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The Future of the Open Office Means Saying Goodbye to Your Desk

As offices continue to break down barriers, workplace boundaries will be a thing of the past

Photo by Scott Winterroth

OOnce advertised as the perfect intersection between workplace privacy and economy, by the end of the 1990s, cubicles had become a parody of the productivity they were supposed to stand for. The movie Office Space, which came out in 1999, cemented the cubicle as the visual stand-in for mind-numbing administrative work and the crushing monotony of the 9-to-5 job.

So workplace designers began to think outside the box. Cubicle walls came down, and personal offices became scarce. The modern open office plan, born sometime around the early 2000s, was marked by low or no walls between groups of desks, few private offices, and wide, open rooms. According to CEOs and designers, open offices promised collaboration, innovation, and a more egalitarian workplace. For the following decade and a half, the open office plan became the office design of forward-thinking corporations.

But in recent years, the open office has gained a bad reputation. Critics argue that instead of fostering easygoing creativity, the lack of privacy creates stress. Without walls and doors to dampen noise, distractions chip away at concentration, so less work gets done. Because of all this, research shows that job satisfaction decreases after a transition to an open office from a more traditional office. Even the phrase “open office” sounds cavernous and soulless. “Invariably every project we start, someone shows up with an article from some publication that says the open office has ruined any kind of innovation,” says David Galullo, CEO of the design and architecture firm Rapt Studio. At its worst, the open office represents the culmination of corporations’ worst impulses to save money and space, at the expense of their employees.

The worker will be free to move to the room or zone that fits the mood they’re looking for.

Now, designers and architects are pushing beyond open office plans toward the next generation of barrierless office design: something we might call “zoned offices.” These spaces will feature hot desking, where assigned seating is a thing of the past, and the office itself becomes a flexible, dynamic private-public space. With semi-defined areas for taking phone calls, meeting with clients, and creative brainstorming, the worker will be free to move to the room or zone that fits the mood they’re looking for. As workers’ needs shift, each zone may provide flexibility to change the space to fit more people. In some cases, the public may be invited into certain zones, as the offices themselves have open walls to the outside to allow for mingling with public spaces. It’s a design movement that will further reduce an employee’s sense of privacy in the workplace — and if you didn’t like the open office, you’re probably going to hate it.

TThis past December, I visited the Chicago offices of Glassdoor, a company that lets employees anonymously review their workplaces. I was struck by the buzz of activity in every available space: colleagues were walking into kitchens to get cups of coffee, sitting on lounge chairs while taking phone calls, or perched at tables in front of iPads. People went in and out of tiny phone booths; others stood or sat at their desks, which were clustered in groups spread across the wide room. Meeting rooms featured floor-to-ceiling glass walls in a way that felt almost invasive, putting conversations on display like an exhibit. There were couches for relaxed, impromptu meetings and outdoor balconies to enjoy on nice days. A TV hooked up to play video games teased at the freedom and flexibility to unwind, even while at work. Designed in 2017, this office serves 275 employees and will soon expand to fit more.

Walking through the office, Joe Lawton of Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, the firm that designed the space, laid out the office’s design priorities. There are distinct areas for working or gathering to make it feel smaller than it really is; acoustic barriers to muffle the din of chatter and phone calls; warm light; large kelly green artwork on the walls that matches the company’s branding; and sturdy and not too cushy couches in a seating area that — almost — looked comfortable. “Even though it is an open office, it doesn’t feel like just this giant open office,” Lawton told me earlier.

Glassdoor’s office is a good vision of the future of the open offices: a space in which the boundary between home life and work life is permanently blurred, and the sense of permanence and fixture is abandoned in favor of flexibility, ease of movement, and transience.

One hallmark of the next generation of offices will be hot-desking, or “hoteling,” where employees are longer assigned permanent desks, but instead move around within the office to work where they want to, with the whole office turning into a kind of co-working space, with personal workspace boundaries changing every day, or every hour.

Credit: Tom Harris/Glassdoor

Over the last two years, advertising agency Essence has transitioned its main New York office and offices in other cities across the U.S. to a form of hot-desking, which the company calls “agile seating.” The arrangement, says Dan Dobson-Smith, chief learning and culture officer at Essence, has allowed the company to manage extreme growth quickly: since new hires don’t need a fixed desk, there’s less rearranging to do. Dobson-Smith said that after the first few weeks of growing pains, reactions have been positive. “The way in which the millennial generation live their life is mobile and agile, so it makes sense that we have a workplace that is mobile and agile,” he says.

With more employees allowed to work remotely from anywhere with Wi-Fi, offices now compete with local coffee shops, or co-working spaces. To reflect that, Essence is actively mimicking the qualities of those spaces in their designs and atmosphere. “So let’s just give everybody a flat desk, and let’s have them work in the office the way they work at Starbucks,” says Ethan Bernstein, associate professor at Harvard Business School.

Since new hires don’t need a fixed desk, there’s less rearranging to do.

To attract employees reluctant to actually come into the workplaces, offices are also becoming much more domestic, too. “A lot of times our clients are coming to us, [saying] we want this to feel like home,” Lawton says. For Glassdoor, that meant chairs and couches set up to look like a living room.

Other offices are taking the blending of private spaces even further, creating workplaces that bleed into their surrounding communities, like the new county government center in San Mateo County, California, being designed by the architecture firm, Studio Gang. The figure-eight shaped building will include terraces and balconies for workers and a public pavilion and garden on the ground, underneath the building. Auditoriums that aren’t being used by the government employees will become open to the public. “It’s really trying to blur the boundaries between inside and outside. Throughout the building, there’s always access to going outside — like balconies, terraces, roof gardens,” she says. “Our approach there was to see if we could enhance or amplify the campus quality, the public space, the green space both for the people that work there and for the city itself.”

“The 20th century was so much about efficiency. And now it’s not only about efficiency, it’s about being able to work and enjoy where you are and to blur between your life and your work a little bit more,” the lead architect Jeanne Gang says.

Credit: Tom Harris/Glassdoor

Still, not everyone is happy about a transition toward the next era of open offices, and the constant push against private, dedicated spaces. A survey from Oxford Economics shows that the constant connectivity and distractions that come with open offices can lead to frustration and burnout; another study suggested that the open office facilitates the spread of illness, leading to more sick days. Open offices have even been tied to an increase in stress hormones and poorer posture.

What’s more, a study by Harvard Business School’s Bernstein showed email and other electronic communication actually increased after transitioning to an open office, and face-to-face communication decreased. “There are just lots of conversations we’d prefer to have when we don’t have an audience of more than ‘X.’ And X could be 20, X could be 10, X could be five, X could be two,” Bernstein says.

“We see very clearly there are reactions against [making the office more social] because people are in need of privacy, so there’s this huge tension,” says Antoine Picon, professor of the history of architecture and technology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “And, at the same time, if there is too much privacy, they feel isolated.” An employee at a tech company, who requested anonymity, says that in their zoned office, attitudes toward privacy vary. One colleague who landed a private office eventually got lonely and moved closer to the team she works with. But another colleague sits in spaces away from other workers almost every day: “He liked to escape everyone else.”

“Your desk is a bit like your bedroom. It’s your kingdom when you’re at work.”

Noise, he says, is a problem and employees have to learn how to tune people out. “Not everyone can do it, but those that can’t, put on noise canceling headphones,” he wrote in an email. “I do find it weirdly more difficult when you can hear someone talking to a spouse, or customer service rep, or their landlord. [It’s] harder to tune out than idle chitchat or work calls.”

Another employee who requested anonymity and works as an assistant at a university says that the lack of privacy in their open office can be a hurdle. “All of your information is public, essentially for 40 hours a week. Every phone call, every conversation with customers, even what you do on your computer. It becomes things they can look at and judge, and depending on the environment, it can become hostile at some points. Having privacy is hard and comes rarely.”

In particular, hot-desking has already sparked some pushback. “Your desk is a bit like your bedroom. It’s your kingdom when you’re at work,” says Dobson-Smith. Even the designers pushing for more open offices recognize that eventually, the movement to break down barriers will hit a limit. “Even clients that we’ve worked with that really had a work-from-anywhere policy are pulling that back a little bit. They saw that their culture was affected by it,” Lawton says.

Some argue that work-life barriers exist for a reason, and breaking them down can be detrimental. “It’s a mental game that I feel like we’re playing with people now because the barriers are breaking down so much,” Lawton says. “To the point where I think the future office is going to need to figure out what the barriers really are. I almost feel like we have pushed ourselves too far.”

Most designers, though, say that the most important design element going forward won’t be zones or openness — it will be keeping in mind that every workspace has specific needs. It may make sense for a government building to blend with the community in ways that wouldn’t work for a consultancy firm that depends on private communication with clients. Just like all the office designs that came before it, zoned offices won’t work in every scenario, no matter how many different activity zones there are.

“I think the danger of all these things is to kind of fall for the cliché — you know, that the happy open office is the best way to communicate, and closed office space is the bad thing of the past; in the end, it really depends on your client,” says Peter Ippolito, general manager of the architecture and design studio Ippolito Fleitz Group. “Open office in itself is not innovative because it’s open.” Blindly breaking down walls, Ippolito says, “might be the most stupid thing you can do.”

A freelance writer based in Chicago with bylines at the Cut, Hazlitt, Paste Magazine, and more. Working on a book for Beacon Press.

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