Will COVID-19 Kill the Open Office Design?

Long before COVID-19 swept across the United States, technologists from all walks of life were expressing their displeasure with the open office. However, that fervent dislike didn’t stop companies from building out open spaces in which to corral employees. Will the pandemic change that?

In mid-2019, a study by Bospar and Propeller Insights found that 76 percent of workers disliked open offices; around 43 percent indicated that the lack of privacy was a big reason behind that distaste. At around the same time, a separate study by Royal Society Publishing found that face-to-face interactions among employees dipped 70 percent in open offices, while email use increased 56 percent—indicators that the open-office design wasn’t accomplishing its intended purpose of bringing workers closer together. 

(Of course, things could always be worse. Once upon a time, Panasonic pumped out a concept device called the “Wear Space,” a wraparound panel that you strapped to your head to block your peripheral vision; when paired with noise-dampening headphones, this unusual headgear was supposed to give you additional privacy in a crowded, noisy open office. Thankfully, Wear Space hasn’t been mass-produced—yet.)

Before the pandemic, some companies were trying to find a happy medium between open offices and employees’ craving for even a scrap of privacy. That sparked the rise of the phone booth, the “huddle room,” and even the pod. “We have definitely seen a rise in requests for separate spaces for private rooms and phone booths,” Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real-estate firm that recommends available office spaces based on clients’ customized criteria, told Dice last year. “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.”

Now, COVID-19 might have changed the game for those advocates of office privacy and separation. While analysts seem reasonably certain that we’ll all return to a relatively normal life at some point, nobody has a definitive timetable for when that might happen. Meanwhile, the need to reactivate the economy means that businesses have already started exploring how to re-open their brick-and-mortar offices. While many technologists are perfectly happy working from home (provided they follow the best practices for remote work), many companies will likely want to consolidate many employees into a physical space again within the next several months.

So long as the virus remains a threat, though, that’s much easier said than done. An upcoming paper from the CDC shows how COVID-19 can move through an open office, as exemplified by its path through one South Korean call center; physical segregation of space (i.e., with doors and partitions) prevented one half of the floor from being infected to quite the same degree:

Infections in blue. Source: CDC

Fortunately, there are some relatively quick changes that management could make to office design that would potentially reduce infection. The World Economic Forum, for instance, recommends reducing the density of desks so that workers sit (or stand) at least six feet from one another. One-way corridors, physical walls and partitions, and automatic (i.e., touchless) doors and devices could all become the norm in some buildings. 

Those changes, combined with a new emphasis on remote work, could radically alter the nature of the post-COVID office, at least in the short- to medium-term after the nationwide lockdowns end. The “open office” won’t wholly become a thing of the past, but a lot of the corporate momentum to embrace it might be checked. In addition, it will be interesting to see whether the huge tech companies that wholeheartedly embraced open office design for their marquee headquarters, including Facebook and Apple, will adjust their very expensive layouts as a result of all this.  

20 Responses to “Will COVID-19 Kill the Open Office Design?”

  1. Angela Bilyeu

    I sure hope it kills the open office. I hate that concept! All the tech people where I worked wore noise-cancelling headphones to try to get some peace and quiet to think! Why does anyone still design open offices if 76% of employees hate them, especially when they make employee interaction less likely?

  2. Why pay an engineer big bucks and then handicap them by having them sit in a conference room or an open office space? Even cubes aren’t the answer. Ever sit next to someone who refuses to stay home when they are sick because the company doesn’t offer sick time and they don’t want to use their vacation time as sick time so they come in and affect their coworkers? I think COVID-19 has proved that people can work from home.

    • Carol

      So true! Plus, WFH is also good for the environment and budget (no need to buy office clothes, or spend $$$ on gas or public transportation). I personally like it!

  3. I hope COVID-19 kills the office completely. If the brain dead execs figure out how much they can save by not having to heat/cool the acres of cube farms, added to the cleaner air as a result of not having to commute, we may find ourselves in a far different and much more efficient paradigm. After all, they outsource to India and China, why not outsource to us here in the USA? But I hold little hope that the intelligence of the executive offices will rise to this level.

    • Tamara

      Teleworking is by far the best working solution for people with tech jobs. The Cub farm was acceptable also, and is the next best thing to teleworking. Employees have to remember that unfortunately, “He Who Has The Gold, Makes The Rules!” Management does what they think is in their best interests.

  4. Michael Howard

    The only advantage to the open office concept is airflow. But as commented above, one person that ate Mexican food last night can make for a LONG day. I worked in an open office back in the late 1990s. Only 4 of us and you couldn’t get anything done because of the noise from phone calls, clacking keyboards, personal music and the like. I was so glad to leave there.

  5. Ahuehuete

    Those open offices always look so neat, tidy and organized in promo photos, like the one in the article. In real life they look like a garage, with junk strewn everywhere.

    • Carla Avery

      I don’t miss spending 2-4 unpaid hours driving back and forth. I really don’t understand that need when most, sometimes all of the people you work with are not in the same time zone, let alone the same building/campus.

  6. Fred Farkel

    One can only hope that the Open Office concept dies out. The noise and lack of privacy make for a very unproductive and depressing work environment. Even cube farms can be unsatisfactory if you happen to be located adjacent to a sales or marketing group.

    • Danny81

      The only reason the concept of open offices caught on is because they are less expensive to build. The concept was sold as a benefit to improve collaboration, etc. Like one of the commenters stated, they are typically noisy and generally stifle spontaneous collaboration. So yes, I also hope they go away.

  7. Brian Quinn

    Let’s kill the everyone in the office concept all together. Ridiculous that managers need to have their team physically around them in this day and age. We represent technologies capabilities and act like we are still living in the 1960s.

    • Carol

      I’m with you, Brian! I get far more done when wfh because I don’t waste commuting back and forth, which is also stressful and saps your energy one you arrive at the office after battling traffic. I also don’t spend $$ on food, gas or clothes and can be at my desk on my pajamas as early as 7 AM without any hassles. Yep, wfh is the way to go when possible.

  8. Dennis

    Whatever happens, will happen According to either/both….money and control. If there is money to be saved Mid to short-term That will drive it. And the more a company culture/executive have trust/leadership Issues, the more control they must exert… thus favouring cube farms (easy oversight) and discouraging wfh.