Why The 'Open Office' Isn't a Workplace Strategy

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You've heard it. I've heard it. More and more, good or bad, the term "open office" is poking its head into everyday conversations and professional articles alike. It's often defined as an office trend that stresses collaboration but reduces productivity. And, quite frankly, when results don't meet expectations, the "open office" earns an undesirable reputation. It’s no wonder why.

Building an open work environment without understanding your business imperatives, how your employees work, and the true objectives of your workplace will result in weighing one need over another. Cost savings are put before efficiency; collaboration is put before privacy; ideation is put above process - and so on.

But spaces should account for all needs and work styles. "Open office" should never be your workplace strategy. An office environment shouldn't be entirely open, but it shouldn't be entirely closed off, either. It should provide the resources for many kinds of work, while not forcing employees into one way of working. And it takes work on the front end to get there.

The workplace is becoming more dynamic. Not so much out of want, per say, but out of necessity. Work is becoming increasingly innovative and creative. New jobs are being created as old jobs are becoming automated or strikingly more efficient. Work trends force a blending of privacy, teamwork and collaboration. And companies, more and more, are wanting to bring their workforce back into the office.

It’s true we’re seeing a trend toward workplaces being increasingly collaborative, incorporating benching-style workstations and bringing down cubicle and office walls. This has been a trend in Europe and Asia Pacific, and now in North America, for quite some time.

At the same time, we see some companies implementing more comfortable, informal spaces throughout – an effort to create more inviting, secondary places to work. However, we often see these spaces aren’t always functioning as expected and are sitting empty a good majority of the time.

So, what does this mean? Is something missing? Certainly, we know these spaces aren’t wrong, but we need to be designing for how work is happening today. For many years, work was driven more by process – a linear process, more often than not – and less by experimentation and iteration. Thus, workspaces were built for this kind of work.

Today, we find work is increasingly iterative. To be innovative, we need space to ideate, brainstorm and create – yet, we also require space and time for focused work and respite for ideas to incubate and build. Much like our work, most of us can say our days are never the same, therefore our need to be flexible and agile is growing with each passing day.

In addition to facing a combination of “we” work and “me” work on any given day, companies are becoming progressively reliant on technology. Whether fixed or mobile, employees need access to technology and the ability to plug in now more than ever before – and spaces without these features often fail.

To avoid designing with an “open office” mentality, it’s imperative we begin thinking about our people, place and technology as one and as an integral piece of our workplace strategy puzzle. By thinking about these three important elements as a cohesive unit, we must intentionally design space and technology to work with our people and support the creative process.

As James Ludwig with Steelcase Global Design states, “The design challenge is to meet business needs while we’re serving the needs of human beings, by creating thoughtfully-curated destinations.”

The best places aren’t defined as an “open office.” The best places are those where employees want to come to and where real work gets done. The best places incorporate design and materiality without sacrificing on performance. The best places combine a thoughtfully designed ecosystem of places and technology that inspire new ways of thinking and fuel creativity.

If we can design with this in mind, we will create the types of places that people want to come to every day.

Mary Beth Oakes is chief executive officer of Business Furniture LLC.

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