Since the height of the “cube“ in the 1990s, many companies have lowered panel heights to create more open, collaborative spaces. The added benefits, for the company, are that they conserve space, reduce costs, and improve communications. By the early 20-teens, workers were situated in attractively cavernous rooms without walls. It remains open to discussion whether employees can function effectively in these layouts.
Now the backlash against open offices has begun. Major systems furniture manufacturers are developing products enclosing spaces for the introverts and the departments that need privacy. Some tech companies are rethinking their open plans. Few are ready to give up on the open office completely.
Early on, the open office style appealed to tech companies, especially start-ups. This arrangement then spread to larger companies. In hot real-estate markets, it makes good economic sense. There’s a big difference in the cost of office space by going from 250-square-feet per person to 110-square-feet, or fewer, per person.
While open offices may have other advantages—improved communication and creating a sense of a team—it is hard to concentrate for long periods of time. For many, the difficulty lies in adjusting to an open office when you are used to having privacy. That’s where the backlash comes in.
Gen Xers and baby boomers in conventional roles are struggling with the increased noise and visual distractions these spaces generate. For many, the workspace has become polluted with limitless sounds and sights.
What does the new breed of office look like? It’s a reasonable compromise between open and enclosed spaces. Furniture manufacturers today are developing products that fit in phone booth-sized rooms for quiet work time. Not to be used all day, they are accessible when a certain project or task requires it. For group work, many companies today have multiple, smaller conference rooms rather than the one large boardroom. These are more efficient, functional, and appropriate for how work is done today.
Different groups in an office have diverse expectations. Engineers might seek focused, quiet spaces, while sales and marketing employees may thrive in shared settings. Balance is key.
Don’t expect low panels and open plan systems to go away completely. They are appropriate for how many companies conduct their business. Successful businesses will keep adapting to find that appropriate balance of open-plan and private spaces that work for them.