Open offices became quite a trend in recent years. Many companies have invested time and money into rebuilding their workspaces. Both from a design perspective, as well as cost-saving, it seemed like a perfectly good idea. Putting people in the same room, while removing the physical barriers, like walls and doors, was an invitation for them to collaborate more.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect from the 20th centaury was the creator of open office ideas. The man who was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time”, believed that by tearing down the walls workplaces would become more equal, more democratic, and fair.
The light and airy designs, with plenty of natural light and lots of space between the desks – that was the original idea. However, modern workplaces with open office setup seem to go one step too far. With desks and people crammed into tight spaces, it hardly seems like a place for increased collaboration.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea, although very noble in theory, seems to have not many benefits in real life. At least not the benefits you’d expect. In fact, to the contrary, numerous studies have shown, that turning the traditional workplace into the open office space can actually decrease face-to-face interaction.
The study published by the Royal Society measured the impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban have investigated this issue, using both digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers. What they have found is that when people transitioned from working in traditional office into the open space with fewer walls, doors, and physical barriers, it actually resulted in more social withdrawal, rather than an increase in collaboration. Face-to-face communication decreased by a whopping 70%! At the same time, the usage of internal messengers and emails has increased.
In light of the current pandemic, we see the world is changing. Plexi glasses, protective shields, face masks, disinfecting gels, social distancing – this is our current reality. Not so long ago, when many governments and countries have closed up and forced people to stay home, many businesses had to undergo immediate transformations of their ways fo working. Zoom, Skype, or Teams have become new platforms for meetings.
Somewhat awkward at the beginning, after a few weeks everyone got used to it. Leaders recognized, that they don’t have to physically stand above people’s desks, to make them productive. Days of social distancing and pandemic quarantine has caused teams to evolve. Even the most conservative leaders had to adjust their ways and adopt to the new digital way of working.
With all adjustments that organizations had to undergo during the crisis, many senior leaders have realized, that there might be some opportunity to optimize as a result of these learnings. For starters, some might allow their staff to work from home and work flexibly. Mark Zuckerberg has recently announced that Facebook will allow staff to work from home until the end of the year. Google made a similar statement.
Companies might reduce the square footage of their offices in the future, allowing staff to work flexibly from home or in other co-working spaces. In the end, having a stationary office space is expensive. With the financial crisis just around the corner, it is wise to minimize the spending and keep the cash inside the organization.
Even if businesses were to stick to the traditional office setup, it will never be the same again. We live in a post-COVID world. With additional safety measures, that would have to be applied, no workplace will look or feel the same. What’s the point of an open office when you separate everyone with plexiglass? Such a Band-aid solution could only be temporary. Workplaces however need quite a revolution. The way we think about work in general needs to be reinvented. We need to realize that collaboration and productivity in modern days depends more on technology than on proximity. The ones that realize it faster will win.
Many companies have spent years strategizing on the best possible way to organize their offices. Following an open office trend, many have invested money and resources carefully designing what they perceived as the most collaborative and productive workspaces.
In business, as in life, it is not the strongest who survive, but the most adaptable to change (as Darwin would have said). The upcoming times are very interesting to observe. Will businesses adapt to the current post-COVID landscape and redesign the workplaces yet again? Or will they stick to their original open office trend, often risking decreased collaboration, lost motivation, and dissatisfaction, not to mention health implication that post-pandemic landscape has left in everyone’s conscious.