The office from the future

dangerEarly this year, the media went crazy. Every other day, pieces titled – ‘The open-plan office is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea’ or ‘The Open-Office Trap’ attacked my inbox and it hasn’t stopped yet. One quick Google search on open offices will tell you that the world hates them. But we always knew that, didn’t we? Ask any employee who first gasped in shock when they began tearing down her cabin. I, myself, prayed and hoped that my organization didn’t fall into the trap that everyone else seemed to be tumbling into.

However, before I proceed on yet another rant about open offices (Yes, this adds to the endless collection), let’s revisit why they became a rage in the first place. First conceptualized in the 1950’s by a German team named Quickborner, the aim of an open office was to increase collaboration and camaraderie within and between teams. It was only in the last decade though that many technology firms decided to adopt the open space idea. Startup’s especially leveraged this to encourage new ideas and team bonding. Any propagator of open offices will probably list multiple inventions including a Nachos cookbook that emerged thanks to the open workspace concept. However, a more lucrative reason was cost. In fact, it is the only reason that has stood the test of time. It is a fact that open offices are cheaper than traditional offices if we ignore indirect costs such as loss of productivity etc. Office spaces are expensive and throwing out walls and partitions can help fit more people in less space. In fact, I’ve even come across the term – office densification. Scary, ain’t it?

The danger of open offices have been known for decades now. One look at this very informative piece will tell you that the drawbacks were discovered as far back as 1997. Over the years, every benefit that the open office promised was broken down except the one about it being cheaper in terms of office space cost. Open offices lead to increased distractions, lack of privacy, increasing absenteeism due to sickness and being unable to work for minutes at a stretch without interruptions all of which leads to reduced productivity and increased stress.

Here are a few more reasons why you should stay away from an open office:

  • Multi-tasking not only reduces the intelligence of those doing it but also decreases the intelligence of those sitting around them by up to 17%. I’d run from open offices based on this fact alone.
  • Julian Treasure, a sound and communication expert, noted that in open-plan offices productivity can drop down by 66%. To quote him from his TED talk, “You are one-third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms. I have a tip for you: if you work in spaces like that, carry headphones with you, with a soothing sound like birdsong. Put them on, and your productivity goes back up to triple what it would be.”
  • Open offices also make it extremely hard to avoid distractions and disturbances. Multiple studies have confirmed that it takes up to 25 minutes to recover from a distraction at work. The unfortunate bit is that you are always susceptible to distractions in an open space.
  • However, my favorite ones are – open offices make bad bosses inescapable and drive introverts crazy.

The natural question then is – what does the workplace of the future look like? Most would say, ‘to look forward, look behind.’ Workplaces of the future may look a lot like the workplace of the past with cabins, partitioned cubicles and meeting rooms. They will also have their share of open spaces where people can gather to let steam out, collaborate and bond. My colleague and I often joke about turning a spare cabin into a hangout den. I cannot go an entire day sitting in a cabin by myself. You’ll find me working out of another person’s cabin just as often as you’ll find me in mine. Therefore, a hybrid version is likely the way forward.

However, personally, I think the future of the workplace should look like a game. I’ve written about this before here.  Imagine if you weren’t heading into work every day but into a game. Now that would be a future to look forward to, wouldn’t it? Any takers?


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