Life after the open plan office?

Before COVID I spent my whole career working in an open plan office. Most of the time my bosses worked in the open plan too – frequently by choice not by necessity.   Architecture and design is a collaborative team based work environment and we all believed it was the only way to work.  Months spent in lockdown combined with new technologies have seen me reflecting on what the future holds for the open plan office.

Unlike my lawyer siblings, I’d never expected to have an office. If I needed to concentrate I put in headphones or found a quiet room.  I loved the open plan (as long as it was well designed and supported by meeting spaces and quiet rooms) and I couldn’t understand why anyone complained. I thought it was a matter of what you were used to and that the naysayers would just have to get used to it sometime – even the lawyers. After all, around 30-40% of desks are typically unoccupied, why pay for all those empty offices?

Fast forward to a post lockdown 2021, and I realised I’d gradually come to hate the open office, and in my mind I’m questioning its purpose in the current era. Like the enclosed office had their day, are the days of the open office now coming to an end? My suspicion is yes, the post COVID office will have a lot less desks but as with many trends, this was already a development that was starting before COVID.

Even before Covid 19 my own views were probably starting to change. I just hadn’t realised it yet. Five years ago, after my daughter was born, I negotiated a role where I could work from home 1 day a week (not whilst caring for her but to allow me to skip a commute and get some washing done). What it also gave me was a day that was largely free of distractions and usually free of meetings too. This became my time to focus on extensive drawing reviews or writing fee proposals.

In 2020 as the world shut down and our team moved to full time WFH – at first just a few of us, but within a week or 2 – the whole practice. We were in fact well setup already for this. A number of staff like myself already worked from home some days as well as part time meant our team was well used to distributed work. Our technology strategy that had been gradually growing more cloud based, many tools we had started implementing only months before the lockdown such as Revizto and Morpholio Trace became key aspects of our online design collaboration process and proved many tasks could be delivered whilst remote.  Once we added Teams for video conferencing, it was fairly quick to bring  others on board too. We saw many benefits to remote working – many staff were happy and productive skipping the commute, clients based overseas or regionally were better able to participate in meetings, consultants less like to question why they needed to attend a 2 hour meeting for their 5 minutes of input.  The biggest challenge for most designers was the access to our physical materials sample library, although like any workplace not everyone took so well to remote work – and of course we all missed the choice to meet in person.

Our first lockdown actually turned out to be a short one, and in Sydney unlike many other places, we had a year back in the office before our second lockdown. A year where Teams/Zoom meeting still remained the new norm and a lot of time was spent talking about hybrid working – what does hydbrid mean for us, for our clients and for the world of workplace from building owners through to co-working and tenants? The world at large was suddenly interested in talking about workplace – do we need less of it, how often do we go there, and most critically what is a workplace for?

This is a question that didn’t really get asked before COVID. It was accepted by most companies that if you had more than a handful of staff, you needed a physical workplace. Only a very few (usually tech) startups such as Gitlab (a 100% remote company before COVID – they even wrote a guide) bucked this trend. But for anyone returning early to the open office post lockdown, the question of what is the workplace for becomes obvious very quickly. Why am I sitting here in the office with people doing teams calls all around me (of myself on teams) – distracting anyone from doing focus work? Even if there are meeting rooms – is there a point going to an office to sit in a room and do a videoconference? Many people started thinking – if I can do this work from home comfortably why am I actually here? (noting that WFH is not the answer for everyone and usually there is a number of people who will want to go to the physical office regardless). If you then layer on social distancing rules which prevent people gathering in meeting rooms, or hybrid working patterns mean few staff are present, then the physical office really does start to seem pointless to spend time travelling somewhere to do more video calls.  People start to really question what am I getting out of being here physically in the office?

A big point that came up frequently last year in favour of the physical office was the idea of learning by osmosis or of over-hearing colleagues, the serendipitous interruptions and interactions that occur in the course of a day in the open office.  I’ve long been a skeptic of the idea of learning by osmosis, I feel like it’s an excuse for not actually spending mindful deliberate time in training people. I’ve also noticed that more and more communication is taking place by email or scheduled calls, or even while people are on the run between meetings. Less and less do people sit as their desks making calls that graduates might over hear and learn from. To me, the ability to invite an additional team member unobtrusively to listen in on the video call (with no travel time also) might provide a whole lot more learning than overhearing a few calls.  Learning on the job is always going to be essential, but maybe there are better ways to learn that by accidentally over hearing things?

A work culture that relies on accidental communication rather than purposeful communication is also be a problem for people who work part time, or even spend a lot of time out of the office with clients – they too may miss important information – if it is only communicated verbally in an ad hoc informal manner.

I’ve also realised over this time, that much of our conversation and concepts of “workplace” actually refers to the kind of workplace where you have a large diverse organisation with numerous teams working on different projects or areas of the business.  If your company only consists of one or two teams, the conversation and information shared is just as likely to be important information about the nature of your job as social chitchat or random connections or the “water cooler chat”. In a small organisation, you might find you still connect with people virtually as frequently as you did in the office.  You might not notice the absence of the social side of work as much as if you sit on a floor of over 100 people.
I’ve realised that already for me pre lockdown over a few years of working in smaller organisations, networking events and social media had already replaced the workplace providing these kind of serendipitous, inspiring or even just outside of the everyday, encounters. Without consciously thinking, I’d already been looking for new ways to connect. In fact this is what I missed most during lockdowns and found the hardest to simulate (although not completely impossible, I managed to make a few new friends via Zoom during the first lockdown).

So…if we don’t need rows and rows of workstations for people to sit and work at screens (regardless of if that work is intensive concentrated work or online collaboration) what is the workplace for and do we still have an open office? I believe the answer is yes – in part.  Workplaces will continue to evolve and many possible permutations are currently being discussed and explored, but for now, we do still need desks to work at. Regardless of if your work is on a PC or a laptop, many of us need multiple screens for comparing documents or graphics / modelling work and for best ergonomics all kinds of computer work will for now remain best done at a desk (when working hours on a computer anyway). As anyone who has already attempted to juggle a hybrid schedule knows, we can’t neatly allocate all of our meetings and collaboration times to blocks of in office time.  There will also be work in between. There will always be people who prefer to work in the office and who don’t want to work at home. I also can’t see any sense in moving back to an earlier ear of 1 enclosed room per person either. Real estate is too expensive and if you are only in the office 3 days a week why have a dedicated room per person.

There are many new workplace models currently being considered. HASSELL have developed a number of models for the new workplace from developments of Activity Based Working (Turbo charged) to more regional workplaces (Hub and Spoke) or the model which is most divergent from a traditional office is the Clubhouse model.  In this workplace model, the Clubhouse workplace becomes the central focus of collaboration and social activities – a central location for meeting clients and co-workers more akin to a a hospitality or events space than a traditional office, very few desks exist in this model.

Another suggestion is to question if you keep your current fitout, but perhaps you “flip” the use of the open plan office? Natalie Slessor  from Lend Lease suggested that with the bulk of space at the workplace being required for collaboration – maybe this face to face is what takes place in the open plan and the enclosed spaces are used for quiet work.

In my mind right now is a different model. Recently I was visiting the new Marrickville Library designed by BVN and I realised this could in fact be the future of the workplace. The Marrickville Library is an amazing transformation of a heritage building – a new building literally built around a heritage building.  Inside there are an amazing variety of spaces from tiny one person rooms, to surprising little nooks at the top of the stair (and under the eaves of the old building), to larger spaces for reading and working as well as auditorium style stepped seating common to many contemporary offices.  It is a wondrous place to explore (the website doesn’t do the variety of the interior spaces justice). An office based upon this idea would have an open plan area, but not a huge one, and its function is a quiet study space – akin to the library reading room. Other spaces large and small but removed from the reading room become spaces for collaboration. Small enclosed rooms become the places for the video calls and the chats. In all likelihood, this model will mean more enclosed spaces and more variety in the sizes and types of rooms. Outdoor and indoor spaces are all part of the mix. Cafes and hospitality style spaces are also a key component of this new workplace. In some ways this is a logical next step from both ABW spaces and many existing co-working spaces. But this model also opens up intriguing design ideas as to the kinds of spaces and buildings that might make up the office of tomorrow – perhaps no longer are shiny new premium grade towers the favoured answer. 

The most important point right now is that now is the time to question why the office, what is the office and how can we make the office of tomorrow better than the office of the past? The office has never been a static concept, and now more than ever is the time to question, experiment and pilot to see what works for your people, your teams and your organisation. What other kinds of models are you seeing in your office world or picturing in your own mind?

I am looking forwards to spending even more of my own time investigating this topic and working with clients to discover their best workplaces. From 3 December I’m excited to be joining CBRE’s Workplace Strategy Team here in Sydney. Get in touch to discuss the future of work!

Image Credits: Israel Andrade on Unsplash

New Posts Coming Soon

It’s been a long time between lunches! Between a hyperactive preschooler, COVID lockdowns and a website rebuild, I haven’t had much opportunity to write for a long time. I’m very excited to have been working on some new content in the last couple of months, which I look forward to bringing you soon!

The Midnight Lunch: My favourite apps for busy consultants

toddler apps by jenny downing, on Flickr

A few people have commented to me recently on the number of apps on my iphone and ipad or have told me they are unsure how to use their ipad for business and which apps to use. So I have put together my recommendations – and most of them are around organsing yourself, communication and business rather than specifically interior design or architecture – and so are equally useful for engineers, real estate or project management professionals.   While I’m talking specifically ipad as thats the platform I use, most of these apps are available android as well.  Where I’ve mentioned them, prices are the USD prices on the itunes store.  You will notice I’veexcluded all the social media apps from this post.  While social media and apps go very much together, I am writing my next post as a follow up to go into more more detail about social media for designers and architects.

Evernote is one of my favourite apps for so many things. Evernote is designed as a digital notebook library. You keep notes in notebooks. Notebooks can be sorted out into groups to easily separate them. Notes can be words, images taken with your device camera, snippets captured from the web or even recordings. The notes can be tagged and can be searched for words they contain (think like having google for your notebook). You can share notebooks and you can have a business account too. You can have Evernote on all your devices and on your desktop PC, and you can access it via the web. Supposedly (and I would agree  having experienced this), Evernote gets more useful the more you have stored there – because you really then benefit from its power to find things. I use Evernote with a premium subscription (for more space) for work, blogging and research and personally too (its great for your tax return). A great example of how I use it for work is an event like InDesign, a big trade show. During the day I take photos and make notes for each suppliers showroom or stand I visit. I tag the notes with “lounge”, “planting”, “lighting” and things like that. Later in the office when I am looking for planting ideas, I can filter the notes by tag and find all the notes I have made (in the past 2 years!) related to planting ideas. It’s amazing. If you want to know more, there are some great books out there plus lots of blogs, websites etc with tips. If you are really interested in how I am using it, let me know – I could easily write a whole post on it.

Evernote Hello
So I’m not quite finished with Evernote yet. There are a large number of apps that work alongside Evernote for added functionality and one I use is Evernote Hello. Hello allows you to scan and store your business cards as records in your Evernote account. You can make notes on where you met people and add links to their social media at the same time as you add them into the app. You can search within the Hello app or later in Evernote. Because you can make notes and in Evernote you can add reminders, you can also use it as a basic client relationship management software.

Remember the Milk
One feature I don’t use much in Evernote is the reminders. This is because for many years (even before iphone) I have used Remember the Milk. Like Evernote its available on multiple platforms (However only with the ability to sync between them all if you pay for a premium subscription), you can also share lists (I haven’t personally tried this feature). RTM allows you to create multiple lists (for example I have one for work and one for personal, plus a few more specific ones), set prioritys and deadline times, send reminders (you phone moos!) and set location. It can now also be linked to Evernote (I just set this up yesterday) as well as google, outlook and a whole host of other platforms.

I spent ages looking for an excel app and tried at least half a dozen. My advice – give up and go tablet native with Numbers, Apples own spreadsheet app. It costs $10.49 but its worth it. Its so easy to navigate, creating and formating spreadsheets is so much easier with this app than with the apps that try to mimic your PC. And compatibility with Excel seems to be pretty good, I’ve been using some pretty complex spreadsheets back and forth and they seem to be OK (Formatting, formulas and multiple sheets included).

Dragon Dictation
This is an awesome app. Turn your iphone into a dictaphone, as as you record it types. Its not 100% accurate, but its not bad. I use it sometimes for blogging and also on site for recording defects.

This is my go to for a PDF reader, there are free ones, but at $5.49 I have been happy to pay for the extra functionality and useability of Goodreader – I’ve been using it for over 2 years now. It opens up your PDFs, allows you to sort them into folders and annotate them. One thing I like is that your PDFs in Goodreader are stored on your device, not on the cloud, so you don’t need wifi to open them up. I use this for everything from drawings, to meeting minutes, to programs. The day I realised my ipad was super useful for work beyond just the internet, was when I sat in an airport lounge marking up drawings that had just been emailed to me. I use a stylus pen for marking up in goodreader.

OneDrive and Dropbox
I have both – too much cloud strorage is never enough. Both OneDrive and Dropbox allow you to store your files in the cloud instead of on your hard drive. You can download the apps to access your files from your mobile devices and you can install on your PC to save files directly to the cloud. Both give you a certain amount of free storage with bonus storage available by installing apps, recommending to friends or purchasing a premium subscription.

Flipboard and Feedly
Flipboard and Feedly are both RSS readers with beautiful magazine style formatting. This means you can add all the blogs you follow as well as online magazines and social media.  The app has built in recommendations you can pick from too (for example under Architecture Arch Daily).  The app then builds you a magazine with a mix of articles from your selected sites. Flipboard gives you a separate magazines for each feed (site) which I don’t like (it used to be able to integrate with Googlereader to give you one magazine only). I just went back to Feedly again which seems to have developed a bit more since I originally joined last year and I’m going to see how that goes.

Project Management Systems – Acconex, Conject etc
They seem to be something we all have to live with these days. For me personally being on the interior design side, I find PM systems seem to be a lot of work with very little project benefit, but hopefully the PMs get some benefits out if them. Anyway most of the systems have an app,so that at a minimum you can read and send messages on the go. The Aconex app for ipad seems to have pretty full functionality, I am able to upload documents while I am out an about.

This is a great little scanning app – it works better than a photo because it takes 3 photos and adjusts out the fuzziness and converts it to a PDF.  I find it worth the $2.99 I paid.

This app allows you to run your PowerPoints from your ipad. You can choose if you want to view your slides full screen or with speaker notes and you can set it up also on your phone and use your phone to control the slides remotely. Whilst there were no compatibility issues with displaying PowerPoint, you can’t edit PowerPoints on this app. Maybe I will have to switch to keynote…

Bluebeam Vu
I haven’t personally used this app but one of the guys in the office has assured me it’s awesome for defects. You can take photos, annotate them and link the to locations on a PDF of the floor plan. Bluebeam Vu is free and then you can upgrade to Bluebeam Revue (not sure what the features for that are)  It’s the next app I’ll be testing.

I have had a kindle for ages, however when I first bought it there were a lot of architecture and design books I would still buy in hard copy – black and white for images was not really worthwhile. However, now I get these books delivered to my ipad and read them using the kindle app. It syncs with your kindle and your amazon account and the images look great on ipad.

This app allows you to remotely view your PC screen. Create an account, Install it on your PC and on your ipad and you can view your PC screen on your ipad. Pretty cool…but clunky to use. Good really for quick changes to word documents or emailing or moving files to the cloud. Free for personal use.

Facetime and Skype
Especially if you need to contact people overseas, both Facetime and Skype are great simple to use apps for making video calls over the web. Yes, sometimes they drop out – but hey it’s free.

Unroll me
This is not an app but it’s a super useful service I discovered recently. You sign up and it scans your email account for subscription services. Then you choose which ones to “roll up” into a daily digest, and at the same time, easily unsubscribe from any you don’t want anymore. It then sends you one email per day at a time of your choosing for all your ‘rolled up’ emails.  I have all my linkedin subscription emails arrive just before breakfast instead of getting 20 or more scattered throughout the day.

So there you have it – my favourite apps. I’m always on the look out for new ones, what are your favourite apps to use to keep you working whilst out and about or make your work life easier?

P.S. Come Out to (Midnight) Lunch. Meet fellow The Midnight Lunch readers at an informal industry event to be held next Friday 11 April from 5.30pm at Chicane bar in Sydney (10-20 Bond St). Email me at if you are interested in attending or just turn up on the day.  Note the event is not sponsered, buy your own drinks and food. 


Image Credits:

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  jenny downing 

The value of time off…even from blogging

Maldives - Fesdu: favorite place  40.098 by Juergen Kurlvink, on Flickr

This week, I’m taking my own advice from my last post – Why is delivering on time so hard – and I’m taking a vacation, not from work, but from writing a blog article. There has been so much discussion and feedback on this post, I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading and responding to comments on Linkedin. Discussions have ranged across diverse topics including IPD to human nature and technology and fee bidding. Below are links to a couple of the discussion threads.

BIM experts
Revit Users
Design Managers Forum

My other reason for doing this is that I needed to use my usual blogging hours to spend sometime to contribute to the Collaborate working group I belong to, we are preparing a white paper on Levels of Development, the draft of which will be released soon and I’ll discuss it on this blog when it is. In the meantime, you can find out more about Collaborate and volunteer to contribute at their website.

In the meantime, I’m attending the Refurb and Retrofit conference in Sydney today and tomorrow, and I’m sure I will find some inspiration for my next blog post there. If you happen to be there too, find me in a break and say hi.

Image credits:
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by Juergen Kurlvink