Open vs Closed Office Debate is Dead. Long Live Activity Based Working!

M2 Telecommunications - Breakout / Activity area - by STUDIOMINT

M2 Telecommunications - Breakout / Activity area - by STUDIOMINT

Like most interior designers specialising in commercial environments, I’m often dragged into the long-worn debate around Open vs Closed offices.
And like most of my peers, I’ve often thought there was a neat formula that could be applied to one company or another depending on the nature of the work they did.
I have witnessed foaming in the mouth declarations from managers who believe that by plonking everyone into an open room, people will suddenly become communicative - work closely together, and the outcome overall will be better than that in closed office environment.
Yet, on too many occasions I have been a shoulder to cry on for a stressed-out worker who never seem to be able to get anything done because of the constant distractions that come with an open plan office. What’s more, they often find themselves more irritable and prone to office bugs in such situations.

There has to be a better way …

For quite some time now I’ve had a feeling there must be a different –  BETTER - way to accommodate employees in order for them to be more comfortable, productive and happy at work.
In my own practice, I have attempted to address the issue of noise that is prevalent in open workplaces; I have provided a series of collaborative spaces for team-based work, and have always paid attention to the need for individuality and social requirements of team members.
These solutions, however, were largely based on personal experience, intuition, and what I had read in environmental psychology publications.  
But I must say, after spending a day at the recent Melbourne Worktech 15 conference, I’m significantly reassured to declare that the Open office vs Closed office debate is dead.
Here’s some quick background:
The Worktech 15  conference was dedicated to the future of the workplace and I was particularly impressed with presentations given by Primo Orpilla (Design Strategy Principal at Studio O+A) and Kylie Bishop (Executive General Manager, People and Culture, Medibank).
Kylie spoke about Medibank’s new workplace in Melbourne and so her views were especially relevant seeing she and her team have just gone through a major workplace design project.

So what’s replacing the Open vs Closed office debate?

Well, not so much replacing, but getting some valuable airtime is what’s called the Activity Based Working environment.
Far from being a reincarnation of Taylor’s Classical Workplace Management model where workers are moulded to perform specific tasks, Activity Based Working facilitates the environment to the type of work, personal preferences, and even the mood the worker is in, to achieve optimum performance.
To fully understand the premise of this concept we need to recognise its rational.
The modern worker today is highly educated, specialised and driven. They want flexible work arrangements where they can balance leisure and personal life responsibilities, yet still be among other people. They’d prefer to be freelancing yet they still want to be part of the next big thing.  Basically, they want it all! It has been predicted that by 2030, 20 percent of the workforce will be operating under such flexible arrangements. 
Traditionally the life cycle of a company has been on average 65 years and its size and nature of services offered has been fairly stable. Life cycle of a company now, however, is just 15 years, and in this time the company will go through a series of major changes in terms of size and type of activity.
The average duration of employee tenure in the one organisation is very short. Often teams are assembled for duration of a project that may last six to 18 months; the talent then moves on to the next project that may or may not be in the same organisation.

Every time company loses a talent it costs organisation on average $200K in valuable time and training next candidate. Thus, employee’s happiness and agile built office environment can be quantified. 

So what would Activity Base Work environment look like?

  1. Rather than being divided into departments with a top-down managerial footprint where corner offices are for management and workstations in the aisles for the rest, the activity-based working environment is completely democratic. The tenancy is divided into zones that are accessible to all staff.
  2. Each team has a designated touchdown space which can be a large work desk or high bench with stools. Members of a team would gather there at specified times when they need to share information and connect as a group. Once energised and with a plan of the day in mind, a worker can choose between a series of spaces that are best suited to the task at hand.
  3. There would be several offices, but rather than offices dedicated to specific individuals these are shared and available to anyone who needs to get work done in piece and quite.
  4. If the activity being conducted is somewhat boisterous and would require input from another colleague, this can be done inside one of the designated Think Tank areas - soundproofed, somewhat smallish rooms with semi-casual seating, featuring plenty of surfaces that can be used for note-taking and demonstrations. Importantly these areas would be loaded with connective technology.
  5. When colleagues need to meet for a short period of time they can do that at Studios - bar height benches where people stand while talking, taking notes etc.
  6. Quiet works can be done in a Library – an enclosed space with casual seating and small desks or tables. Work in these areas should be done quietly. No talking or phone calls.
  7. The office space would also incorporate scattered Shelters, or Pods. These are small spaces for one person in a shape of padded niche or just a sofa with very high back and sides. The idea is that when working inside of one of these pods, a person feels comfortable and protected but at the same time visually connected to the buzz occurring in the rest of the office.
  8. Of course there will be large boardrooms, or the War rooms, where senior executives can come together to strategize and plan. Rooms like this would have a very autocratic feel with definite leader position and be heavily layered with technology.
  9. At the heart of the office, like in any good home, would stand a large kitchen, a communal space where everyone, regardless of position, can come together, share food, drink coffee and chat. The kitchen would offer a number of seating scenarios – large communal tables for social gatherings, lounge seating for winding down, and benches along windows for quiet contemplation.

To be effective, whole office should have a very homely look and feel with eclectic furniture, rugs, floor lamps, plants and even pets; technology should barely be visible.

Perfect Storm

The corporate working environment has changed in ways i could not have imagined just  few years ago.
Advances in technology, increased socialisation of the workplace, and changing expectations of workers have come together like a Perfect Storm, creating headaches for traditionalist company managers struggling to keep up with the Brave New World.
I believe there is a way forward, it just needs management attuned to the nuances and needs of today’s workforce and be in a position to champion a shift away from the norm when it comes to workplace design.