The End Of The Open-Plan Office

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The End Of The Open-Plan Office

Words by Mr Jonathan Openshaw

25 October 2017

Are Facebook and Apple’s shiny new headquarters actually out-dated relics of the past?.

The office is going through the biggest transformation since the immediate post-war period. Not since the great 20th-century skyscraper projects of Chicago and Manhattan gave birth to endless rows of cubicles have we seen such an upheaval in the way we work, with 21st-century technology disrupting the workplace in new ways. There is now a battle raging across our office floors for what will become the dominant design doctrine – from open-plan behemoths such as Facebook to modular spaces at Airbnb and members’ club-style coworking from WeWork. But what are the pros and cons of each approach – and how have things changed down the decades?

Did Mr Frank Lloyd Wright understand the full power of the forces he was unleashing with his 1906 Larkin Administration Building in New York? Often cited as the godfather of the open-plan office, his building was designed to welcome in light and air, foreshadowing the glass-plated monoliths that dominate skylines from London to Tokyo today. Although it did not immediately take over, it was the beginning of a new way of working, that grew in tandem with the post-war Germany discipline of Bürolandschaft – or office landscaping – which focused on creating “flow” between tasks (as well as reducing real-estate costs, of course). So dominant has this open-plan doctrine become that up to 70 per cent of US office space is now laid out in this manner, with Facebook recently creating the largest open-plan space in the world at 430,000sq ft, and Apple’s new $5bn Foster + Partners designed campus in Cupertino, California being laid out in four floors of 80 open-plan pods constructed in a giant doughnut shape.

The dominance of open plan is under attack, however. A recent white paper from furniture brand Haworth claims that open-plan spaces “sabotage” employees’ ability to focus, losing 28 per cent of productive time to distractions. The workers agree – YouGov recently found that 71 per cent of people require quiet space to work, but only 30 per cent were satisfied with current provisions. So what are the alterntives?

The office cubicle was popularised by US furniture company Herman Miller in the 1960s and soon came to dominate corporate life. Indeed, so ubiquitous was this modular layout that by the 1990s it had come to represent worker enslavement through the likes of comic strip Dilbert, and if you search “cubicle rage” on YouTube today you’ll get some truly alarming clips of white-collar workers hurling their desktops across the room. The real reason cubicles may have fallen out of fashion, however, comes down to cold, hard cash. It’s estimated that open-plan bench stations cost less than half of individual cubicles to run, with more workers being able to squeeze into less space.

Private, modular, cubicle-like spaces are coming back into fashion, however. Airbnb prides itself on operating differently to the other Silicon Valley giants, and while most tech companies operate vast, campus-like headquarters in rural locations, Airbnb resolutely sticks to urban centres. What’s more, their in-house Environments Team is tasked with creating flexible, modular space, often based on Airbnb host properties around the world – from Miami to Mumbai and Manila.

Co-founder Mr Joe Gebbia has even worked with Bernhardt Design to release a new range of modular furniture called “Neighborhood” comprising of 38 pieces that can be snapped together in different formations to create flexible spaces. The same thinking lies behind PearsonLloyd’s Zones series of furniture, which the team describes as being based on “informal productivity” rather than rigid structure. Instead of being fixed in one place, the screens, sofas, chairs and tables of Zones can set up in endless configurations for different uses – meetings, quiet contemplation or focused work.

Technology is often seen as a threat to the office itself, allowing workers to go independent or work remotely, even threatening our very jobs with artificial intelligence set to replace up to 15 million jobs in the UK alone (according to the Bank of England). But what if technology could enhance rather than replace communal office spaces? We’re pretty familiar with the smart home concept, where innovations such as Amazon Echo allow you to control everything from lighting to your TV through voice recognition. The office seems to be lagging behind consumer innovations, but a recent survey by Dell found that 45 per cent of workers expected to be working in a smart office in the next five years, while 42 per cent of millennials surveyed said they would leave their job over substandard tech. Innovations demanded by these workers included the use of Virtual Reality (VR) for training or Augmented Reality (AR) for product development.

One company determined to get ahead of the curve is ad agency R/GA, which reinvents its company mission every nine years, with the current manifestation being called the “Company for the Connected Age”. Its new headquarters in New York has been heralded by Forbes as the “most connected office in the world”, laced with geo-proximity beacons that feed into a bespoke app that gives workers instant access to anything from information about the art collection to client case studies that appear on rolling screens around the space.

There was a time when the members’ club was associated with old-boy networks where business deals were done over a bottle of brandy. No longer. In the 21st century, this model is reinventing itself as the office of choice for flexible workers who want to be able to work from any place at any time. Repacked as “coworking” spaces, the basic characteristics of a members’ club are unchanged: access to likeminded people in a communal space that combines business and leisure.

WeWork is by far the market leader here, with a valuation topping $20billion this year and operating in 54 cities worldwide – from San Francisco to Hong Kong, London to Sydney. Chief executive Mr Adam Neumann has stated his aim with WeWork is to create a “physical social network”, making a clear play for market dominance achieved by the likes of Facebook. Other operators such as Second Home and Soho Works are also breaking into the market, which topped 1.2 million people this year and is growing fast.

As work and leisure continue to dissolve into each other, it seems what we really need from a communal office is a space to connect and exchange ideas, since digital tech now allows us to get focused work done remotely. Perhaps the office of the future will look more like a bar than a boardroom.

**Mr Jonathan Openshaw is curating an exhibition about creative workspaces in the Walter Knoll showrooms in Clerkenwell, London EC1 this November **

Illustrations by Mr David Doran