Did Open Offices Backfire on the Modern Business?

Cubicles might have started out as a good idea theory, but in practice, between the isolation and long expanse of grey walls, they have driven generations of office works into depths of despair. Next came the “open office,” in which cubicles are removed and the office walls taken down. Modern businesses jumped on this design, which fosters teamwork, the sharing of ideas and building of 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 Open Office Hybrid

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 of Open Offices

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 happy one—provided decision makers recognize the need to adapt – and continue to adapt.