Open Offices Reduce Productivity and Spread Diseases

(p. B4) When historians of the early 21st century look back on the pre-Covid era, one of the absurdities they might highlight is the vogue for gigantic, open-plan offices. The apotheosis of this trend of breaking down barriers between co-workers must surely be Facebook Inc.’s 433,555-square-foot Frank Gehry-designed open-plan office at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Opened in 2015, it’s now a ghost town, a monument to offices vacated by the pandemic.

Cramming cavernous spaces with as many desks as they could hold might have increased serendipitous interactions, but it almost certainly reduced productivity and helped spread communicable diseases, including coronavirus.

. . .

Cue the “dynamic workplace,” a pivot away from the open plan, built on the idea that with fewer employees coming to work on any given day, offices can offer them more flexibility of layout and management.

While open offices and dynamic workplaces share similar components—privacy booths and huddle rooms to escape the hubbub, cafe-like networking spaces, etc.—they’re philosophically distinct. One is intended to be a place where people come (at least) five days a week, and get most of their work done on site. The other is planned for people rotating in and out of the office, on flexible schedules they have more control over than ever.

. . .

Research on hot-desking in office spaces, for example—where employees give up a dedicated space in favor of first-come-first-serve seating—finds that it decreases socialization and trust. This happens because employees figure they might never again see the person they sit next to on a given day, says Dr. Sander. In other studies, employees complain they can’t find their colleagues, that it’s a hassle to find a new spot to work every day, and that such arrangements ignore humans’ innate territoriality and desire to make a space their own.

For the full commentary, see:

Christopher Mims. “Goodbye, Open Office. Hello, ‘Dynamic Workplace.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 12, 2020): B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the same date and title as the print version.)

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