Do Open Plan Offices Work in the Post COVID-19 World?

Do Open Plan Offices Work in the Post COVID-19 World?

Do Open Plan Offices Work in the Post COVID-19 World? 1401 934 Vivid Invest
We have never been a proponent of open-plan offices and we now have some hope that the pandemic will reduce its popularity.

The open-plan office was invented in Silicon Valley. Start-ups embraced this design during the 1990s tech boom mainly because they wanted to save costs, be different, and signal to VCs that their business is doing something interesting. The trend spread rapidly to white-collar industries that happily adapted their workplace design and culture to emulate Valley startups. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity. However, buzzwords like “collaborative environment” and “management by walking around” hide the fact that these spaces have mainly been designed to cram more people into expensive offices and facilitate a “management is watching you” working style. Similarly, we easily forget that the start-up led ‘amenitization’ of offices by providing perks like Michelin star cuisine, laundry service, massages, and ping pong tables is intended to keep you at work and make it less desirable to go home.

Don’t get us wrong there are some obvious advantages of open-plan offices. They offer more natural light and views for employees. To some extent, they also promote face-to-face interaction and collaboration, something we social animals are striving for. However, they pale in comparison to a carefully designed office environment that facilitates both ‘deep knowledge work’ and ‘collaboration’.

Is the office dead?

Some media outlets in the wake of Covid-19 proclaimed the ‘death of the office.’ The authors of these articles have surely never lived in cities like Hong Kong or Tokyo. The average Hong Konger resides in 161 sqft (15 sqm), and Hong Kongers often live in small multi-generational homes that make working from home (WFH) difficult. For the non-Millenials among us, the alternative, to work from a coffee shop, is not very appealing either. Technology enabling WFH is transformative, but it will never replace face-to-face human interaction. Also, not all countries have the same strong WiFi network at home as in the office. Last but not least, we like to separate work from private life and prefer to work in a separate space. Hence, we think a large-scale de-densification of office spaces in Asia Pacific is not very likely. WFH arrangements in Asia do not present a sustainable and optimum long-term solution for companies. An office is and will remain important because organizations can use this space to immerse their employees in their organizational culture and shared values.

Having said that, in countries where people have sufficient space to effectively work from home, employers will reduce their office footprint due to increasing rents in cities. A strategy comprising of flexible WFH arrangements, satellite offices, and a smaller flagship HQ in town could also benefit from the fact that it significantly cuts commuting time and thus increases productivity.

Nevertheless, we hope that one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic could be that open-plan offices will become less popular.

Here are five reasons why we should say goodbye to open-plan offices:

  1. Concentration & deep work are hampered: A private office means less distraction. It is important to understand that there are times for collaboration and times for deep work and problem-solving. Big planning or brainstorming days are not happening every day. Because you will be spending more waking hours with your potentially irritating colleagues than with your partner or children, having a private space where you can perform deep work is crucial.
  2. Health hazard: Open-plan offices – not only in times of Covid-19 – put us at a greater risk of getting sick than closed, individual offices. Most office buildings are not properly ventilated, nor have professional air purification systems installed. There are no physical barriers between desks and movement flows in offices have not been designed with social distancing in mind. People in open-plan offices take more sick days than people who have their own office space. Open-plan office workers are also exposed to higher levels of stress which can result in high blood pressure. When your boss is working away next to you, there is pressure to appear engaged at all times and work late because everyone can see you.
  3. Noise levels: Open-plan offices’ unrestrained noise does not encourage but dampens collaboration and productivity levels decrease. Psychologist Nick Perham found that office noise impairs employees’ ability to recall information and even do basic arithmetic. And no, wearing noise cancellation headphones doesn’t cut it either because they do not manage to cut out all the noise and don’t tackle visual distractions. A 2018 Harvard Business School study found that open offices reduce face-to-face interaction by about 70% and increase communication by Email and messages by approx. 50%, shattering the argument that they increase collaboration.
  4. Temperature: A study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” showed that the ambient air temperature in offices is based on a decades-old formula generally set to suit ‘the metabolic rates of a 154 pound (70kg), 40-year old man’. Reducing this “gender-discriminating bias in thermal comfort” would have the added benefit of slightly warmer workplace environments that not only suit women but also help combat global warming.
  5. Lack of privacy & security: In an open-plan office it’s hard to find privacy. Phone calls, emails, screens, videoconferencing, websites, and meetings can be observed. When privacy suffers and desk sizes are reduced to fit more workers into one room, the rate of productivity quickly goes downhill, hurting the bottom line. Finding privacy to deal with personal issues is tough and if you are upset or visibly stressed you can distract colleagues.

To sum up, we hope that one of the few positive outcomes from this pandemic is a stronger emphasis on employee health and wellbeing by offering more private office space. Office design is about striking a balance between social interaction and privacy to give employees the power to choose how much of either one they require and when. There is no ‘one size fits all approach’ as work environments should allocate multiple ranges of varieties. We receive some benefits from interactive workspaces, but it is also a vital necessity to have individual spaces for private meetings, to conduct deep work, or otherwise satisfy your personal work style. Besides, it is important to not disregard the effects of other environmental factors within the office. No matter the configuration of your workspace, employees’ health and efficiency can be improved by ensuring the flow of quality air, using natural lighting and providing access to green spaces.

What should the new standards for offices include?

  • Entry control: temperature check, registration, require masks (during a pandemic)
  • Low-density workspace layout: designed for social distancing by offering many individual offices to provide private space for deep work
  • No more hot-desking: we are territorial and like to have a place to put our stuff
  • Conference rooms: for both virtual and in-person collaboration
  • Partitions with purpose: biophilic plant wall partitions in the office
  • Breathability: professional air purification and increased ventilation
  • Scheduling: shift work & flexible work from home arrangements
  • Hygiene: well-positioned hygiene stations with hand sanitizer and surface disinfection wipes
  • Touchless: entry points (or copper door handles)
  • Cleaning protocols: that include regularly disinfecting high touch surfaces
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