Open Offices And Other Spaces Over Time

What’s up with Open Offices?

If creatives shy away from offices plagued with cubicles, then what is the alternative? Enter the open office. Sometimes referred to as the open office plan or the open space office. This is the workspace that we expected to save us from the cubicle farm.

What was the original intention of the open office? In today’s workplace, how are companies implementing the open office and how is it affecting our work?

The open office takes over the world

The open office is dominating the workspace. According to a study published in allwork.space, 80% of offices in the U.S. are open. The U.K. has twice as many open offices as the global average.

Open offices. Taylorism.

The original open office of the 1900s. Taylorism based its layout off of the typical factory were managers overlooked workers from offices.

Our workspaces are moving in the direction of WeWork, a startup that champions stylish open office with flowing layouts, spacious kitchen, and board games. The belief is that this will increase serendipitous collaboration, creativity, and productivity. To attract new talent, companies are following suit by removing barriers and embracing open offices.

The truth about open offices

Are the benefits of the open office actually true? A simple search for “open office” or “open office plan” will yield a long list of articles denouncing the trend. Even WeWork published a post on the “Pros and Cons of the Open Office Plan,”

Open offices. Burolandschaft.

Burolandschaft. Drawn from socialist values. The new workplace of the 1960s eliminated management offices.

Most of the articles criticizing the open office reference the increased noise and distraction. This article from the Guardian on “Why British Offices are the Worst in the World,” illustrates what may be a familiar scene. Our productivity must compete with the clatter of fat finger typing, open mouth chewing, and neighbors constantly sharing photos and posts of their personal life.

Less walls equal less communication

A study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B states that as we moved from cubicles to open spaces, our emails and text messages increased. Moreover our face-to-face time decreased by 70%. The study emphasizes that the trend to open offices have decreased interaction with people from 5.8 hours a day by 1.7 hours.

Open offices. Action office

The Action office of 1968 by the Herman Miller company. Characterized by large desks and room to view all of your work.

The authors of the study assessed that removing physical barriers actually invited outside distractions and disturbances. This caused the participants to withdraw from the people around them. Thus explaining why emails increased by over 50%. We find it less stressful in these conditions to communicate via email, text, or chat.

How did we get to the open office?

Remember when we discussed how the modern open office was a response to the cubicle? What if you learned that the cubicle was actually born out of the open office? Architects and designers developed the concept in the early 1900s as an effort to break down social hierarchies and “make the world a better place.”

Open offices. Cube farm.

Cube farm of the 1980s. Rows of cubes stacked together. Keep workers focused without interruption and save money on office space.

The famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the main offices for SC Johnson and Son in 1939. The design removed partitions and used columns, oval desks, and cabinets to divide the space.

Check out this video that discusses Wright’s design.

The vicious circle of money and space

Over time management eliminated Wright’s design considerations to pack more people into the space. Ironically, the cubicle arrived to save people from the “drudgery” of open office plans. As we explored in the post on cubicles, the Herman Miller company launched the “Action Office” to better utilize the space they needed for productive work.

Open offices

The return of the open office. More flexible layout to accompany laptops, mobile phones, and WIFI.

Like the original open office, management quickly moved to maximize space and save on cost. This gave rise to the cube farms we are familiar with. Then with the Internet boom of the 1990s, the open office resurfaced to save us from the cubes. Sound familiar?

Today’s move to open offices is a reaction to over cubing of the past. The open office and the cube are closely related in their invention and eventual bastardization. Both had grand visions of “rescuing” the common worker from the oppressive office layouts of the past. Eventually, saving money won out over the original design intentions. The result was a mutation in both the open office and cubicle designs. Workers crammed in tighter spaces feeling more stressed and less productive.

Interested in more posts on bringing creativity into work? Check these posts.

Matt Eng

UX Research Team Lead at IBM Design. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.

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