provides the tools to create the variety of "happy medium" space types they need.

"The polarizing debate on the open office is based on the language of extremes and is ultimately unproductive in workplace design conversations," McLaurin says. "It's time for a new workplace narrative. We must adopt a language about variety and choice, strategies that support what employees want, and that encourage positive behaviors like taking breaks, connecting with colleagues and working from a variety of places."

Creating the ideal space

Ok, so now we know that compromise in office design is golden. But what are you supposed to do if you're on one end of the spectrum or the other?

"If a company can't change their existing cubicles and offices, the strategy should be to focus on providing amenities and alternative workspaces that foster team building and collaboration to improve the workplace," says McLaurin.

And according to the Gensler survey, your top amenities are going to be innovation hubs, maker spaces, quiet zones, outdoor spaces, focus rooms and work cafes. All of those amenities should pull double duty as individual or collaborative spaces, offering a mix of assigned and unassigned areas.

Conversely, if you're too open, the logical step is to focus on creating on-demand private spaces.

McLaurin recommends enclosed, small meeting rooms for four to five people, huddle rooms for two to three people and some enclosed focus rooms for just one person.

You also can create on-demand enclosed spaces in the middle of the open office to create smaller zones or neighborhoods (privacy pods).

And none of these options necessarily have to be expensive.

 "Be creative!" McLaurin encourages. "For example, [...] an existing cafeteria can be repurposed into a supplemental work area with new furniture or ports and plugs to encourage teams to use throughtout the day. [...] Chances are there may be existing rooms such as storage rooms, file rooms or even a mail room that are no longer critical can be repurposed for this greater need."

Initiatives also can be focused more on behavior than the space, too. For example, if you've got a few workstations in an area that's not very busy, why not officially make that area a quiet zone? Organizational policies that support greater mobility and choice (e.g., great WiFi, letting workers spend some of the week outside the office) also can have a wonderfully positive influence on performance.

And if you need some examples for inspiration, McLaurin points to the new Chicago headquarters for Hyatt Corporation, as well as the redesigned New York headquarters for Campari Group. Both companies effectively have blended elements of open and private space.

1 thing to watch out for

McLaurin's one caution is for leaders not to assume that how they work and what they need at the office is identical to other employees--workplace effectiveness and experience varies considerably according to organizational role.

"Leaders need to simply ask their employees how they work, what works well in the existing space and what could be in improved," McLaurin advises. "[...] In this rapidly changing business climate, the most successful organizations are the ones focused on the needs of people. Companies should explore how people work best and provide the right mix of open and enclosed work settings to let them do their best work. There is no 'one size fits all' in an industry or even within a single organization."

So ultimately, what others are doing doesn't matter. What matters is what you and your workers need. Skip the extremes, stop copying, find your own ideal and get truly working.