Design

Open offices are to stay

July

Open offices are here to stay?

Whatever it might look like now, COVID-19 doesn’t spell the end of the centralised office. Organisations have always benefited from the ‘proximity effect’ – the tendency to develop deeper relationships with those we see most often.

The open-plan office will, however, have to evolve, finding its true purpose as a collaborative workspace augmented by remote work. And if we’re smart about it, necessity might turn out to be the mother of reinvention, giving us the best of both centralised and decentralised, collaborative and private working worlds.

In many industries, organisational culture, not technology, has long been the force keeping us in the office. Many workers and managers are happy with their new remote working arrangements, believing they are performing just as well, and want to continue with it. A number of organisations – not least Twitter – have said they will now allow working from home forever.

But space is the final frontier. Not everyone wants to (or can efficiently) work from home, and businesses will miss out on the important benefits of face-to-face connections without a centralised office space. Ensuring the ability to social distance in offices rather than building barriers is a challenge organisations will need to solve.

We’ll need to balance the sacrifice of sharing spaces against the advantages of working away from the office while still getting to see colleagues in person. We’ll need new arrangements for storing personal items beyond the old locker, and ‘handover’ protocols for equipment and furniture. Offices will also need more private spaces for greater use of video conferencing and the like.

But there’s huge upside potential with the new open office. A well-managed rotation of office days and seating arrangements could help us get to know more of those colleagues who, because they used to sit a few too many desks away, we rarely talked to. Building new connections in the workplace can give life to new ideas and greater problem-solving. It’s critical that the open office of the future allows this to happen, safely.