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Five design concepts reinventing the open plan office

The open plan office rose to prominence in the 2000s as a utopian dream. Workers would be released from the shackles of their cubicles, free to work collaboratively and creatively with their now-visible colleagues.

It didn’t work out that way.

Open plan offices may have broken down cubicle walls, but they did nothing to increase productivity or collaboration. Instead, these layouts introduced more distractions, increased stress, and sent privacy levels plummeting. Research even found that open plan offices led to employees taking more sick days. Germs, it seems, benefitted far more than workers from being able to move freely around open plan workspaces.

Now, employees are sick of open offices in more ways than one, and businesses are looking for ways to redesign their spaces more appropriately. Strangely enough, businesses have found themselves in this situation before. Open plan offices were dominant in the 1950s, and they were just as unpopular. The solution last time? Cubicles.

A return to cubicles is not an option in this instance, and too many office workers have painful memories of the dehumanising isolation they engendered. Instead, there has to be a new answer. A genuinely better layout that allows for privacy, collaboration, and stimulation in equal measure. Thankfully, several have already been posited. Here are four design concepts that could trace a way out of this open plan tunnel.

Co-Working Offices

Co-working has emerged as a popular alternative to traditional office tenancies. The concept is simple: one workspace shared by several companies. Smaller businesses in particular have benefitted from these spaces as they offer central locations at lower price points, and allow more flexible contracts.

Co-working environments have also proven popular with larger companies. In 2016, Microsoft moved 30% of its New York staff to WeWork co-working offices. Moving into these spaces gives these established firms the chance to learn and benefit from how newer startups are working, potentially leading to the coveted collaboration open plan offices were meant to entail, albeit in a cross-company rather than a cross-departmental way.

Design-wise, an individual co-working office can be anything, but in practice they are often hybrids with open plan areas and private meeting rooms. Many will take the shape of a business lounge, which according to Landmark can offer “a mix of soft seating, meeting tables and hot desks.”

The real benefit of co-working spaces comes from the flexibility. Businesses are free to outgrow their digs and expand into other offices, or even to house different departments in different cities, towns, or countries.

Activity-based Working (ABW)

A more traditional alternative than moving a whole business into co-working spaces, ABW is nonetheless radical in its own way, and it could certainly chart the way forward from outdated open plans.

Rather than box people into cubicles or leaving them with 360-degrees of distractions, ABW offers several different working areas and give employees no fixed desk. This allows workers to choose their appropriate position based on the task at hand.

A group of graphic designers may want to meet together to brainstorm ideas in a semi-formal environment, and later go their separate ways to actualise concepts without interruption. An ABW office will allow for this. ABW is about empowering workers with choice. In a way, the workspace becomes a responsive environment, adaptable to employees’ every needs.

Neighborhood-based Choice Environments (NCEs)

Taking the ABW concept one step further, NCEs prioritise choice above all else, but take careful lengths to create a holistic environment. The best example of this is Square’s San Francisco office opened in 2013. The building hired a ‘head of office experience’ to oversee its development. He took inspiration not from other offices, but from cities and houses.

The building has “avenues”, “intersections” and a “town square.” Each area of the office has its own identity. This brings personality to the choices offered by ABW, and helps employees actually enjoy their working environment and surroundings. This sense of enjoyment has been sorely lacking from previous office designs, open plan included.

Remote Working

For some businesses, none of the above alternatives will seem appropriate. If this is the case, it could be worth ditching the office altogether.

Remote working is becoming increasingly popular, with nearly a quarter of employees doing some of their job remotely in 2015. The US Department of Labor has found that remote working can increase productivity.

Inarguably it eliminates many of the downsides of open plan offices. There can be fewer distractions from colleagues, less germ spread, and more work being completed. The downside is that remote working is worse for collaboration. Depending on the kind of business, an open plan office might be a better idea after all.

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