What next now that open-plan offices are dead?


28th November, 2018

What’s next now the open-plan office is on the outer?

Word on the street says the open-plan office is now dead, but could open-plan offices get a bad rap because people don’t know how to use them? More to the point, is an office even needed?

About 20 years ago, a fresh, new office-design trend emerged that promised to unleash team creativity and boost productivity at the same time – the fabled open-plan office.

The theory made sense.

By creating wide, open spaces with desks that broke free from cubicle walls meant workers would interact more to achieve better creative ideas and collaborative solutions.

For productivity-minded employers, an open-office environment meant they could fit more desks into a space.

But 20 years on, the reality hasn’t matched the hype.

A whole new raft of data-based research confirms what everyone’s who’s ever worked in an open-plan office suspected – these spaces are so noisy that it’s hard to concentrate.

The reverse has happened, where workers in open-plan offices spent 73 percent less time interacting face-to-face. Emails and messaging actually shot up by over 67 percent.

Thanks to the open-plan office, the original aim for more collaboration went rogue and achieved the opposite outcome.

“I think what’s happened over the journey’s that managers have kind of gotten the open-plan office wrong,” Spaceworks CEO Lizzi Whaley told The Pulse.

She said managers looked at the benefits in terms of cost saving and increasing creativity in their teams without thinking about how humans worked.

Sometimes people like to get together in large groups to brainstorm. Sometimes they like a quiet space to read. Sometimes they like to have a quiet chat with two or three colleagues.

“A good, open-plan office has a lot of ancillary spaces which are focused on the activity of work you’re doing. That’s what a lot of businesses have gotten so wrong about it,” said Whaley.

It’s something MYOB has changed internally with the design of new offices.

“Over the last few years globally the three biggest disruptors to productivity have consistently been reported to be technology, noise and interruptions,” MYOB’s Head of Workplace Experience Graeme Scannell told The Pulse.

He said that MYOB had created six “employee personas” and designed workspaces to suit all of them.

“The personas represent everyone from a traveller who only attends the office for meetings, to a person who crunches data, to a person in a call centre. We’re creating workplaces that deliver diverse settings for all personas in a setting that promotes a single community,” said Scannell.

But he said, regardless of work style, one key trend has been the rise in remote working – with employees being able to work anywhere at any time.

“Technology has made us a lot more mobile and we can now work from anywhere which is changing the fundamentals of why we go to the office,” said Scannell.

Given the decrease in face-to-face collaboration and increase in collaboration in channels like Slack, does the office have much of a future?

Will the office look like your home?

The rise of remote collaboration tools leads to folks speculating that the office will become an outdated concept.

Why face the morning commute when you simply don’t have to?

So many people keep embracing the working from home model that MYOB itself has checked out occupancy rates in key offices (even though we’re still hiring at a rate of knots).

“Technology and automation is changing how we work and, as a result, the reason we attend the office is also evolving,” said Scannell.

“By understanding what people are doing in the workplace enables us to evolve to better support them, increase productivity and ultimately create a great place to work.

“The boundaries of our social, personal and work lives are bleeding into each other and the office needs to better support people beyond traditional work activities.”

It turns out that employees have been taking advantage of MYOB’s flexible work arrangements to work from multiple locations rather than a centralised office. So, desks will be occupied one day and not the next.

This raises some interesting questions:

If the open-plan office, which was inherently designed to increase collaboration, simply isn’t working – what does the office look like in the future?

Does it even look like an office?

It’s all about the experience

“I think you need to look at other industries to look at what’s going to happen with the future of the office,” said Whaley.

“Retail’s a really good example. Five years ago we were all fearful that the retail store would no longer exist because we were all going to be shopping online – but what it’s done is highlight the importance of the retail store environment as an experience.”

WATCH: Why store design is crucial for retail success

It’s why she thinks the office will morph into a café style rather than a traditional office.

“It will be about bringing together community and realising the potential of that – people won’t go into the office five days a week. It may be they go in once a week to catch up with their manager or team,” said Whaley.

“Face time is still going to be really important, but just the way it’s going to be presented – offices are going to be more like hubs.

“Businesses need to engage with external parties, so there’s still going to be the need for a meeting room – but offices will be much smaller.”

For Scannell’s part, he says trying to define the future of the office is like trying to nail jelly to the wall – but it’ll revolve around getting people to want to come to the office.

“I suspect corporates will be smaller, outsourcing to consultants more. I believe that automation will mean that workplaces won’t be there to process data, but to innovate which will mean they’ll become more social magnets,” he said.

“I believe the experience will need to be enhanced so that the office is a place people choose to attend as they won’t need to.”

Whatever the office future holds, it’ll be pegged to making it a place that workers want to go to instead of those facing a trudge each morning. It will no longer be seen purely through the lens of productivity.

The epic fail of the pure open-plan office was because it matched what employers wanted. Not what employees wanted.