By Ricky Wang - 20th September, 2019
Metropolis and Poppin co-hosted "The Great Open Office Debate", an in-depth look at one of the most common workplace typologies today. Metropolis Editor-in-Chief Avinash Rajagopal discussed the evolution of open-plan offices, then facilitated a spirited debate on the pros and cons of these layouts, with discussion of strategies and practices to make them perform better.
The physical design of open office isn’t a new idea. Rajagopal traced its origins to offices like the one at SC Johnson in 1939. Inspired by the factory floor, it consisted of a main level for employees and an elevated platform from which management could watch. Fast forward to the 90s, and the pendulum had swung fully in the other direction; cubicles reigned. In 1994, the advertising agency Chiat/Day introduced what we would recognize as a modern open-plan office. Rajagopal directed our attention to how messy the space looked. As it evolved, the open office space became more clean and comfortable for occupants.
While many people and companies have embraced the idea of the open office, studies have shown it does not deliver some of the promised benefits. Instead of encouraging more connection, face-to-face interactions actually fall. In one organization cited, it decreased by 73% when they moved to an open-plan office, and there was a corresponding increase in digital communication. There is also evidence of increased illness among occupants.
Rajagopal engaged the audience in a debate with three premises to either support or refute:
Attendees weren’t afraid to voice their opinions! Many had nuanced answers that affirmed our belief that decisions about work environments should be based on what occupants need and want, rather than on trends or arbitrary choices by management. Rajagopal pointed out that the debate between ‘open’ or not is a bit of a false choice; The best practice is usually a people-centric balance between the two. It is always about achieving a healthy balance that flexibly serves the diverse activities of occupants.