The death of open plan offices? Not quite, but trust and autonomy the new norm in workplaces

By UniSA Program Director of Interior Architecture Andrew Wallace

Woman cleaning office equipment

Our collective need to isolate to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections has led to constant speculation about what might be learned – and hopefully applied – from this remarkable set of circumstances.

When considering the immediate future of ‘the workplace’, there is much talk about the ‘genie being out of the bottle’ in terms of remote working.

The term ‘telecommuting’ was first coined in 1973 by Jack Nilles, a NASA engineer who himself worked remotely on NASA communications projects, believing it the answer to combat urban sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution and resource depletion.

The phrase came into being during the OPEC oil embargo and ensuing global energy crisis and these issues are in many ways more acute today, particularly in our larger cities.

Also, around this time leading US economist Frank Schiff also developed the term ‘flexiplace’ to describe working from home or remotely from the central office.

Teleworking is not new.

What is new is the overnight need for a very large percentage of employees to work remotely and experience telecommuting for themselves. The current technologies and networks have largely held up well enough and working from home has become a reality for a much larger part of our workforce. It seems to be successful.

Anecdotally, workers (particularly professionals) are reporting higher levels of productivity resulting from a greater ability to focus and concentrate. This is not uniform, however, and has exposed the widening inequality between those with the tech and those without – not surprisingly along socioeconomic lines.

In the media the discussion is almost constantly around this improved productivity, a greater sense of connectivity with the local community, time clawed back from dealing with transport and congestion in cities, and the ubiquitous “comfortable pants”.

As restrictions are gradually lifted and people consider the realities of returning to their office environments, a question now to be asked is: ”do I really want to be back there, what will my workplace look like and how will it operate in light of the last few months?”

Quite reasonable questions, but the answers are not as straightforward as the death of open plan offices.

The COVID-19 crisis provides designers with an opportunity to reconsider contemporary workplace design.

As much as the working from home genie is out of the bottle, reduced occupancy costs and building collaborative environments are fixtures. Organisations have reaped cost benefits in term of reducing their physical footprints and providing staff with a broader palette of working spaces that support what they do individually and in teams rather than around previous models of hierarchy and control.

Physically, these open plan environments have people working with few physical barriers other than a pair of monitors between them. These smaller spaces are supported by a larger number of group work/collaboration spaces in varying formats in multiple hybrid open plan/enclosed spatial settings. All of these facilities are shared, and this model does not accommodate 100 per cent of the workforce being present at 100 per cent of the time. Even before COVID-19 there was a lot of hand sanitisers present in these workspaces.

One group not readily accommodated by this model are those who struggle to concentrate with the inherent buzz of the open plan workplace. This has been one of the major critiques of the open plan model since its inception, necessitating noise cancelling headphones for many workers.

We may see a greater acceptance by more organisations about the positive benefits of some degree of remote working. Home may form part of the palette of work settings for more of the population, providing an inclusive setting for individuals with low noise tolerance (and periodically this is most of us).

Back in the 1970s, Schiff raised the importance of serendipitous contact for telecommuters. This proved prescient and designers have been working with organisations since the early 1990s to develop models that facilitate these sorts of interactions. These will remain an important feature of the post COVID workplace.

Even more agile and highly distributed work settings both inside and outside the office will challenge organisational culture, work health and safety and insurance requirements and will require careful management. It will also require trust and a culture of high autonomy.

There will be a need to examine acceptable density levels in workplaces and possibly new furniture/spatial designs to improve privacy and separation.

Collaborative work will continue but with new ways to bring remote workers together, to accommodate greater fluctuations in office environments.

If anything is to be gained through this difficult time it may be a workplace design that is more inclusive of all users. One which offers a broader range of work settings that positively contributes to employee performance and wellbeing.

The culture of ‘going to work’ has deep roots, enables social connections and addresses the other genie long out of its bottle – the problems with work/home life blurring. Home working is not a panacea for the future of the office.