No Boundaries


Floor plans embrace the great wide open.

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Floor plans embrace the great wide open

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The corner office is dead. Once the prize at the top of the corporate ladder, this thickly carpeted status symbol reads like a throwback to the days of three-martini lunches and calling your secretary “hon.” Even its early replacement, the open-plan cubicle, feels dreary and old fashioned. Instead, forward-looking companies are embracing the totally open office concept.

Popularized by Silicon Valley tech firms, today’s open plan is truly open. Instead of offices, cubes or even assigned desks, C-suiters, middle managers and the work-a-day hoi polloi rub shoulders at long tables, flop together on soft seating or exchange ideas at bar-height tables. The layout creates transparency, builds camaraderie and grabs some of that shiny startup energy and charm.

{pullquote}While few would argue against communication, team work and inspiration, these soft benefits are just part of what’s really going on.     {/pullquote}

The big promise of the open office is ease of communication throughout the company: within teams, between departments and through all the layers of management. This free flow of information and ideas creates the opportunity for institutional eavesdropping, aka serendipity, which “might spark new ideas, lead to new solutions or, at the least, increase workplace camaraderie,” as Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Emma Silverman observed.

That’s what Michael Tingley, principal at Boora Architects, has found since adopting the layout in their Portland offices in 2010. “Along with better collaboration, we’ve seen a breakdown of hierarchy,” Tingley says. “The principals feel more connected to the work as it happens.”

The open-office concept has grown from fad to near universal acceptance. According to the International Facility Management Association, today some 70% of U.S. offices have no or low partitions. While few would argue against communication, teamwork and inspiration, these soft benefits are just part of what’s really going on.

“Economics are driving this trend,” says Sarah Weber, an associate at Boora Architects. “There is only so much money for so many square feet of real estate.”

Open offices allow companies to pack more people into a smaller area. According to a recent survey by CoreNet Global, a professional association for corporate real estate managers, a majority of employers now allocate 150 square feet or less per worker, down from 225 square feet in 2010. As the open-office layout gains acceptance, the square footage per person gets smaller.

Of course it makes sense to squeeze every last drop of value out of expensive floor space. Showplace offices that sit idle while executives travel are wasteful.

But it’s not just the plush executive suite that’s going away. With more and more people working from home at least part of the time, dedicated cubicles, no matter how modest, no longer make financial sense. Instead companies are moving toward a concept called “free desking,” where a variety of environments from lounges to cafes to long tables to quiet nooks allow employees to choose their own workplace adventure. Personal possessions are hung on a hook or stowed in a drawer. Laptops and smartphones, the technology that makes this possible, come along for the ride.

The concept defines Airbnb’s office in Portland’s Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood. The Boora-designed interior houses about 200 mostly millennial-age employees who have taken to the space with ease. “People in their 20s and 30s don’t have an attachment to hierarchy,” says Tingley. The coffee-shop vibe plays into that, along with this generation’s desire to blur the line between work and play.

With their bargain price tags and cool cache, open offices are here to stay. But as expected, there’s a downside, too. An avalanche of workplace research shows that spaces like these can be noisy, chaotic and bad for productivity.

In an article published last year, New Yorker reporter Maria Konnikova cited a study from a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary monitoring workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. After six months, the psychologists found the employees suffered according to every measure. “The new space was disruptive, stressful and cumbersome,” Konnikova wrote. “Instead of feeling closer, co-workers felt distant, dissatisfied and resentful. Productivity fell.”

One of the most obvious drawbacks to the open office is noise. Research by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney found that 60% of cubicle workers and half of all “partitionless” people cite lack of sound privacy as a workplace frustration.

That noise is more than just an annoyance. A study by psychologist Nick Perham has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic, The New Yorker’s Konnikova reported. And don’t think an expensive pair of noise-cancelling headphones offers much shelter. Perham discovered that even listening to music harms mental abilities.

Tingley acknowledged that noise was an issue in the original redesign of Boora. The problem was managed with a combination of acoustic panels and behavior modification. “People who were used to having loud, boisterous telephone conversations had to tone it down.”

Successful open offices don’t just happen. They need great acoustics, a variety of spaces that allow different modes of work and ground rules. “Headphones on mean I don’t want to be disturbed,” says Weber.

Without these, the concept is doomed to fail. In the spirit of embracing the future, I set off on a little free-desking adventure of my own. Instead of working in my usual quiet home office, I tried writing this piece in a busy coffee shop. I found it too loud, too bright, and too uncomfortable to get anything accomplished. I packed it up after just 30 minutes.

The coffee, however, was superb.

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Extreme cubicle

Freewheeling office design is all the rage. But at least one furniture company is betting on a backlash. As reported by Fast Company, Steelcase has designed a cocoon-like office module that surrounds workers on three sides by a private screen. The design, known as the Brody WorkLounge, is intended to prevent workers from being distracted by their colleagues. The Brody will be available fall 2015.

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