When Action Office’s paneled walls went up in the 1960’s, the way workspace was viewed changed dramatically, and with it, the concept of worker privacy and productivity.  A gain in personal space was an advancement over an open plan approach, and worker satisfaction led to greater productivity. Companies also quickly recognized the benefit of being able to move people without consequently needing to send their entire workspace with them. This cost savings outweighed the expense of outfitting an entire office with cubicles, so companies eagerly setup cube farms. The next step in the cubicle evolution was to reduce the footprint, so companies could fit more people in the available real estate.

Which leads us to our present situation of the pendulum swinging back toward open office space. Why? The benefits of the cubicle are dwindling in the current business environment which is driven by the pace of technology and worker generational traits. Mobile technology has all but erased the need for a dedicated workspace, and the modern workforce includes the biggest span of generations, ever.  So, workspaces are now designed to meet the needs of ever-changing technologies, and a wide variety of workstyles.

In addition, companies are looking to stay ahead by being innovative, and they need engaged and creative employees to meet their goals. So, how can companies help their employees collaborate easily, yet support the work that is best performed in a quiet and private space? Both cubicles and open office plans add value in the modern workplace, but as a result of research and design, are being utilized in newer, more effective ways.

To shed some light on this phenomenon, Diane Rehm recently hosted Janet Pogue from Gensler, Allison Arieff from SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research), and Christine Porath from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business on The Diane Rehm Show, which focused on some pitfalls of the open office trend, and what can be done to avoid them.

Porath notes that a majority of [white-collar] work is done in a collaborative way, whether face-to-face or remote teams. So, a company looking to drive creativity and innovation will want to create a workspace that fosters a “sense of relatedness”, according to Porath. But, that may not imply ‘open’. Arieff takes it further with an example of the college library, where your options included an focus-intensive study corral, the student lounge, or perhaps a serendipitous meeting among the aisles of books. She notes, “… to the extent that an office environment could replicate that level of choice and autonomy and interest in engaging environments, they’d be on the right track. So I kind of feel that’s the best model.”

If you missed the podcast, visit the transcript to read their fascinating discussion.

Source: Diane Rehm | Designing the Modern Office Space |  January 23, 2014

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