5 Office Design Trends Keeping the Open Concept Office Alive

The idea of an open workspace has been around since the early 20th century. It began to evolve from a single large room with rows of desks or benches in the 1950’s, when the German Quickborner design group began adding partitions for privacy, creating an “office landscape.” Modular room components appeared in the 1960’s, and soon companies were moving everyone out of private offices and into a shared space.

As the idea began to be pushed beyond its intended boundaries, studies emerged showing that working in an open office environment is often unhealthy and damaging to productivity. Research is showing that open office plans decrease productivity and employee well being while increasing the number of sick days workers take. Numerous studies have found that working in an open office environment can have a negative impact on measures like stress level, performance, and even interpersonal relationships. At the same time, there’s little indication that the open office actually fosters collaboration as well as intended.

In spite of this, it’s estimated that 70% of offices now have an open design. The mobility of modern workers does call for an environment that doesn’t tie them to a desk for the day, but noise, lack of privacy, and a sort of psychological crowding can make the open office undesirable.

The situation is being recognized by office designers and managers, and their response has led to subtle changes intended to retain the spirit of the open office movement while injecting features that make the space more human-friendly.

The Hybrid Office

This new generation of office space combines communal areas and cubicles with private offices and small, often soundproof rooms where employees can go for concentrated work. Office design increasingly incorporates movable partitions and other furnishings that give workers more control over their surroundings.  In general, employees spend more than half of their time on tasks that require individual focus, so privacy and decreased noise levels are important.

Another important feature of the hybrid space is allowing employees free movement in the course of the day. With mobile technology and WiFi, it’s not necessary to stay in an assigned workstation. Employees can use communal space for more relaxed group work, or move to a “phone room” to place important calls in a quiet environment.

This increased autonomy within the workplace compliments the trend toward less space per employee. With less space needed for things like paper file storage, companies are able to operate in a smaller workplace. The space per worker has been steadily declining over the last decade. While the average in 2010 was 225 square feet, it’s estimated to shrink to 151 square feet in 2017.

All of these factors are contributing to keeping the open office alive, while giving it a much-needed makeover:

  • Increased privacy

  • Space for focused concentration

  • Multi-use communal spaces

  • More mobility within the space

  • Functional and adaptable furniture and fixtures

This appears to be a case of not throwing out the baby with the bathwater; rather than abandoning the aspects of the open office that work –more common space, opportunities for informal interaction, etc.- the hybrid approach maintains them, but stirs in a healthy dose of privacy and quiet to enhance well-being and optimize productivity.