Goodbye open-plan. Hello fluid office!

Goodbye open-plan. Hello fluid office!

At the beginning, there was the tiny cubicle. Those were not in favour of teamwork much. Then walls and their siblings, the separators, ‘fell’ and we welcomed the open-space office layouts. The ‘open-plan’. Those were in favour of teamwork, collaboration and exchange of ideas and information.

The new trend takes it all to the next level, redefines the office and what it means (is it a permanent and static space for an employee?). The new offices are designed with a concept that makes sure the employees will not be way too ‘comfortable’ in their offices-be it private or open-plan. The new designs encourage mobility.

The New York Times wrote about it. They see it as a reaction to the prevailing mentality that a specific working space type suits everyone, every job and times. A reaction against huge, open-plan working spaces which were created to enhance teamwork and communication, as well as productivity even though all the research shows otherwise, after all.

However, in practice, research has shown that, in this way, more and more people are being stacked in an increasingly smaller space. It is estimated that the average office space is currently 14 cubic meters per employee, from 225 cubic meters in 2010, but in the open offices the space that corresponds to an employee may fall even below the six cubic meters. On the other hand, in open-plans, productivity can decrease as many workers, either because of their personality (e.g. the introverts) or the nature of their work, need more personal space and peace and quiet to deliver to the maximum of their capabilities. Futurist, Nicole Milard of British Telecom, has concluded that in open-plan offices a worker gets distracted every three minutes, on average. ‘The problem with open-plan offices is that they are based on the one-size-fits-all model, which in fact does not fit anyone,’ Milard claims.


A different type of office for each of us

The new ‘hybrid’ model is also in favour of open spaces, but not completely. According to the new model, dropping the dividing walls to bring colleagues closer is not a bad thing. But, at the same time, it promotes a variety of solutions in one workspace, including old individual offices, new type of offices where the worker can work standing up or in a semistand-up position, working sofas, moving walls in order to change the layout of the room at will or on the basis of changing needs and more.

Privacy and ‘isolation’ are not banished. Rather, they are favoured in the case where tasks demand exclusive focus. These does not equal a revolution against the revolution—a mass return to a past of prive offices and closed doors. No. It only means that employees have now more solutions to choose from and can choose to isolate themselves or work on-the-move, even. In special cases, we can even create ‘isolation’ rooms which can be sound-insulated (some as small as a telephone booth), as well as areas where technology is forbidden so we can relax and brainstorm!

The new trends are, surprisingly, more welcomed by big corporations such as Microsoft, IBM, GE, rather than start-up Silicon Valley SMS. The latter are famous for their eccentricity and trendiness (some even have special rooms for mediation time!). But it is in the big corps that we see the fluid offices type more these days.

Organisation of work affects how employees behave, according to architects and other experts. At a time when many young students and employees prefer to study and work with their laptop at Starbucks and other cafes, the new trend of organizing workplaces is in line with this concept, and even challenges the ‘everyone be seated in their office table’ doctrine. Variety in the workspace helps productivity just as well. The new concept, the ‘office design according to activity’, creates separate spaces within the company, to fit every activity need.


The Microsoft office case

Let’s have a look at a typical case—that of Microsoft's headquarters outside Seattle. For decades, they had Software developers and other IT specialists in isolated individual offices on the ground that they needed quiescence. In 2010, the company adopted the open-plan layout and the removal of individual offices separated with walls.

Until people started complaining that noise was distracting and annoying. It was clear that too much ‘openness’ became a boomerang. The outcome for employees was to turn to themselves more and communicate with their colleagues less. Some even started putting headphones on, to listen to music all the time.

Today, Microsoft is following the fluid office trend, brought private spaces back in part and all the while keeps a maximum of 8-12 people in a common workspace. The first evidence portrays the new model having positive effects. But it could also be due to that their financial situation (stocks are rising you see!).

On the other hand, scientific research shows that productivity is rising and days-off are decreased when workspace is brighter, has abundance of view to outdoor environment, and excellent ventilation (tiny windows, especially if they are closed, for example, are horrific).

The research by the psychologists is clear too: when employees have a say regarding their office space and are free to choose their preferred workspace conditions, instead of putting up with top management rules, their productivity increases by min. 25%, according to a survey conducted in the UK. 

So, it is not a mere coincidence that IBM too has now offered its employees ten different office and work organisation designs, from open spaces to stand offices and ‘telephone booths’ for isolation to choose from! A similar thing was done at the headquarters of General Electric. Ξ€here, they abolished the parking areas as well, to encourage employees to use public transport!


Working from home

Meanwhile, the working from home trend continues to gain ground as well, with the blessings of new technologies. In the US alone, 1 in 5 workers work from home, full time. Digital nomads excluded from those statistics. Digital nomads are professionals that work from anywhere using a laptop, a journal, a pen… and have transcended cafeterias into working spaces around the world—some even go as far as calling them their ‘Coffices’ (from café+office!)

Here’s futurist, Milard again: ‘We will end up having tiny offices in our briefcases. This is what technology can give us. We won’t have any physical boundaries and office space will become obsolete’. Milard predicts that, no matter what, offices will not vanish completely, if anything else they encourage social connection… ‘the balance between Me and We’, as she stated. ‘We have to have the freedom to choose, from a variety of options, how to perform their job’. Some of these options are working from home, from a café or a hotel lobby.