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Open Office Plans Delenda Est!

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Aug 17, 2015
4workingguysThe cubicle: seldom has a simple piece of office furniture been so influential and yet so maligned. For years a mainstay of corporate offices to the point of synecdoche, the cubicle has become a symbol for everything people dislike about the working world. Employees, packed together like caged battery hens, have long resented their stultifying conformity, their suffocating confinement, and the isolation masquerading as privacy that they create. Frequently lampooned in media, even their inventor looked on in horror as his creation began transforming the workplaces in ways that he eventually came to characterize as "monolithic insanity." 

The cubicle, however, was meant to be the savior of the office workers, not their jailer. In theory, it was meant to provide people with privacy when they needed it and sociability when they didn't, enabling employees to better tailor their space to their own individual needs, allowing for dynamic movement to solve what its creator saw as the problem of forcing people to stay put for the entirety of their day. It is all too ironic, then, that more often than not, the modern cubicle is pretty much always a sedentary place, which gives rise to all manner of health issues beyond the psychological effects (though these, too, can take a toll on the body). 

So, with workers growing increasingly frustrated with what has become the default office design, many companies have lately begun adopting (or, rather, re-instating) what's generally known as the open plan office: with no cubes to separate us, the open plan office has been lauded as not only an antidote to the depressing cubicle farms that dominated many companies, but more economical as well. Employees can collaborate more easily, socialize more readily, and get some much needed light when they're at it, all while the company saves money on the office furniture and heating costs! 

But over the past few years, as more companies choose to forego the now loathed cubicle in favor of wide open spaces, the realities of this new design trend have become painfully apparent and the backlash has begun. One study showed that while, yes, communication is indeed easier in an open office, this benefit is outweighed by increased distractions and decreased privacy (which, according to another study, was actually the main problem people had with cubicles). Workers in open offices are also much more stressed out, and are more likely to get sick

So much like the rebel insurgents who overthrows the oppressive old regime to become a tyrannical dictator themselves, the open office, touted as the solution to our problems, appears to have, itself, become another problem. Ironic, considering that the same paradigm the open office was meant to replace was, itself, touted as a solution to the woes of office work so long ago. So what do we do? The blunt force solution would be just to give everyone a private office, as it's been shown that people who have them report the highest overall workplace satisfaction, though this might get a little expensive for most companies. It seems that, aware of the detriments of the open offices, companies may provide a hybrid space that incorporates elements of both the cube and the open plan, allowing people to easily collaborate but have a private space to retreat to as well, thesis and antithesis concluding their dialectic with a final synthesis. 

While this sounds great in theory, though, remember that both the cube farm and the open office were presented as the answer to all our problems before becoming corrupted by everyday realities. It's tempting to think that if we only go far enough and try hard enough we can come up with some sort of solution that lasts for all eternity, but time and circumstance have a habit of corroding even the most noble of plans. Perhaps the hybrid space may degenerate into a pick your poison kind of situation that winds up providing the worst of both worlds. Perhaps office design in general (among other things) is nothing more than the continuous cycle of today's solutions becoming tomorrow's problems to be solved by something else the next day and on and on and on: revolutions are, after all, 360 degrees. 

Though perhaps this entire point may become moot after a time. Maybe the issue isn't the design of the office itself, but the presence of an office in and of itself? For another trend is also asserting itself in today's businesses: working from home. The number of people who primarily work where they live has risen dramatically in a very short time, growing 41 percent from 2002 to 2012. Employees working from home have been found to not only be more productive but happier as well, according to numerous different studies. Maybe this is the solution we've been looking for, something that cuts the Gordian Knot by removing the office as a factor entirely! 

Or, wellmaybe not. Perhaps all of it, from cubes to open offices to your own home, is a matter of trade-offs, and it's up to all of us to be self-aware enough to know where our own balance lies? 

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