Open Offices “Way Too Open”: One Architect’s Warning

Open plan office space (Startup Stock Photos)

Are we facing an open office backlash? That was the question we put to Robert (Bob) Fox of D.C.-based Fox Architects.

“Yes,” he said. “There is an undercurrent of discord surrounding the open office environment.”

Bob explained that the office design industry “went way too open” and believes employees, managers, and business owners are now suffering the consequences – namely, a lack of privacy and overwhelming distractions from every angle.

“If you take surveys of people in open office environments, one of the biggest complaints you’ll hear is noise, particularly other peoples’ conversations.”

Quiet spaces “necessary”

Referencing Susan Cain’s bestselling book ‘Quiet’, Bob commented on the importance of quiet space in every workplace:

“There are types of work that require higher levels of concentration, and therefore quiet space is necessary. A lot of the work that happens during collaboration also requires some level of concentration, which is often accommodated in more quiet spaces.”

“So as we’re designing office space we must consider the balance between open offices and having those quieter, more private work areas.”

It’s not just a question of privacy, but also security.

James Williams, Director of Corporate Development at NYC Office Suites, aired concerns over the lack of privacy in some shared workspaces. The problem, he says, becomes exacerbated when competing businesses are housed under the same roof. Worse, some employees aren’t fully aware of the threats.

“Open plan coworking and businesses with full glass walls means employees may be giving away processes and technology to competitors,” he said, adding that in such environments, “sensitive work like financial, legal or governmental work cannot be done responsibly”.

While established business centre operators like NYC Office Suites and other ABCN members have appropriate privacy and security measures in place, it remains a sensitive issue for low-service model centers.

So what can be done?

According to Bob Fox, during the design process it is essential to understand how the users of the space collaborate, which includes a working understanding of privacy and security requirements. In addition, a key factor that is becoming more prominent in architectural design is accommodating different personalities.

Designing for individuals

“We must accommodate different personality types,” he said. “It’s about understanding individual strengths, and how the workplace impacts the performance of those individuals. Today’s workplace does not properly address this.

“Culture and engagement are very important in driving organizational performance and thus have a significant impact on the design of the space,” he said. “Enlightened clients are asking for spaces that provide support for the specific types of work that they do – they recognize that it’s about attracting the best talent.”

One way workspace operators are adapting to the needs of work roles and personalities is by bringing alternative furniture into the workplace. We’ve seen several examples of enclosed chairs and mobile ‘booths’ from leading suppliers like Steelcase, which provide a place in which to hold a private conversation, a small meeting, or simply a quiet place to sit and think.

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Will we ever reach the optimum environment that really does accommodate all needs and personalities, that’s cost effective, and that doesn’t compromise on security?

It’s a tough task. Yet there is innovation taking place across many different markets to reach the optimum environment, from architecture to office furniture, from partitioning to acoustics. With leading workspace architects and advocates on the case, and a growing number of ‘enlightened’ businesses, it’s clear that the wheels are already in motion.

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