By Attosa Abrahamian
There’s a way to make everyone’s least-favorite office setup work.
Almost three-quarters of U.S. offices are designed with an open desk plan. Microsoft Corp. has one; so does Etsy Inc.; even the General Services Administration, the government’s landlord, is pitching a wall-free model to federal agencies.
Employers love open plans because they save money—you can cram a lot more people into a space with no walls—but employees tend to hate them. Management literature churns out study after study quantifying the ravages of open plans on morale, health, and productivity. Clutter, distractions, smells, and illnesses spread quickly in a room without partitions. Hot-desking—when employees forfeit personal workstations and have to park their laptops in whatever space is available—has all the appeal of a pay-per-hour motel.
Still, when it comes to emboldening employees from all ranks to interact face-to-face, open offices work better than any other configuration. “If the space is properly designed, it increases egalitarianism and opportunities for people to be constantly mingling,” says Elizabeth Von Lehe, director of strategy and concept design at Icrave, a design studio. This is particularly helpful for women, people of color, and other groups of workers who may not have had the same access to power as their white male counterparts. “What you’re doing,” says Liz York, chief sustainability officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “is allowing them to have the opportunity to hear how the senior person handles problems and responds to questions. No one takes a class in that. You learn it from the people you’re around.”
The reason open offices are so reviled, Von Lehe says, has less to do with the concept behind them than their execution. “The pictures people use as their goal show a space that’s bright, with light-colored materials,” she says. “But you don’t hear the sound quality, you don’t see the plan and how it flows.” She recommends a combination of enclosed spaces—phone booths, conference rooms, stairwells if your office is on multiple floors—to complement shared desks and partition-free areas. York agrees. “You can’t not have ancillary private spaces,” she says. “No one wants to talk to their personal doctor in front of the entire room.”
A lactation room is a must. “It needs sound privacy. It needs separate HVAC, so when you’re disrobing, it’s warm enough,” says York, who wrote the American Institute of Architects’ best-practices guide to lactation room design. “It needs a strong door lock. You can’t compromise on that.”
The features that make an ideal space function are just about invisible, Von Lehe says, noting that the most crucial components of a well-considered interior—air quality, light, temperature, and overall comfort—aren’t perceptible unless they’re flawed or missing. As for walls, in a good open office, they’re not gone, they’ve simply moved. As vital as it is to break down barriers, it’s equally vital to leave some of them up.