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Open-plan offices

The office design that you love to hate—or hate to love.

Published This article is more than 2 years old.
A black and white gif from an old movie of a man working alone in a large open-plan office.
  • Thinking outside the box

    Image copyright: Giphy

    The crowded, cacophonous, chaotic open-plan office has been blamed for so many things wrong with workplace design today. Studies have shown that sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your colleagues can erode concentration, lower productivity, increase stress, and make us more anti-social.

    But the concept for partition-less offices started out as a potentially democratizing idea. Putting everyone on the same open floor was symbolic of dismantling inter-office hierarchies of power. It was also believed to increase collaboration between colleagues. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who in the 1930s designed what might just be the most inspiring open-plan corporate headquarters of all time in Racine, Wisconsin, even suggested that it was as a political act. “The box was a fascist symbol,” says Wright. “The architecture of freedom and democracy is something beside the box.”

    How did Wright’s thinking become a prison for today’s knowledge workers? Is it a mirror of how we work today?

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  • By the digits

    70%: Share of US office workers in an open-plan office as of February 2020

    72%: Drop in face-to-face interaction in open-plan offices, according to a 2018 Harvard Business School study

    $50 per square foot: Estimated cost savings for offices that switch to open-plan layouts, according to data analyst Erik Rood

    159%: Growth in remote working in the US from 2005–2017

    41% Spike in headphones sales from 2008-2012. The Consumer Electronics Association says that most new units are intended for office use.

    2,800: Number of employees who sat in the open in 2015 at Facebook’s sprawling headquarters in Menlo Park. CEO Mark Zuckerberg likes to tout it as the “largest open-floor plan in the world.”

    $260: Retail price of Panasonic’s wearable blinders designed for workers in busy open-plan environments

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  • Origin story

    Image copyright: Wikimedia Commons

    Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer and efficiency nut from Philadelphia, can be assigned partial blame for the practice of arranging desks in rigid rows in open offices. His bestselling book from 1911, The Principles of Scientific Management, gave office managers a template for laying out workstations so that every employee was visible to supervisors, like in a factory.

    Inevitably, several designers challenged the strict tenets of Taylorism. Practitioners like Frank Lloyd Wright, Germans Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, and Herman Miller’s Robert Propst proposed alternative layouts that considered the needs of individual workers and a diversity of working styles and tasks. But even with the new desk designs and partitions in play, those thoughtful configurations snapped back to the Taylorist grid. Without a designer’s eye, it’s just easier to give each employee the exact same set-up.

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  • Definition

    Image copyright: Giphy

    Robert Propst, head of Herman Miller’s research division in the 1960s, coined the phrase “continuous idiot salutations” to describe the dutiful greetings that result from having to see your colleagues pass your desk all day. Mark, the terrorizing “Chatty Open Space Guy” from the Australian series, The Feed, demonstrates this all-too-common workplace hazard.

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  • Quotable

    “Today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”

    Robert Propst, in his 1968 manifesto The Office: A Facility Based on Change

    “I think it’s like going to a nudist beach.”

    An architect identified as “Rory” interviewed in the 2017 study Doing gender in the ‘new office’ describing the feeling of working in an open office

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  • Open office of interest

    In 1968, Robert Propst came up with a modular furniture solution to address the tyranny of bullpen offices. The Action Office system, as he called it, was designed to give workers some control over their spaces by giving them movable furniture elements including short partitions for their desks. But soon, the low panels rose and eventually became the reviled cubicle. His idea hinged on meeting the unique teams and individuals within a company instead of following some general theory about productivity.

    What happened?

    In a word, money. “When someone is feeling real estate pressure, time isn’t something that they’re often afforded,” says White. The mandate to cut corporate spending also often resulted in firing the designer—a fatal blunder that led to helter skelter office configurations. “In the end, facilities managers were just looking at a catalog and checking off how many butts in seats they needed to get,” White explains.

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  • Brief history

    15th century: Medieval monks devise the “scriptorium,” a cubicle-like space for copying manuscripts.

    1726: The Old Admiralty Office (aka The Ripley Office), considered the first purpose-built office building, opens in London.

    1911: Former factory foreman Frederick Winslow Taylor publishes The Principles of Scientific Management, a book that would shape how desks and workstations were configured.

    1939: The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin opens.

    1958: Siblings Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle propose a more organic and social office configuration. They called it Bürolandschaft or “office landscape.”

    1960s: Rise of the “modesty board,” a desk attachment designed for concealing the legs of female workers in an open office.

    1968: Herman Miller introduces Action Office Plan, a modular furniture line for flexible plan offices.

    2014: Designer Clive Wilkinson designs a 1,000-ft (305-m) shared desk that snakes through the New York headquarters of the Barbican Group.

    2019: US presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg proposes turning the White House’s stately East Wing into an open-plan space—Twitter explodes with eye rolls.

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  • DIY

    Image copyright:
    Just like a thoroughbred.

    The rise of open-floor plans has resulted in some novel products to help employees regain a sense of privacy. Here are a few colorful solutions for the open-plan blues:

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