Open-plan offices are ubiquitous and cubicles are almost a thing of the past in Britain today. The UK has twice as many open-plan offices as the global average – 49% of UK workers are based in open offices, compared to 23% of workers globally and a full 80% of workspaces in the USA. The rise of laptops and wireless phones brought the open office to the UK’s workplaces in the 90s, but it wasn’t until technology firms like Google, Apple and Facebook publicised their vast, sprawling, warehouse-style workspaces that open-plan became king.
Far from being an overnight hit, however, open-plan offices have been germinating since the 1950s. Post-war Germany proved to be a fertile ground for innovation in engineering, but also disrupted many social practices that had held dominance up until that point. The Bürolandschaft movement focussed on an egalitarian management approach, encouraging all levels of staff to work together in one open floor to increase communication and collaboration through the creation of a non-hierarchical environment. The Bürolandschaft movement also brought with it the break room, replacing the previously ubiquitous coffee carts in favour of a separate, private room for eating, making drinks and chatting informally.
By the 1970s Bürolandschaft was dead and had been replaced by the ‘Action Office’ – better known as the cubicle. Cubicles were first designed as a more private, personalised version of the Bürolandschaft system but gradually became known for their copy and paste style of office design and silent, depersonalised environments before being superseded once again by open floor plans in the 1990s and 2000s. Is open-plan here to stay? And if not, what’s next?
The Downsides of Opening Up
Many workers in the UK today complain of the high noise levels in open-plan offices. So much so that in one study by Oxford Economics, more than half of the respondents complained about the noise levels in their office spaces, and across the board, uninterrupted work time topped employees’ wish lists when looking for a new job. UK-style open-plan offices often reduce noise levels and voice-carry through the use of drop-ceilings, but Facebook-style ‘Warehouse offices’ are known to wreak havoc on concentration levels throughout the day, leading to many employees employing noise reduction techniques such as noise-cancelling headphones, and even high-tech blinkers.
On the simpler side, a huge cause of disagreements in open-office environments is temperature. Catering to the temperature needs of a large number of people in a single space is at this point in time cost-prohibitive, leaving many, if not most people in the office at an uncomfortable temperature. Whilst many might say ‘just put on a jumper’, studies have shown that unfavourable temperatures can have a dire effect on worker productivity, employee satisfaction and personal stress levels.
High stress levels lead to higher amounts of sickness, as does increased exposure to germs. Unfortunately, open-plan offices are stressful and unhygienic environments, leading to an increase in the taking of sick days of 62% according to Sage.
It’s Not All Bad
Open-plan offices were first touted as a solution to the need for creativity and communication. Sitting in such close proximity with people from other departments in the company allows ideas to flow more freely across the business, increases transparency and 65% of workers also say it promotes collaboration. It also allows for quick, ad-hoc meetings, and the increasing use of laptops allows for desk-flexibility when working on one-off, collaborative projects. Importantly for many business owners, open-plan offices are also 20% more cost-effective than cubicle-based offices, due to the lack of need for walls.
In sales-based environments, open-plan offices are great ways to increase ‘buzz’, encourage business development and encourage peer-based learning in new starters. By listening to how the top performers do their jobs, young recruits can learn the tricks of the trade simply by listening to how everyone around them does it.
Is Open-Plan Here to Stay?
Open-plan offices may work well for extroverted people who thrive on social interaction, but introverts may find that the buzz and noise of an open-plan office overwhelming and distracting. Whilst open-plan may still reign supreme in the UK and USA, it isn’t without its challengers. A large number of businesses, especially in the creative and technology industries, are turning to remote and flexible offices to boost productivity, whilst many start-ups are eschewing dedicated offices altogether and taking the route of co-working spaces. Large institutions such as Unilever are even trialling ‘deskless’ working models by providing desks on a first-come-first-served basis, allocating 1200 desks to 1500 employees. Whatever the future holds, though, it doesn’t look like seas of cubicles are coming back any time soon.