The traditional cubicle, a mainstay of office design for most of the past half-century, may soon be going the way of the electric typewriter. The new trend in office design is the open space layout, intended to free employees from the high-walled little alcoves of yore and move them out into a shared expanse that features few, if any, partitions. Those partitions that do remain are minimal in both size and quantity. This layout, advocates argue, allows workers to share a common space, both physically and psychically, fosters a freer flow of ideas and communication, and encourages more collaboration. Because everyone’s desk area is more or less identical, it also promotes an egalitarian sense of belonging, a presumed plus among anti-hierarchical millennials. And last, but certainly not least, the open office is significantly more cost-effective, requiring less square footage and less furniture per employee. It also allows more flexibility for expansion and contraction.
The open office has become the new standard for many of the major players in the new economy, including Google, Yahoo, eBay, Apple, and Facebook among others, as well as in countless other style-conscious start-ups who don’t want to be left behind. A few corporations, like Cisco and Microsoft, have even taken the open space concept to the next level by not even assigning designated places to individual employees, but allowing them instead to mix and match their seating arrangements according to project needs. According to the International Facility Managers Association, almost 70% of American employees now work in open-concept offices, although the exact definition of the open-plan concept used to arrive at this much-quoted statistic is a little vague. Suffice it to say, though, that this is the future, if not necessarily the present, of American office design.
Whatever its benefits, this new design strategy is not without its critics. The downside to the concept, as articulated in scores of articles in the business press over the past few years, is a stress-inducing lack of privacy, unacceptable noise levels, and a frequent inability to find work space free of interruptions. One worker even complained in the Washington Post that the open office plan in the ad agency where she works led to everyone on the floor sharing the same flu bug sequentially over several weeks, a claim that if not quite verifiable speaks to the kind of antagonism that the open plan office sometimes generates.
Smart managers and designers have taken these criticisms to heart and have worked out a number of strategies for easing the transition to the open space office. Here are a few:
- Create lots of small, private enclosed spaces , preferably with extra sound-proofing, around the edges of the open office where workers can find some privacy, free of interruptions when they need to concentrate for a time, for private phone conversations or for short meetings with colleagues.
- Add a number of more relaxing comfort zones with sofas and arm chairs for people to hang out more informally between stretches at the desk. In an age of portable electronics, no one needs to be tethered to a desk to be productive.
- Allow the liberal use of headphones to allow employees some degree of insulation from the hubbub around them.
- Create inviting break rooms with lots of free or inexpensive snacks and beverages to offer yet another place to nurture collaboration. It might be said that the quickest way to a millennial’s brain is through her or his stomach.
Above all, remember that the presumed reason for the open concept office is to promote flexibility, creativity and community. It is important for managers to show that they actually live by these principles and put them into action at all levels when they design their work spaces.