the history of the open office layout

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A Brief History of the Open-Office Concept

The open-office concept has dominated workspaces for decades. Advocates claim the design encourages communication and collaboration.

A whopping two-thirds of U.S. workers find themselves in open-plan offices. The concept first appeared in the 1960s, shortly after cubicles were unleashed in our workspaces. The difference between the two designs is obvious: whereas cubicles were designed to give workers the requisite amount of privacy, the open-plan office was meant to break down the social walls that divide workers, by breaking down the physical walls too.

Both concepts were invented by designers and architects with the best of intents. However, the original designs soon morphed into the stuff of corporate nightmares and the open-office concept is now lambasted for its counter-productive environment.

Back to the roots of the open office

In the mid 20th century, architects including Frank Lloyd Wright saw dividing walls and rooms as “fascist, totalitarian” constructs. In contrast, open plan offices could free employees from the confines of their cubicles and private offices.

This loathing for partitions is evident across Wright’s work, the most iconic of which is arguably the SC Johnson headquarters in Wisconsin. The building opened in 1939 with 21-foot columns that filled its famous half-acre open workspace. Known as the Great Workroom, it’s one of the earliest examples of the open-office concept.

The open-office concept was further advanced by two brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, who designed a space without any partitions and carefully placed green plants. The basic premise was to foster communication in the office.

However, the open-plan offices resided under the shadow of the more-popular cubicle design for the preceding years.

Things started to change in the 1990s, where the continued miniaturization of the personal computer and the rise of the laptop meant we no longer needed to make room for bulky office equipment. Hot desking also started to take off, and open-office designs complemented this new way of working perfectly.

As a result, the open-office concept really started to take off. At the turn of the century, the cubicles of yesteryear were rapidly replaced with open plan offices where anyone could sit. So, the open-office concept was born.

The benefits of the open-plan layout

There are many benefits to employers. Open-plan offices minimize the cost of office space and equipment. Simply put, there’s far less equipment to buy and more people can be squeezed into less square footage. Furthermore, it’s easy to keep an eye on your staff.

From a more human perspective, open-plan offices promised to make us more productive, creative and collaborate more freely with our colleagues. A 1984 study claimed open offices would foster a sense of shared mission, breaking down office hierarchies and providing a friendlier office atmosphere.

Some studies found open-plan offices can create a sense of community and increase collaboration. When employers and employees share the same workspace, it can break down barriers and understanding between staff at all levels of the company increases, a separate study concludes.

Open-plan offices are also good for your health. Another recent study of U.S. government employees found those in open-plan offices clocked 20% more physical activity than colleagues who worked in cubicles, and 32% more than those who sat in private offices.

On the surface, these benefits make sense. It seems logical that by removing the physical barriers between people, then the communication barriers will follow suit. However, the situation is a little more complicated than it first appears.

The downsides of working in an open office

The open-plan concept trend “is destroying the workplace,” according to a headline in the Washington Post, which labels the setup “oppressive.” U.K. broadcaster Jeremy Paxman also said that ‘the open-plan office tells workers what their bosses think of them – that they are interchangeable and there to fulfill a mechanical task.’

It’s clear that the open-plan concept may not work for everyone. Research reveals many workers operating in an open plan office experience poor relationships with colleagues, with reduced job satisfaction and well-being. A separate study claims the pitfalls of open-plan offices often outweigh the benefits.

There’s also the issue of ambient noise. Another study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings came to the following conclusion:

“Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”

Here, the term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they are in close proximity to one another.

A separate study observed two Fortune 500 multinational companies as they switched from a traditional, cubicle design to a spacious open-plan format. A huge slump in face-to-face interactions and a sharp fall in productivity was discovered when the open-plan offices were implemented.

The authors concluded that people need boundaries to make sense of their environment and often turn to other means of communication to protect their privacy – such as emails, messaging services, or putting on their headphones to indicate that they do not want to be disturbed.

In fact, that stats against the open-plan concept are prevalent. A range of research reveals the average open-plan office worker loses 86 minutes a day to distractions, email and messaging use shoots up by 67%, and employees spend 73% less time in face-to-face interactions.

So, what does all this mean for the future of the open-office concept? It seems that a balance must be struck. A recent report from UCLA concludes that a hybrid model would ensure employees have spaces for social interaction and privacy for concentration.

This seems like quite a fitting conclusion for the open-plan concept, which has divided opinion among the world’s workforce. Humans are not homogeneous creatures – we need diverse spaces to work and thrive. As such, the open-office concept will always have a place in our offices in combination with other designs and spaces.

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