Taking a Close Look at the Open Office

Many years before today’s ubiquitous cool (to some), minimalist, equalizing open office space design , there was hierarchy. It was the summer of 1998 and I was an architectural intern for a firm that performed facilities management for a large corporation. We conducted surveys for office fittings on the weekends when the entire space was deserted. The first floor was a large showroom -- think IKEA meets a Hollywood soundstage. The second floor housed the company offices. It was my first (and perhaps last) visit of a typical American office fit-out: windowed private offices with heavy, extravagant wooden desks and credenzas, leather chairs and family portraits. The interior spaces, windowless and lacking personality, were fitted with modular cubicles, walls lined with tan fabric, used as tack board for schedules, restaurant menus and children’s artwork. Steel-Case filing cabinets of all shapes and sizes were scattered throughout.

There was a definite hierarchy to the space, which did not mean I found the private offices any less depressing than the cubicles. The private offices resembled elaborately outfitted cells, the cubicles only modestly so. The class gap between executives and common workers was reminiscent of Medieval times, and seems even more dated in retrospect. In response to this nightmare of an office set-up a new way has emerged.

Enter today’s open office scenario. Goodbye, hierarchy – and good luck trying to figure out where the boss sits. An open office plan is believed to increase employee morale by allowing for collaboration and quick exchanges of ideas. It also saves space — a significantly larger amount of desks will fit into an open office than into the same square footage of private rooms. The sacrifice of having an open office is privacy, the opportunity for quiet, undisturbed work, and conversation. How do you isolate the employee from the very buzz employees generate? For the times when private conversation is required, or employees want to concentrate without being interrupted, a variety of enclosed rooms is typically provided. They vary in size from small “phone booths” for one to two people, to large board rooms with video conferencing capabilities.

IDEO NYC Office, by McKay Architecture and Design, Project Architect: Ula Bochinska. Photo credit John Bartelstone

IDEO NYC Office, by McKay Architecture and Design, Project Architect: Ula Bochinska. Photo credit John Bartelstone

Many companies opt for the open office scenario, which understandably does not work for everybody. Employees of a non-profit law firm, Volunteers for Legal Service, which put together a survey in anticipation of relocating to a new space, were voicing strong opinions against an open office set-up. In their current office there noise complaints, both about phone conversation held in the open office and conversations flooding from the principals offices through open doors. This particular office was divided into several different teams to handle particular projects. In terms of office set-up, the employees opted for enclosed rooms, each seating members of a particular project team. Since the team members collaborate on a regular basis, but do not really interact with members of other teams, there is no need to share ideas between teams. Socializing will happen at the lunch break room and other common areas.

The new office of real estate development company Sorgente Group of America is moving into a more traditional direction with key team members (director of finance, legal council, project manager) having separate offices. Support staff are located in an open office area in small work clusters.  The private offices have tall glass doors creating a visual connection between office and open work space, while supplying natural light to the internally located open space. The entire staff has plenty opportunities to gather at the open pantry area, two lounges, meeting rooms and the outdoor roof terrace.

Office by Skylab Architecture, via moderndesignlife.com

Office by Skylab Architecture, via moderndesignlife.com

An employee of a modeling agency in New York, whose office has an open layout, is content with this set-up because it enables a constant exchange of information. Rachel Neva, a public relations specialist from Michigan, praises her more traditional semi-private cubicle layout. “When I need to exchange ideas I get up and walk to the next workstation, but when I need to concentrate I find my peace and quiet in my pod.” 

Hypernuit Offices by h2o Architectes via Dezeen

Hypernuit Offices by h2o Architectes via Dezeen

Magdalena Keck Interior Design created on office design for tech start-up company 80/20. The desk of the three principals was situated at a 90-degree angle to staff desks, which retains a sense of hierarchy without creating a physical barrier between executives and staff.

SoHo New York Office by Magdalena Keck Interior Design. Bostudio acted as Architect of Record. Photographs by Jeff Kate.

SoHo New York Office by Magdalena Keck Interior Design. Bostudio acted as Architect of Record. Photographs by Jeff Kate.

The bottom line: an open office, despite its advantages, is not the solution for every firm. In the programming stage it is very important to identify the optimal office set-up based on how the firm operates. The choices are much more diverse and creative than simply a choice between traditional enclosed c-suite offices with windowless old-school cubicles, and a completely open office with no dividers and no spatially recognizable hierarchy. Also, the word “cubicle” has very much fallen out of favor. But imagine it redesigned to look modern, fresh and inviting? A workstation pod with collapsible or foldable partitions? Suddenly this option becomes viable again. Enter the cubicle renaissance.

The first step to any office design should be a thorough survey to understand the ways the company operates, including feedback from staff and principals. After all, an office should fit perfectly as a bespoke, well-tailored suit, not plucked off the rack. 

Ula Bochinska