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The rise of the open-plan office

Sally Herships Apr 1, 2015

The rise of the open-plan office

Sally Herships Apr 1, 2015

Try to get one simple task at work done. Say, updating a line of text on a website. The next thing you know, you’re running an anti-virus check for malware and re-installing system software. 

Developers have a name for when one tiny task sets off an avalanche of work, “yak shaving.” The idea comes from a “Ren and Stimpy” episode: 

“You’ll look up and it’ll be five o’clock and you’ll have chased down all the minutia, but you wouldn’t have actually gotten any work done,” says Jonathan Hirschman, CEO of PCB:NG, a firm that does electronic assembly for hardware entrepreneurs. 

Small tasks that seem to transform magically into tidal waves of work, says Hirschman, are why he can’t work from home. He’s too easily distracted. Like the time he was indulging in a favorite morning routine, reading tech journals before leaving the house. 

“Before I knew it I was outlining a schematic and had to stop myself and say, ‘Wait a minute, you’re not going to create a new piece of electronics. You’re going to go into the office and get your work done.'” 

Still, Hirschman notes, his current office, a rented desk in the open-plan section of a co-working space, is also problematic. 

“What’s the quote? Hell is other people,” he says. 

Jonathan Hirschman works in a shared co-working space

Jonathan Hirschman is not a fan of his open plan co-working office. Hell, he says, is other people.

But encouraging workers to cozy up to each other is what’s hot right now in the world of office design. It’s all about the open plan. 

Facebook is planning to put thousands of its workers into one mile-long room, and Samsung is building a new headquarters that includes floors of outdoor spaces, where it’s hoping employees from different departments and levels will mingle.

GlaxoSmithKline just paid an undisclosed amount  to design a new 200,000 square foot glass building in Philadelphia that is entirely open-plan. 

The company is so excited, it made a video about it.

“It’s a whole new way of working,” says one featured worker’s voice. “I’ll admit it,” continues another, “at first I was nervous about leaving my old office and cubicle setup. But I love working in the open environment.” 

So are open plan offices the holy grail of office design? Or, are they what Jonathan Hirschman describes as “a kind of purgatory for workers?” 

GlaxoSmithKline’s new building looks and feels a little like a hotel. There’s a coffee shop on the ground floor and a spiral staircase rises out of a huge atrium. Whichever way you look you see windows and light. But even though the five-floor building holds over a thousand employees, there are no offices, at least not the kind we’re used to. 

This is the new non-office office. There are no offices in the building — at least, there are no assigned seats. At GlaxoSmithKline, groups get put in “neighborhoods”: Every morning you get your laptop, post-it notes and assorted chargers out of your locker, and decide where you’d like to sit for the day. Every evening, your belongings get stowed away again. GSK has a clean desk policy in place.

Why not just let workers stick to the comfort of their own desks? 

“Because we’re trying to keep movement in the environment,” says Ray Milora, head of design and change management at the company, “we’re trying to keep people moving around.” 

Milora notes there are options for workers who need some alone time. Special chairs that look like they’ve escaped from “Alice in Wonderland,” with large arms and headrests meant to protect their occupants from sights and sounds, are strategically placed throughout the building. There are also quiet rooms, though they have time limits to prevent employees from moving in permanently. 

The big idea, says Milora, is to encourage workers to talk to colleagues they might otherwise never interact with. And at GSK, the plan seems to be working. He says attendance at the company has gone up dramatically. At GSK’s old building, which he describes as a traditional American 1980s space, “low ceiling, neon lights everywhere.” Attendance was at 40 percent there, he says, but in the new space, it’s gone up to “well over 90 percent.” 

Though the new space is beautiful and open, workers are bathed in lots of natural light, and the staircase promotes exercise (the elevators are located in non-encouraging spots) some employees at GSK wear headphones. And that, says Nikil Saval, author of “Cubed, a Secret History of the Workplace,” is the “open scandal of the open-plan office trend.” 

While open plan offices can be conducive to collaboration, Saval notes that they can also be distracting. “They’re supposed to induce these serendipitous encounters where people run into each other and burst into this flame of innovation and disruption,” but Saval says, “that’s not what you’re doing all the time.” 

Besides, says Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions (a firm which uses Bluetooth and microphones to track worker interactions, happiness and productivity), encouraging employee interaction can be hard to get right. 

Danielle Baskin, owner of Belle's Helmets in her office

Bicycle helmet designer Danielle Baskin prefers to customize her own work space.

“The amount you talk to other people is never predictive of how productive or happy you are,” he says. It’s not how much you talk to your co-workers, says Waber, but instead “it’s the pattern of communication  do I talk to a lot of people who know each other or do I talk to people in different groups?” 

Waber tells a story about a large manufacturing company whose salespeople sat in cubicles. “The company said, ‘You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to spend millions of dollars, we’re going to build out a beautiful new open-plan office setting, lots of daylight, it’s going to be great  fantastic.'” 

And they did that, but it didn’t work. Sorry, cube-haters  the cubicles, says Waber, were actually better. 

In the old setup, the sales team talked to each other and consequentially learned how to sell more. When the office went open-plan, they also talked more  but to other co-workers, outside of the sales team, instead. 

The problem today, says Waber, is instead of thinking about what specific employees needs are, some companies are too focused on trying to be trendy. 

Of the office-hip, open-plan plan, “isn’t it ironic  I started researching these in 1976,” says Alan Hedge, a Professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, Cornell University. “And here we are nearly forty years later  and it’s come back into fashion.” 

The open-plan office, according to Hedge, is a German idea from the middle of the last century: “Bürolandschaft.” “Büro” which is the German for office and “landschaft” which is landscape.” 

The original open-plan offices were a flop, says Hedge. Workers were unhappy with the noise and lack of privacy, and today, when headphones — out of necessity — have become the new office door, the same concerns exist. Office design, says Hedge, is like fashion. 

“The latest trend is to say, ‘let’s get rid of cubicles, let’s get rid of private offices, let’s create these vast open spaces and life will be wonderful.’ Well it won’t,” he says. 

When it comes to office design, uniformity can equal failure. 

“Everybody gets the same chair, everybody gets the same desk, everybody gets the same space. That’s the kiss of death.” 

As is another hot office design trend: the standing desk. “The human body is designed to move,” says Hedge, “but not all the time. It is designed to sit, but not all the time. It’s designed to stand, but not all the time.” 

Instead, says Hedge, workers should find an optimal mix. He offers the following formula: sit for twenty minutes, stand for eight and move for two. At the very least, your lower back will feel more comfortable. And if you’re a worker who’s unhappy in his or her office space, there’s always another trend to fall back on  grabbing your laptop and heading to the nearest coffee shop.

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