Redefining Spaces


The Rise and Fall of Open-Plan Workplaces

The Rise and Fall of Open-Plan Workplaces




08 Apr 2021

When most people think of an open-plan workplace, they imagine visually appealing rows of desks with few barriers in between and employees casually engaging with one another. The open-plan workspace, an evolution from office cubicles, was marketed as a way to improve teamwork, engagement, and efficiency. In fact, its interior design often included different areas where employees can gather easily such as lounge areas and open kitchens.

However, the open-plan office has its drawbacks, such as increased distractions and a lack of privacy. Furthermore, since it is now considered a health risk during this pandemic, the future of this office interior design as well as concerns regarding the post-pandemic workplace, has been called into question. As such, this blog post will explore the evolution of the office space, from its origins to the advent of open spaces and now to a hybrid solution.

A Historical Overview of The Open Plan Workplace

The open-plan office has been around since the 1850s, typically for employees who were doing clerical and administrative work while upper management had their own private offices. Subsequently, workplace design continued in this fashion until American architect Frank Lloyd Wright came up with the open-plan office layout in the late 1930s. Nevertheless, it took until the 1960s for the design to be commonplace across various industries – following the popularisation of the concept of the ‘office landscape’ by European firms. Also known as ‘Burolandschaft’, this workplace design involved carefully arranging office furniture in open spaces to encourage communication between all levels of employees. As a result, it became associated with being egalitarian and democratic, particularly when the bosses also sat amongst their employees.

Credits: SC Johnson

Unfortunately, companies began taking the open-plan office design to the extremes and tried to cram as many employees in one space as they could. This went against the original concept of utilising open spaces to facilitate organic social interactions. Slowly, the open-plan office became noisy and distracting, leading to the invention of cubicles and a return to private offices.

The open-plan office did not resurface until the 1990s, along with technological advances and the growth of technology firms. For tech companies, this interior design represented a disruption of the status quo and tradition, much like the products they were manufacturing. The changing economy from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy impacted office design – making it more social, collaborative and innovation-driven. This element of change contributed to the resurgence of the open-plan office trend, with more and more importance placed on creating a work environment that is open and inclusive.

The Drawbacks Of Open-Plan Workplaces   

The main idea behind the open-plan office design was to encourage spontaneous collaboration and interaction between employees by limiting physical barriers which were endemic to cubicles. However, this has shown to have the opposite effect. A 2018 Harvard Business Review report showed that social interactions actually dropped by as much as 70 percent for companies that switched to an open-plan office design. Due to the lack of privacy in open-plan offices, employees are less likely to interact face to face with each other if they think that their conversations might disturb their colleagues or risk being eavesdropped on. This also contributed to the increase in digital communication in such companies.

Noise and distractions were also a source of complaints. Employees struggled to remain focused, according to the same Harvard Business Review report, losing more than an hour on average due to distractions. This seemed to be especially critical for work that requires concentration or privacy, such as finance, accounting or human resources.

Today, open-plan offices also pose a health risk due to close proximity to other employees. Pre-pandemic trends like wellness at work have been accelerated by the pandemic. It is essential for organisations to create the right conditions for their workforce to return safely to the office space. This comes with a new space strategy and implementation of safe distancing. Choice, autonomy, and well-being have become paramount for individuals and teams to perform best. From health checks and touchless security to improved air quality systems, owners and users are focused on healthy offices and experiences.

The Office Of The Future

 In light of the challenges of open-plan office design, some companies have been moving in a new direction: Activity-Based Working (ABW) environments, which provide a combination of open office design spaces with other task-oriented and private spaces. An ABW office design, such as in this food services and facilities management company, provides autonomy to the employees as they can choose their work settings according to their working habits and style. Someone who needs to make confidential calls can choose a private phone booth, while a team brainstorming session can take place in a comfortable lounge that encourages the exchange of ideas and creative thinking.

In addition to providing a more flexible workplace to cater to different employees’ needs and working styles, companies also need to cater to a workforce that is partly working in the office and partly working from home. Hybrid work environments that provide a range of spaces and equipment for on-site and off-site teams to communicate and collaborate are one of the most critical implementations right now. Companies can take inspiration from this multinational food and beverage giant. Employee workstations are strategically placed to maintain privacy while facilitating interactions as needed. Meeting rooms are enclosed to minimise noise distractions so that video conferences can take place without interruptions.

Collaborative spaces can be designed to facilitate team meetings, while quiet nooks can be used for those who need concentration, and conference rooms for more serious discussions. A good example of this would be the office of this leading optical and digital precision technology manufacturer. Their central breakout space consists of a variety of work environments so that employees can easily find a setting to focus on their work or brainstorm with colleagues.

Interior Design That Changes With The Times

As organizations and space creators, we must quickly react to shifts that influence how people want to engage with their workplace. Despite the initial benefits of the open-plan office design, companies have been looking at improving working conditions and productivity by shifting towards a more flexible work environment that accommodates different activities. Today, this flexible office design floor plan trend is incorporating new design features to respond to a workforce that is on a hybrid working arrangement. As such, organisations should consider redefining and redesigning their office spaces to adapt to the New Normal.

Is your company interested in creating a workplace that is inspiring, stimulating, and innovative? ID21 is an experienced and reputable office renovation contractor who can help you navigate the fast-changing workplace landscape. Contact us today to find out how!