Business leaders have always sought ways to boost the productivity of their employees. In the 20th century, the open office was considered to be the smartest design to boost the productivity of desk-bound workers. In 1906, the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building was considered to be the first modern office, embracing an open office plan for the first time. The open-office concept continued throughout the years, but it was really popularized in the 2000s by tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook.In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg hired famed architect Frank Gehry to design Facebook's new headquarters, which would ultimately be "the largest open floor plan in the world." The campus is actually a single room stretching 10 acres.These layouts were praised for their ability to encourage productivity, collaboration, and creativity. Architects and business leaders believe that open design focuses on mobility, empowers individual boundaries and encourages chance encounters. But, so employees who have to work in these spaces share the same sentiment?
Less Focus, More Distraction
In 2015, The Washington Post published an article that sated this design trend “is destroying the workplace” at places like Google because it’s too “oppressive.” In 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple's open-office design was producing to be too noisy and distracting for programmers.A recent study by students at Harvard also noted that open designs are effectively hindering face-to-face communication, rather than building those "chance encounters" that Facebook had hoped. Rather than prompting collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates, and interact instead over email and instant messaging, particularly through services such as Slack.
A Closer Look at Office Interaction
While open offices remain the trends, more studies around office interactions are showing that these spaces tend to yield employees who are more un-collaborative and unfriendly. Moreover, a study in 2016 by the Auckland University of Technology found that people who work from home or share a space with just one or two others enjoy better relationships with colleagues.Additionally, some argue that openness creates a sense of transparency, and therefore motivates people to work more because others can see what they're doing. Columbia professor and productivity expert Cal Newport suggests that this simply fuels busyness as a proxy for productivity and that it fails to foster quality work in favor of the perception of working more.
Alternatives to Openness
There are alternatives to designing a new workspace that isn't reliant on open layouts. Hub and Spoke is just one approach that's a hybrid of an open office and a closed office. While there are central spaces and hallways that are open, there are still individual offices. MIT’s Building 20 is an excellent example of Hub and Spoke.Ultimately, businesses need to design spaces that are more likely to encourage great work. One thing that should be avoided at all costs is the notion that a space that's swanky or impressive, offering a football-field of openness, is going to be the sliver bullet that leads to the next great idea. Chances are, according to research, it probably won't.