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

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