Death of the open plan office?

Photo credit: Peter Bennets licensed under CC BY 3.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

If this pair of NPR articles are correct, the pandemic will cause the death of the open plan office. Now there’s reason to celebrate. Goodbye noisy co0workers and endless distraction!

What the articles suggest is the shift to working from home is going to be permanent for many former office workers. And it appears they are happy about it despite the obvious problems, like kids, pets, and so on.

It’s no secret that office workers have watched with horror as their workspace has steadily diminished over several decades so that the most fashionable, cutting edge offices, like those sported by Google and Facebook, now feature no closed offices at all–except for the C-Suite of course. Instead, there are row upon row of tables, often on casters, on concrete floors, just like factories. Even offices with cubicles have seen those cubicles diminish in size and the barriers between them evaporate.

So is working from home a perfect solution for everyone? Well, no. But if offices can’t bring back more than 50% of their staffs at any one time, that means that many
office workers can ditch the commute at least half of the time and work in their pjs (from the waist down, at most, if you do Zoom calls).

Get used to it. The future of office work has come home!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Comments (3)

  1. Ben

    The move to working from home is interesting, given that while it can increase productivity for some, it is not healthy to sever ties with coworkers (or any other human contact). We are social creatures, and a reduction in our friend networks has catastrophic consequences. Whether the health benefits of avoiding coronavirus this year (and probably flu in the future, as well as the odd pandemic or two) are worth the health costs of avoiding human contact over long timescales remains to be seen.

    Moreover, while working without distraction can increase productivity, it hampers creativity due to the reduction in the mixing of ideas. While increasing productivity yields a linear increase in a company’s output, increasing creativity—at least in companies that have any pretenses to creating anything new—is the key driver of exponential growth.

    It seems the optimal answer will be some combination of the two: some time to go off and be execute on stuff that needs to be done, and some time to bounce ideas around. And not with just “the relevant 50% of the workforce who share your COVID bubble” but with as many people as possible. Just as coronavirus can’t live without rich social interaction, neither can we.

    Of course, in places where people commute(d) by car, the numerous benefits to the world of fewer cars on the road may easily trump all other considerations…

  2. David Sykes

    Ben, thanks for your comment. I quite agree with your comments….BUT the ridiculous
    drive to smaller and smaller work spaces for individual office workers became absolutely ridiculous a long time ago. One high-tech corporation I know wisely differentiated between “heads-up people” (like sales & marketing people who love social interaction and feed off each others’ energy) and “heads-down” people (like accounting & finance staff, editors, writers, etc. who require privacy and absence of distractions in order to concentrate). They “zoned” their offices accordingly….

  3. Rory Johnson

    Interesting insight. I work in the CRE industry in NYC and have paid attention to these kinds of discussions. One thing is certain, there’s going to be some lasting change and some short term change.

    Landlords, commercial real estate leasing executives, and the tenants are not going to want WFH to become a permanent change. It has served a purpose and in many cases proven not to be terribly detrimental to productivity. This observation is going to have CFO’s asking the question, do we need to have as large of a pricey footprint as we have?

    The team mentality, the brand of a company, the dynamics of office culture, and many other benefits of choosing one employer over another are going to be tough to decipher from our homes. Workers enjoy the cool offices designed to attract and retain top talent. They look forward to meeting colleagues face to face. This pandemic will end, humans (whether they’re sales or accounting) will still want to get out of they’re homes and see coworkers, enjoy the free snacks, and look out the window to see the city in a way they can’t from home.


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