Open Office Design: How Do We Make It Better for Workers?

Cubicles might have started out as a good idea, but the implementation (gray, soulless boxes stretching as far as the eye can see) has driven generations of office workers into the depths of despair.

Seeking to create something new and exciting, designers then pioneered the concept of the “open office,” in which cubicles are removed and office walls taken down; everyone works in a communal space, freely sharing ideas and building camaraderie.

That was the idea, at least. But just as cubicles wore away at employees’ souls, the open office—at least as executed by many firms—also crushed morale. Earlier this year, for example, a sampling of 1,000 working adults revealed that 76 percent disliked open offices, with 43 percent citing the lack of privacy. That’s on top of reports of whole companies in a state of near-rebellion over their office setup. At the biggest tech firms, employees have begun pushing back, with even coders and programmers at Apple complaining that the open layout at their state-of-the-art “spaceship” headquarters is “too noisy and distracting.”

“Honestly, [the open office is] a nightmare, and I hate it,” an anonymous senior system engineer at a major company recently told CIO magazine. “It’s chaotic. It’s frustrating. I can’t get away to get done what I need to; I either end up working very late to take advantage of when everyone else goes home, or I work from home.”

The Modified Open Office

For those companies that have decided to embrace the open office, one solution for employees who need a little peace and quiet is carving out separate, private spaces. Think about what workers need, especially tech professionals who might want to isolate themselves to write code for hours a day (or meet in pairs or small groups to talk through spot solutions to issues).

“We have definitely seen a rise in requests for separate spaces for private rooms and phone booths,” said Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real-estate firm that recommends available office spaces based on clients’ customized criteria. “If you have a robust inside sales team, you’ll rightfully expect them to be busy on phone calls at their rows of desks, which can produce significant noise within an office, and will also expectedly lead others, especially those working on deadline, to seek a quieter area for sitting.”

Effectively working in an open office, he added, comes down to communication—and using conference rooms wisely. “Your team must share the space and agree to coexist and collaborate; the office is for everyone.”

And as with most things in life, there’s an opportunity for office managers and designers to leverage analytics. “Study your data,” Wasserstrum advised. “Do people typically meet in large groups, or do they huddle in smaller sets? Most often, regardless of the size of your company, it’s the latter.”

For those companies that operate with smaller teams, having multiple rooms is often the order of the day; and many firms like having some kind of open area for all-employee meetings. But while an “all hands” gathering might be a relatively rare event, workers constantly need to meet in teams of five or less—hence the need for an adequate number of closed-off spaces. Many companies don’t fully realize the scope of this need until it’s too late.

The rise of remote workers is also impacting how companies build out their corporate spaces (open office or otherwise). “We’ve also seen a rise of late in companies wanting to set up satellite offices in other cities to accommodate pockets of people who work full-time, but who happen to be based elsewhere,” Wasserstrum said. “Rather than work from home individually, these employees can get a sense of camaraderie with each other if they have a place to gather daily. It makes things easier, too, on everyone to travel back and forth and visit with one another in different offices.”

A subset of this solution is to design open office space that can dynamically adjust along with a company’s needs. Designer Alejandra Albarrán has advocated for movable “booths” within the open office that workers can use for phone calls and meetings, curbing excessive noise. In theory, these booths can be wheeled anywhere within the space (or tucked away entirely).

“At just twelve square feet, they are an affordable, flexible solution that leads to happier employees, more efficient use of workspace, and a more productive workforce,” she wrote. (Any smaller, and you risk sparking claustrophobia among workers.)

The Future

Between remote workers (a rising trend that many companies seemingly embrace), and increasingly flexible spaces for in-office employees, the future of the office could be a happier one—provided bosses recognize the need to adapt. Just as long as “adaptation” doesn’t mean these crazy blinders.

6 Responses to “Open Office Design: How Do We Make It Better for Workers?”

  1. Making little tweaks to open offices is going to result in … nothing. The whole idea of open offices was to save money by not having to build out separate offices in office buildings. Add to that the hype that office space designers working hand-in-hand with office furniture vendors pushed that convinced office managers that more “collaboration” was needed — “Your people can’t collaborate unless you have our new office design in your space” — and some managers are dumb enough to fall for the hype because they have no idea how their employees interact day-to-day. How much more productive were employees going to be once we make it easier to collaborate? Managers had no idea and only one data point to work with—the vendor’s biased pitch that required new office furniture. Most employees are not engaged in daily work that requires being able to talk to each other in an open office environment — companies have chosen chat software to allow them to contact each other when they need to talk to a co-worker — and once employees become comfortable with it, it’s useful for when the extraneous noise gets so bad that the employees start working from home. The open offices that I’ve worked in never (Never!) worked the way the vendors claim it does. The noise level from co-workers talking on the phone and other distractions — despite the office designers’s claim that the open office design wouldn’t have this problem because they’d be piping in white noise to mask nearby conversations — had everyone wearing headphones and using chat software or even phoning each other for those occasional times when they needed to interact even though they were working ten feet away. (Chat software — Slack and the like — is yet another distraction for employees that interrupts their “flow” during the work day but that’s another topic for another day.) Adding tiny (and 12 sq. ft. is *damned* tiny) booths so that employees can find quiet spaces to get their work done is ridiculous. If, as the article mentioned, people resort to working from home to get the quiet time they need to do detailed work without all the noise that the open office concept exposes them to all day, then you made an extremely poor choice.

    Open offices delenda est.

    • Mark M.

      Technical work requires quiet time to contemplate–to mentally juggle many things at once. Open office layouts are a disaster for people who need to think, because co-workers don’t obey the rules, either by talking or by leaving their noisy phone notifications on. Like many others, I found the only way to survive and be productive in these environments is to stay after hours, become a conference room squatter, or work from home. The added frustration of working in an open space can be the final straw that causes a good worker to leave.

    • The problem that existed was that a company would move to new digs and move their existing cubicles and/or office furniture with them. How’s a poor office furniture manufacturer supposed to make any money from that situation? Solution: fund some “studies” that tout a lack of collaboration myth and use those to pull the wool over facilities managers’ eyes.

  2. D. Mandell

    RT hit the nail on the head!
    The open office design saves nothing but initial office setup costs. Then it starts to cost the company in lower productivity and morale.

    You would think that we could learn something from software engineering design.
    Is it better to write concise, logically designed code in the first place or assign the project to the Jr. engineers to write “quick and dirty” code to save initially on budget and then spend years of person hours patching it to solve problems and improve the interface to be workable?

    Oh, wait, that’s the way things are done now-a-days.

    But seriously, as facility manager I used to design the office work spaces and used a hybrid cubicle design with thoughtfully thought out concepts like stepped, low walled cubicles that allowed both privacy and collaboration and well as builtin work-group spaces that allowed engineers to just spin around to engage in collaboration.

    But since today’s offices feature form over function, we are doomed to sit in noisy, unproductive work spaces wearing noise cancelling headphones, or working in overpriced phone booths or from home because it’s more “hip”, “cool”, “dope” or whatever is the current trending word.