Is Open Office dead?

After more than a year in the home office, many workers will return to their work offices in the next months (in the late summer or fall this year). But how will this impact people who are now used to working from home?

Also, the most affected part of the working population are people who work in open space offices and this is by far the biggest contrast to features of the home office

Life after COVID-19

First, let’s check what happened in COVID-19 time. Everyone who has the opportunity to work from home has experienced this option in some form or the other. The majority worked from home all the time . 

But what will happen next? Many organisations haven’t clearly communicated what will be the future of their work? Maybe, just maybe they still don’t know.

What are employees saying?

In a McKinsey and Company Study “most employees will prefer a more flexible working model after the pandemic is over”. Fifty two percent (52%) was clearly for the hybrid model (in opposition to 30% in pre-COVID-19 time) with only 37% for fully on-site work (62% in pre-COVID-19 time).

What if organisations just break the silence and simply switch to fully on-site? The same study offers the answer as “going back to a fully on-site model might have significant talent implications”. An astonishing number of workers – 29%  – are likely to switch jobs if returned to fully on-site work (26% in Europe). In another study, 57% of people opted for hybrid or fully remote work.

A Gartner Survey reveals that 82% of company leaders are planning to allow employees to work remotely some of the time and 47% said they intend to allow employees to work remotely full time. At the same time, many companies are revealing a commitment to work remotely in the next few years.

The Twitter case is very interesting, as last year they announced that employees will be allowed to work from home forever. “The past few months have proven we can make that work. So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”

Team Culture

Teams were maintaining their work culture remotely for more than a year in different ways. Regular meetings, chatting, emails and telcos – the communication wasn’t broken, for some, it is even more convenient than office meetings in person. The shift to “normal” should be done in steps. As Twitter says:

“When we do decide to open offices, it also won’t be a snap back to the way it was before. It will be careful, intentional, office by office and gradual.”

The same applies to office culture. People will try to find a balance between the environment of the last period and what transpires when they return to their office chairs. Leaders will need to hear what their colleagues are saying in this period. The attitude of managers toward remote workers will surely change.

“There was this belief that if you really wanted to move up in the company, you had to be in the office, and be seen in the office, which often meant coming in early and staying late, because otherwise you weren’t noticed.” says UC Davis researcher Kimberly Elsbach. In addition, data shows that remote workers get paid less and are promoted more slowly.

Hybrid

The  switch from on-site as normal to working remotely or viewing  hybrid as the new normal in just one year will surely have big consequences on the way we work, but also on the way our offices are built, organised and decorated. If people work half-a-week from home they would not need a permanent seat and desk at the office. Sharing offices by two teams or the plan of shared seating could become a new model for many companies. Hybrid work is the solution for the first phase of a comeback, but maybe also for the long-term. But the main question is what  is the future of open office?

Open Office

Open plan was popular in recent times but it is easy to say that it was more popular among managers than among “ordinary” employees. How to come back from the comfort of the home office to the busy, noisy, disturbing and no-privacy atmosphere of an open office? Not only noise but movement and visual noise distract people from thinking and it kills creativity and concentration.

Most probably the standard office will survive this turmoil, but will it be the same with the open office?

The way offices look will transform as this becomes part of company culture and its external presentation. Colours, furniture, light, relaxing areas – everything is affected. Architects have a clear vision, like Amber Wernick, an associate at Clive Wilkinson Architects:

“The open office is dead. We really see that being one of the biggest changes to come out of this pandemic and the way people are going to feel coming back into the workplace after working from home for over a year.”

Her colleague Caroline Morris says: 

“We strongly believe that the one-size-fits-all office cannot exist in the future of work, with even stronger reasons now than there were pre-pandemic.”

They are proposing the 12 building blocks of the new workspace. They see it as a way to enhance new ways of working in the post-COVID-19 workspace.

Google is designing “Team Pods.” instead of rows of desks. In a NYTimes article it is described in the following way:

“Each pod is a blank canvas: Chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters can be wheeled into various arrangements, and in some cases rearranged in a matter of hours.”

They are also introducing new meeting rooms called Campfire, “where in-person attendees sit in a circle interspersed with impossible-to-ignore, large vertical displays. The displays show the faces of people dialing in by videoconference so virtual participants are on the same footing as those physically present.”

Focus

In the home office you can turn off disturbances (well it should be possible), but in the open office, there is no chance for that. You can’t remove the team that is talking about the new task or remove people who are on teleconferences and forget about the level of their speech or let’s call it what it is – noise. Of course, there are “quiet open offices”, but I haven’t heard about many.

In a study “Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices” published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, authors Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear sums it up like this: 

“Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of Indoor Environmental Quality, particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration. In the end, open-plan office doesn’t make people more productive or more socially engaged.

Creativity

The greatest killer of creativity is an interruption. It pulls your mind away from what you want to be thinking about. After an interruption,

it can take eight minutes for you to return to your previous state of consciousness, and up to twenty minutes to get back into a state of deep focus. 

Hearing phone calls, conversations ten meters away from you or even team meetings that can occur in open office spaces distract and annoy people who can’t really concentrate. It is normal to be distracted by other’s voices and putting on headphones with music can help, but will it make you focused? The best would be to work in silence, but this is not possible in an open office (except maybe at 6 in the morning or 8 in the evening).

What comes next…

To overcome this near-future scenario companies should adapt by adding more space per employee which means a change from the open-plan office to a different space plan and adapting to a hybrid work system. This  means that in the future there will be no time where all employees (or even all teams) are in the building at the same time. This will create disturbances in the property sector, but also in the employment market as people will choose their employers  by new criteria – the ability for remote work and the shape of their offices.

Image: Unsplash/Alex Kotliarskyi

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