The concept of open office dates back to the late '70s when Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, advanced a new approach to architecture that involved discarding compartmentalisation to create open, modern, livable spaces. The Guggenheim Museum, one of Wright’s most recognisable creations, follows the same principles: continuous space, no separated floor levels, only a spiral ramp that symbolises continuity and growth.
In 1939, Wright designed the Johnson Wax Buildings, the HQ of SC Johnson & Son in his classic organic architectural style. The office plan had no partitions, only long white columns, desks, and white cabinets. Interested in the concept of freedom and the fact that we don’t have too much of it, he considered classic offices a “fascist, totalitarian” trend that limited the freedom of expression of the ones inhabiting the space.
In an interview with Larry Lafer, when asked to define what an architect is, Wright answers that “an architect is a pattern giver for the culture of a civilisation, a form giver”.
Unfortunately, Wright’s ideal of what an office should be was modified by business owners who crammed people in open spaces changing in this way his initial concept. This led to the invention of the cubicle in 1960 that brought more structure and privacy to working spaces.
Since the beginning of the '90s, open offices have made a comeback. With the promise of interdisciplinary collaboration, increased transparency, and more effective communication, companies have re-adopted open offices. However, are they delivering on their promise?
In a recent study published by the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences”, Harvard researchers Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban observe two Fortune 500 companies before and after changing to open offices. The study analyses the interaction between one hundred and fifty employees based on data collected from advanced wearable devices and electronic communication. Contrary to what everybody would have expected, the number of physical walls that went down was inversely proportional to the number of interactions between team members. Email communication increased by approx. 70% and in performance reviews, executives reported that productivity, as measured by internal qualitative metrics, had decreased significantly with the new reconfiguration of the workplaces.
Another study conducted by Auckland University examined the interaction between 1000 employees in shared office spaces or hot-desking with focus on the attitudes and behaviours about office sharing. The results showed that when teams had to share office space the environment became less cooperative, communicative and the perception that the team was functioning coherently decreased significantly. None of these results is surprising, given that open offices don’t provide spaces for reflection, control, and creation.
In a recent blog article about the reconfiguration of workspaces, Atlassian brings a couple of well-grounded arguments in favour of open offices. According to the company, open offices do work as long as they meet a few conditions. First of all, the office design has to be in line with the company’s values, and employees have to be able to choose if they work better in an open environment or in a soundproof pod. Moreover, the corner office is no longer reserved for executives. Desks are positioned closer to the windows to allow for more natural lighting. This creates an atmosphere of equality, openness, and friendliness. Teams can choose where they want to sit and when they need an ad-hoc meeting in one of the intricately designed nooks.
All in all, the idea that interdisciplinary teams learn from each other in an open office and that in this space teams are more likely to come up with innovative ideas is attractive in theory, but in practice, what contributes to delivering good work is the ability to focus and work without interruptions.