Robert Propst might be the most influential person in the history of the American workplace.
In 1964 he invented the action office. Born as a kind of antidote to the open concept workplace of the 1950s, the action office provided privacy, personal space, and the freedom for employees to move, stand, or sit as they worked.
Imitators quickly followed on smaller, more static scales. Then with the computer came the cubicle, a corruption of Propst’s original idea.
As a pushback against the cubicle concept, many companies — notably tech startups — have returned to offices with wide open spaces. Today, nearly 70% of office spaces are open-concept, according to the International Facility Management Association. The rationale is simple: Drop the barriers between employees and the resulting proximity will spur collaboration and generate new ideas.
Although there are success stories for the open office concept, new reports say the floor plan hurts employee productivity and morale.
A May 2017 Wall Street Journal article discusses how the move four years ago into a new building compete with polished concrete floors, custom-built communal tables, and an open concept turned out different from what software development company Chairseven expected. Rather than supporting an environment of constant, open communication, the office's reverberating noise made noise-canceling headphones the norm.
And it’s not just Chairseven. Per the Journal, British researchers who studied 100 work environments found that despite improved communication in some instances, open concepts hurt motivation and the ability to focus.
CEOs have reported that embedding themselves within the larger workforce makes employees self-conscious, and it’s difficult to hide worry or other emotions associated with business performance.
No cubes represent cost savings in terms of materials, and fewer walls allow for a greater density of workers in the same space. But studies have shown open offices also report increased numbers of employee sick days as well as issues surrounding, as Bloomberg puts it, “being forced to listen to phone calls about the veterinary issues of your co-workers’ cats?”
For these reasons, some bosses are taking back their privacy with personal offices and instituting quiet rooms where employees can meet privately. That’s similar to how Directions Credit Union is redesigning its headquarters. The new building will contain only a few private offices, mostly for human resources, whereas small groups can gather at collaborative spaces called “magnet locations.”
Read more about Directions’ headquarter design in “3 Ways To Approach Branch And Headquarter Design.”
These hybrid spaces recognize the need for employee privacy while incorporating areas that encourage employees to move freely during the day.
However, there’s another design question on the horizon: What happens when work isn’t always done “at work?”
Teleworking is less applicable to front-line than support staff, but credit unions do have processes in place for managing remote workers. Because of this trend toward telework — a survey from the American Psychological Association shows more than 50% of U.S. workers regularly check their email before and after work and during weekends — homes and offices are starting to blend.
Furniture companies such as West Elm are launching lines of office furniture designed to feel like a living space, and employers are requiring home-based workspaces to meet certain criteria. For example, Callahan & Associates requires its remote workers to show proof of a professional office space set up with a desk and Callahan-provided landline as well as access to the company’s internal server.
Notably, IBM — one of the early adopters of the teleworking model — has announced it is requiring remote employees in both its marketing and software and systems units to work at one of six regional offices or find a new job. IBM is covering some relocation costs and has given employees 30 days to make their choice.
The move is too recent to see any shifts in productivity, innovation, or morale, but thus far the response has been divisive. Some employees have theorized IBM is using this policy change as a downsizing effort. IBM has stated it hopes the change will create a more agile workforce. According to Quartz, regional offices will embrace an open concept, albeit with the addition of a noise-canceling sound system to attempt to keep conversations from distracting other teams.
We’ll see how that works.