The Open Office and How to Work Better

The open office plan is older than you think:

In the spring of 1962, a fourth-year British architectural student … stumbled across a small article in a trade magazine about a new workplace design that had taken hold in Germany…as “fundamentally a reaction against Nazism”.

It’s hard to set it up correctly:

The layout was based upon an intensive study of patterns of communication – between different parts of the organisation, different individuals.

And there’s a delicate balance to be struck:

Loud background noise … affect[s] workers’ ability to concentrate, and therefore their productivity, [but] in some open-plan offices, particularly the “classroom” type, there can be too little noise.

There may be a technological solution to the noise problem:

A certain amount of noise seems to be desirable – like the hum of a busy restaurant that allows a table of two to enjoy a private conversation.

Some companies are looking to technology to help get this balance right – broadcasting “pink noise” from speakers (a sound similar to white noise, which makes human speech less discernible).

But in any case, Europe has moved on from the open plan office:

Northern European office buildings today are “highly cellular”, he says, with everyone having “the right to a window they can open, a door they can shut and a wall they can beat upon”.

This sounds nice; why don’t I have it?

In the UK and North America, by contrast, design is mostly driven by cost rather than worker satisfaction, and open-plan layouts remain the norm.

The future may be unrecognizable to our parents:

[Architect Alexi Marmot] describes a building she visited in Switzerland which offered workers a choice of sofas, coffee table areas, libraries, pool-style recliner chairs and even “a botanical garden with a few work tables among the plants”.

As always, it boils down to a last-mile problem of designing context to shape human behavior:

But to give employees the freedom to wander about with their laptops, hiding from colleagues or seeking them out as they wish, may mean some organisations have to rethink the way they work and communicate.

“The building’s easy, the architecture’s easy,” says [architect Frank] Duffy. “It’s thinking about how to use the buildings that really is challenging.”

HT @timharford