Rethinking the Open Office
Open concept offices have been popular with trading firms for decades, but the aesthetic really achieved ubiquity after tech companies in Silicon Valley began to adopt the open design. Motivated by collaborative workspace, lower overhead, and an appealing image for a young workforce, traditional office users soon followed suit and the landscape of the modern office began to change to accommodate fewer private offices and more open space.
For the open office users in Silicon Valley, the idea was simple: more efficient idea sharing. In a fast-paced industry dependent on creative collaboration, the benefits of shared workstations were obvious. The open space provided workers with the opportunity to seamlessly collaborate with their peers, efficiently sharing and expanding on their ideas. With the technology sector’s reputation as a cutting-edge industry, the aesthetic quickly gained traction among office users throughout the country. Inspired both by the design’s efficiency and the perceived “hipness” of the technology industry, the image of the traditional office environment began to evolve.
Collaborative space also has its more practical benefits. The square footage required for each employee shrank as private offices and traditional cubicles were replaced with collaborative space and shared workstations. This lead to a reduced footprint for employers which ultimately resulted in savings. In a traditional, highly demised office environment, an employer could expect to require anywhere from 250 to 285 square feet per employee, whereas a collaborative space calls for a range of 120 to 135 square feet for each worker.
As square footage per employee was reduced, companies seized the opportunity to upgrade their amenities, a trend that was soon adopted by landlords as well. This helped foster an appeal to the young workforce; not only could companies offer modern office space for their employees, the buildings they occupied now provided the amenities that were once exclusive to only the most competitive large companies. Reduced office footprints left space for things like game rooms, wellness centers, luxury lunch rooms, and a whole host of innovative extras that both employers and employees found attractive.
However, the open environment is not flawless. Concerns about shared space include a lack of privacy, increased incidence of distraction, and general noise complaints. Additionally, the original demographic that open offices appealed to has begun to age and have progressed to a point where they desire less socializing and more privacy. In response, the trend has once again begun to evolve. While collaborative workspace is still appealing and in demand, workers want the opportunity to unplug and disconnect from their peers and projects.
Rather than revert to private offices and completely abandon the concept, employers have been compromising. New ideas like analogue rooms that ban technology coupled with a renewed focus on recreational space have begun to gain traction in otherwise open offices. Ideally, this will give workers all the benefits and efficiency of shared space as well as the ability to disconnect when necessary. As a result, square footage per employee has crept back upwards, currently closer to 155 to 175 square feet per employee.
Ultimately, an office’s design should be based on the identity and goals of the company inhabiting the space. What works for one company may not translate to another’s needs. As employers and employees both learn what works best for their individual needs, we can expect to see more focus on balance. Dense workstations for idea sharing coupled with private office space for disconnecting, conference rooms for innovation and recreational space for relaxation. The modern office landscape is focused on employee satisfaction and work/life balance. What exactly that means will vary from company to company and industry to industry.